New York Times
By David Gonzalez
March 5, 2017
The doorbells outside a yellow-brick apartment building reflected today’s New York, with Albanian, Arabic and Spanish surnames taped above them. Down a narrow, dark hallway, strains of Spanish music came from an apartment. Daniela Alulema opened the door to where her mother and brother live. The shiny birthday balloons bobbing over a spotless dining table were there to commemorate her brother’s birthday.
“He reached a quarter-century,” said the mother with a proud smile. She walked over to the oven and pulled out a roast rabbit for the modest celebration. On the radio, guitar trios played boleros, melancholy songs of romance and regret.
For a happy occasion, the music was somewhat apropos: Ms. Alulema and her parents moved to this country from Ecuador without papers and their story was told in The New York Times in 2009. The parents — who earned technical degrees in Ecuador — wanted their children to get a solid education here. In the 15 years since they arrived, much has changed. The brother, who was born here, is an architect. The father — who pushed his children to excel and aim high — returned to Ecuador. The mother scrapes by babysitting for young professionals in Williamsburg.
And Ms. Alulema? In recent years she finished college and went on to get a master’s degree in public policy. Thanks to an Obama-era decision known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, she obtained permission to work and remain, and she now works for a migration policy group. For the first time, she felt as if she could breathe easy. But that was short-lived once Donald J. Trump was elected president after a campaign in which undocumented immigrants were used as rhetorical punching bags. The subsequent reports — and rumors — of arrests in immigrant communities have rattled her.
“The morning after the election I was getting ready to go to work,” said Ms. Alulema, 29. “I just broke down in the bathroom. I knew this was going to affect my family and our communities.”
She and her mother — who along with her brother spoke on condition that their names and neighborhood not be identified — have seen the changes among the city’s Ecuadorean immigrants. People are wary of even going outside, sometimes alarmed by unfounded rumors of immigration sweeps.
“People are fearful about the measures Trump is taking,” the mother said in a slow, soft voice. “We are in a situation where you do not know what is going to happen. Do we stay, or do we pack our bags and go back? There is an air of instability. Everybody is nervous about what can we do.”
That includes Ms. Alulema, whose future has been thrown in limbo since the election. Her employer got her legal help to see if he could sponsor her. Her mother suggested she marry an American citizen, a prospect she rejects: In these times, she is not about to make any long-term plans, much less marry.
She remains active in immigrant advocacy groups, taking leadership roles among “Dreamers,” young people who were brought here as children without proper authorization. Their efforts to get stronger legal protections failed, though their plight was eased somewhat by the 2012 Obama order, which gave them permission — renewable every two years — to stay and work. Able to venture beyond New York City, she visited other parts of the country. But even that has become a perilous experience, as she learned during a recent visit to Cooperstown, N.Y., when she walked into a restaurant and was the only brown-skinned person in the place.
“Everybody turned to look at me when I walked in,” she said. “For the first time, I felt unwelcome. I felt I had to watch my words and be on guard. I was even watching the way I pronounced my words.”
Ms. Alulema possesses a quiet confidence. She is precise in her language and not easily rattled. Trained as an accountant, she also looks beyond the numbers to the human lives that undergird the city economy, where people like her mother allow middle-class residents to balance career and family.
“My mother is raising American kids,” she said. “I think Americans know that immigrants pick crops, cook food, raise children and take care of the elderly. Immigrants make this city run. It’s hypocritical what this country is doing. They want this cheap labor, but they want to keep us in fear.”
The emotional roller coaster she had been on since the election took another twist last Tuesday when President Trump hinted that he might be open to a path for citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Though there was a flurry of coverage, he did not touch upon it during his address to Congress that night. She was further alarmed when she read about an undocumented immigrant like her being detained after speaking out publicly.
“I don’t think anything coming from the White House can be trusted,” Ms. Alulema said. “Washington is playing with the dreams and lives of so many people. I’ve become cynical and won’t believe anything until I see signed papers. I do not feel safer.”
She goes about her day knowing she has to be ready. The lawyers she has consulted are not optimistic. A trip she had planned to visit her father in Ecuador has been delayed, like many other things in her life. She wonders if it’s time to go back to Ecuador.
“One day, I stopped and thought how my parents were even younger than me when they came here,” she said. “My mother came here not knowing the language or anyone else. She took that risk, so why can’t I take that risk and leave everything? I have these amazing tools my parents gave me, an education. You get tired of living in fear and being limited. I am blessed with my health and education. Why can’t I use it to my fullest potential?”
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