Sometimes it all gets to be too much for Areli Reyes, 23.
Reyes, a student at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, worries about her future. She wonders about her career path — human resources — but also about other things her classmates do not. Namely, how long will she and her younger brother be allowed to live in America?
Reyes and her brother are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary residency for young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally. While President Donald Trump tried to kill the program in September 2017, it clings to life thanks to a series of federal court injunctions.
And so Reyes worries. Another question that haunts her: How long will her parents, who migrated to America from rural Mexico in 2004, and who lack any legal protections, be allowed to remain under a White House pursuing a hardline campaign against brown-skinned immigrants?
Finally, Reyes wonders, will her activism on behalf of herself and other DACA recipients make her a target for Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers inclined to muzzle an inconveniently loud voice?
One night last October the escalating weight of it all — the stockpiled worries, the depressing what-if scenarios — collapsed inward. That was when Reyes was admitted to a local hospital because of intense anxiety. She stayed there overnight.
"They told me I was stressing out too much," she says. "I think I was just thinking about my family and then myself. And then other people I know. And just being an activist takes a toll on you."
Reyes is one of about 3,500 Missouri residents who work and go to school under the DACA program. DACA recipients are nicknamed "Dreamers" after the DREAM Act, a proposed law that would have created a pathway to legal status for undocumented minors. Congress failed to pass it.
Around 11 million undocumented immigrants live in America. DACA was devised to help a small slice of them — about 800,000. The program applies to undocumented residents who were no older than age 31 on June 15, 2012, arrived in the U.S. before their sixteenth birthdays and continuously lived in America since at least June 15, 2007.
The Obama administration crafted it in 2012 as a temporary fix to allow young undocumented residents to work jobs, pay taxes and go to school legally. Nearly 40 percent of Dreamers are high school or college students. Until Congress devises a permanent solution, their future remains in limbo.
Dreamers usually try to fly under the radar. They work, go to school, take care of their families and plan their futures as best they can. All the while, they wonder in the back of their minds how long they and their loved ones will be allowed to remain in the land they call home.
More than a few Dreamers have reached the conclusion that, given the white nationalist winds blowing through Congress and the White House, the current political climate could prevent them from ever receiving permanent legal status to reside in America, much less full citizenship. Dreamers try to make their peace with that. But it is hard, damn hard.
A few years ago Reyes decided to speak out, to try to change the minds of both the public and of lawmakers regarding the Dreamers' status.
"I think it's looking at who your allies are and looking at the people saying that they do support you," Reyes says. "Looking at all those people, the best way is advocacy. That's what I learned with my activism, that's how we can get things passed."
She has become a fixture at vigils protesting government treatment of undocumented St. Louis families. She is active in the St. Louis sanctuary church movement, which now includes three houses of worship, including Maplewood's Christ Church, where Honduras native Alex Garcia has taken refuge for the past eighteen months.
This past December, Reyes also joined a group of activists that traveled to the U.S.'s southern border. In California and Texas, she checked on the status of asylum seekers who had fled Central America because of violence and poverty. She helped one group look for migrants who went missing, and are feared dead, while attempting to cross the desert from Mexico into Texas. In San Diego, she helped another group to collect toys for migrant kids staying in two shelters in Tijuana — one for families and the other for gay and lesbian migrants.
"There's a lot of chaos down there," she says.
Reyes says she chose to speak up for St. Louis Dreamers after her senior year at University City High School, as she prepared for college. Because of her undocumented status, financial aid from state and federal sources wasn't available.
"And it just shocked me that I couldn't really, didn't have anyone to rely on to tell me I could attend college," she says. "I had a plan, right? I was going to go two years to Forest Park, then graduate, then transfer to a four-year university."
The Scholarship Foundation, in St. Louis, "really helped me because they were the first few people who welcomed undocumented or DACA recipients to their scholarship program," she says. "And I was able to learn more about other issues that didn't affect me. But we're kind of in a similar situation; our main goal was to get a higher education. So that's what made me come out and really say, 'I'm one person and there's other people out here.'"
One of those people sits next to Reyes on a couch in the living room of their house outside University City — her mother, Maria, 45.
Maria, who asked that her last name not be used, cleans houses for a living. Fifteen years ago she crossed into the U.S. from Mexico, after a perilous journey traveling north through the desert. She paid the man who led her across the border $3,000. Once in Arizona, masked men robbed members of her group at gunpoint, she said.
Maria grew up in a rural area about two hours south of Mexico City. She was one of 23 children in a family that lived in a house made from cardboard. Maria remains upbeat about her future, though Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric frightens her, she says.
With her daughter acting as translator, Maria says, "I'm just hopeful another president will come and help us."