Article Jan 17, 2018

The reality of an Alabama Dreamer’s roots

Last September, amid the buzz of fresh energy after a summer break and the hopeful promise of a new academic year, Lizbeth Duran-Ortiz, a Spanish translator at a Birmingham, Ala., area elementary school, sat frozen and scared at her desk.

Having heard that day’s announcement that there would be a move to end DACA, she was suddenly racked with questions of what she and her family would do at the end of the school year.

DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals— is a program initiated in 2012 to give conditional residency to people brought to the United States as children so they can continue to live, study and work in the country they know as their home.

Those protected by DACA are known as “Dreamers.” This moniker originated from the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) act, which would have offered these young immigrants the chance of permanent legal residency. This bipartisan act was first introduced to Congress in 2001, but has repeatedly failed to pass.

Now, around 800,000 young immigrants—many of whom consider themselves to be Americans—could be sent away from the only true home they’ve ever known.

“People don’t understand why it’s so upsetting—how it can make your day go crazy,” Lizbeth said. “I’ve never lived anywhere else (in the U.S.). This is my home.”

Lizbeth, now 32, was 13 when she came to live in the United States. When she was in the first grade, her mother married a U.S. resident and lived in different states for several years before settling in the Birmingham area. Lizbeth stayed behind in Coahuila, Mexico—at least for a few years.

“My mom had me when she was 15,” she said. “My grandma didn’t want me falling into some of the same patterns as my mom, so she insisted I live with her and my grandpa while my mom went to the States.”

When Lizbeth was 12, her grandmother passed away following a short illness. She then came to the U.S. on a Visa to spend time with her mother, stepfather—and by then, four younger half siblings—during a school break. It was then determined Lizbeth would come live with her mother.

“I knew no English at all,” Lizbeth said, recalling her difficult eighth grade year. “My school had only three Spanish speakers enrolled: a Puerto Rican guy, a Colombian girl and me. And there were no ESL classes at the time.”

Lizbeth was held back one school year to allow her to catch up on English.

Adjustments were not only tough at school; there were hurdles to overcome at home. She barely knew her stepfather and four younger siblings, since she had not lived with them. And she also needed to get reacquainted with her mother, since they had lived apart all those years.

“It was a big change,” Lizbeth said. “Now that I look back, I don’t know how we were able to get along.”

Soon after she moved to Birmingham, Lizbeth’s family began to visit a local church, where she heard the gospel and sound teaching. Lizbeth gave her life to Christ as a teen and became part of an established Christian community.

Her newfound faith and her church in America would become an anchor during a scary and confusing season as a young immigrant.

“God placed the right people around our family,” she said. “This is my home—not just a physical home, but where I found God. He was gracious to surround me with the people He did.”

It was also at that church where Lizbeth met her husband, Salvador, to whom she has now been married for 12 years. Together, they have two children: 10-year-old Salvador and six-year-old Lucia.

Salvador owns a landscaping business and Lizbeth, says she ministers to the community through her job as a translator—afforded to her through DACA.

“For me, translating is not just about overcoming a language barrier, but about helping Spanish-speaking parents understand the how the school system works and enabling them to take advantage of the opportunities they have for their kids,” she said.

For example, there have been several times when a child is eligible for the gifted program and the parents unwittingly almost forfeited an opportunity.

“I love seeing their faces light up when I explain things like this,” she said. “When DACA first got approved, we felt like that gave us an opportunity to do something—not just for ourselves, but for those around us. Yes, I have a job, paycheck and benefits, but at the end of the day it is helping my community. They (Spanish-speaking parents) don’t see the future. When I talk to them I always let them know when I’m speaking as a translator and when I’m speaking as a mom.

“It would break my heart if I have to let go of my job. It is such a privilege to be able to help.”

When DACA was first announced in 2012, Lizbeth was hesitant.

“It’s a big risk,” she says. “You’ve been living in the shadows for so long. When you give out all your information, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I remember going to our lawyer and asking, ‘What would you recommend if we were your kids?’”

At the time, they had a four-year-old and a newborn, and briefly considered going back to Mexico and starting over.

But they were deeply rooted in the lives of their church family and their community, and decided it was worth the risk. Two months after the application, the risk was rewarded.

“I was a bundle of nerves,” Lizbeth recalled. “I remember the day I opened my mail and saw I had been approved. I was out by the mailbox visiting with my neighbor, and we had a moment to pray together and thank God.”

Lizbeth has renewed her DACA authorization three times. The current authorization is set to expire in August of this year.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Lizbeth said. “I try not to read the negative news. Nobody’s going to be able to understand what we go through. I’m not able to handle anxiety anymore. I try to block the negative things.”

Thankfully, she says, her church family—The Church at Brook Hills’ Hispanic campus—has been a steady source of encouragement along the way. It’s been a gospel-centered community that has taken years to build as relationships—the kind that would be difficult to replicate in another place—have deepened.

“They reach out to us, always asking how they can help,” she says of the Southern Baptist church. “We’ve done so much life with them—far beyond church on Sundays. And because they are our close church family, they know us well enough to sense when we need encouragement. When we get discouraged, they remind us God is faithful—that he is working here just like he is working in Mexico if we were to go back.”

Their church has also been the main conduit through which they have poured into their community. Each Friday night, Lizbeth and Salvador host a small group Bible study in their kitchen. They are studying the book of Acts with some other members at The Church at Brook Hills, where they have been involved for many years.

Salvador plays drums on the worship team, and every summer, they host Rock the Block, a VBS-like Bible club that meets at a home for week.

“We’re not able to leave the country,” Lizbeth says, “But we’re able to do missions right here in Birmingham. Initially, I was just trying to reach out to the Hispanic families in neighborhood. But people from all kinds of backgrounds started showing up at Rock the Block. It is so rewarding to be able to do it in our city.”

The Church at Brook Hills is also the place where Lizbeth got her professional start: After receiving her DACA authorization in 2012, she worked as the administrative assistant for the Hispanic campus pastor for two years.

While the Duran-Ortiz family waits to see whether their lives will be uprooted, six-year-old Lucia will continue to go to gymnastics with her friends in the only place she’s ever called “home.” She doesn’t speak Spanish at all, so Lizbeth and Salvador are teaching her—just in case they are thrust into a new land—a new land for their children, anyway.

“Lucia speaks only English, and she speaks it with an Alabama accent,” Lizbeth quipped.

Their son, Salvador, who is in his school’s gifted program, just finished a science competition. He recently received an invitation to participate in a STEAM program—a rare honor given to excelling students that allows them to spend a weekend on a college campus to sharpen budding leadership skills and do hands-on learning activities in key disciplines, such as math and science.

“He’ll even get to dissect a heart,” Lizbeth said. “He’ll be exposed to robotics, and spend time learning about fascinating things, like forensics. He’s so excited. When I see him growing and striving so much, I don’t want to take that away from him.”

If she is allowed to stay in her home, Lizbeth would like to go to college—something she couldn’t apply for as an honor roll student in high school, simply because she didn’t have a social security number (which she now has, thanks to DACA).

And she and Salvador are ready to buy a house. But for now, they are putting that on hold.

Whatever is decided for her and the 800,000 other Dreamers, Lizbeth trusts God with the outcome—and says action is needed along with prayer.

“There are people who are doing what they can to voice our stories,” she said. “But it’s so much bigger than our story—it’s his story. Even when we don’t get the answers we want, he has it under control.”

She said having the uncertainty brings her young family closer to the Lord.

“We need strength to believe that he is able to accomplish what he wants in our lives, and we need to be obedient, even though we may not like the outcome,” she said. “He knew we couldn’t do this on our own, so he gave his Holy Spirit. I can rest in that.

“God has opened doors for us when we didn’t think it was possible. And he can do it again.”