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How to travel if you're a DACA recipient

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Even when we're lucky enough to have a chance to travel, the opportunity often comes with some anxieties.

BRIAN DE LOS SANTOS: Next thing is, like, how do I even get there? And it's super expensive. Like, I got to leave in about two weeks, so I know that prices are not going to be pretty. What are the gay-friendly spots? I don't even have a damn suitcase. Shoes...

CHANG: But what if an added anxiety was the possibility of leaving and being unable to return? For years, that had been the case for Brian De Los Santos. He's the host of the "How To LA" podcast from LAist Studios.

DE LOS SANTOS: I consider myself someone who is very well informed as a journalist, obviously, but I have been since I was told I was undocumented in middle school.

CHANG: He arrived in the U.S. from Veracruz, Mexico, at the age of 2, and in 2012 he became a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. That lifted the threat of deportation and allowed him to get a driver's license as well as other documents, but he could not leave the country because going back to Mexico would have risked his DACA status until very recently. He documented his trip back to his birth country for a special series called "Finding Home Con DACA." Brian De Los Santos joins us now. Welcome.

DE LOS SANTOS: Hi, Ailsa. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Hi. So before we get to your trip to Mexico, can you just first talk about what it had been like growing up to be from a country, a homeland that you had no real relationship with for many, many years?

DE LOS SANTOS: Oh, wow. Well, I think the most meaningful things when I was growing up was a visit from Abuela, which only - one of my abuelas could actually come to LA and visit me, or those Skype or those telephone calls to Mexico. That was my only thread back to Mexico, was those visits or those phone calls. And for me, I'm lucky I grew up in LA and I'm able to exist within my Mexican culture here in this city, but it was always this thing of, like, am I American? Am I Mexican? - also, the whole threat of deportation, of not knowing what my future looked like, because I was undocumented until I was essentially 21. I just didn't know what my life would be like.

CHANG: Yeah. I mean, you talk about - in the first episode, you talk about how your immigration status before DACA put you essentially in what you called survival mode.

DE LOS SANTOS: Yeah.

CHANG: Can you talk more about that? What did you mean by survival mode?

DE LOS SANTOS: I think it's always kind of, like, looking over your shoulders, not just, like, from police and from, you know, getting pulled over and not having a driver's license, but also just, like, how do you kind of like be in stealth mode so people don't pay attention to you? For me, it was, like, kind of like, how do I survive in this country where I don't have permission to be here, essentially? When I became a DACA recipient, it was not just, like, becoming a DACA recipient. It was also like, OK, what do I have to do next to figure out how to stay here long term and eventually hopefully get a green card? And, you know, there still isn't a solution for DACA recipients right now.

CHANG: Exactly. And while you've been a DACA recipient, it's been unclear whether you could go back to Mexico without risking your immigration status. But eventually, you were able to leave California and go to Mexico. It's part of something called the Advance Parole Program. Can you explain what that program is?

DE LOS SANTOS: Yeah. First, I want to say that I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not 100% a legal expert. I just know through my own process. And there are three ways you can get this document - you apply through U.S. Immigration Services, and you ask them through humanitarian reasons, which is you got to go visit family, loved ones in your home country, or through school, which is - you know, you do a program or semester abroad, or a business trip. And those are the three reasons you can apply for advance parole. Now, you send your check in. You wait for your case number. You wait for immigration officials to essentially give you this document. But I do want to say, and this is why a lot of people don't do advance parole, you're not guaranteed reentry into the country. It says it right there in the letter they sent you. It says in big red letters that your reentry is at the discretion of the CPB official, essentially, when you're reentering the country.

CHANG: And you get to Mexico in late February of this year. And yet while you were there, you were constantly reminded of all the years that you had spent growing up in the U.S. Like, in Mexico City, there was this point where you ask a friend who lives there if he sees you as Mexican or as a gringo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

DE LOS SANTOS: (Speaking Spanish).

CHANG: And he said, as a gringo.

(LAUGHTER)

DE LOS SANTOS: Yes.

CHANG: How did that feel, to hear him call you a gringo?

DE LOS SANTOS: Like a slap in the face, to be honest.

(LAUGHTER)

DE LOS SANTOS: But it also was a realization for me that I actually thought about throughout my whole trip in Mexico. It's also, like, the culture. Like, the references - I didn't understand some references that people, you know, said to me, and I had to, like, just ask them, like, what did you mean? (Speaking Spanish). And so, like, I understood the privilege I had just being able to live and work in the United States, but I also felt the sense of like, OK, that's the way people see me. And I've never felt like I was American enough to say that I'm a gringo, but I did realize that I do carry American culture with me.

CHANG: Yeah.

DE LOS SANTOS: My English and my Spanish are very different, obviously, from Mexicans and Mexico, but it's something that I you know, I had to learn.

CHANG: You - so much of your podcast, it's about the heartbreak that many immigrants experience and maybe is more intense for DACA recipients specifically. And what I mean by that is, like, you know, on the one hand you're trying to prove that the U.S. is where you belong, but at the same time, on the other hand, you have the pain of being cut off from your family, your heritage. Does someone ever reconcile those feelings, you think? Do you think you will?

DE LOS SANTOS: I have been learning a lot to let go of things I can't control, and this is just me speaking for myself. And I've learned that my status in this country is something that I can't really control. I do want to say that a lot of people have written to me because I've shared my immigration story before, not just on this podcast, but in different places I've worked at in journalism. People ask me, well, why can't you just, you know, go and stand in line through the immigration process? And I tell them it's way more complicated than that. It's not as clear-cut as people may think.

And so me just being at peace that I'm trying my best to figure out where I stand in this country, and later, that does affect who I am in this country. I think I'm working towards, at least I got to do this trip and got to know a little bit of my heritage. I think there's always going to be a piece of me that I'm always going to be missing, just having the opportunity to be in Mexico. But I do realize who I am, and I'm still learning. I think that's what I want to say. I'm still learning who I am.

CHANG: Yeah, I am, too. And I know that you've talked to other DACA recipients for this series who probably feel very similarly. Brian De Los Santos is the host of the "How To LA" podcast from LAist Studios. His three-part series "Finding Home Con DACA" is available now. Brian, thank you so, so much for this.

DE LOS SANTOS: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.