‘It’s a constant worry, what can happen next’

Brittney Lohmiller/The Herald
Moris Serrano of Jasper was born in El Salvador before being brought to the United States illegally when he was 12 years old with his two younger brothers. In 2012, he applied for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Serrano is the first from his family to graduate from college and he began working at the IT Service Desk for Masterbrand in April of 2017.


Moris Serrano of Jasper, 25, still remembers the first time he saw snow. It was 2004, he was 12 years old and had just arrived in the U.S. with his brothers from El Salvador.

“I just took a chunk in my hand and tried to feel what it looks like,” he said.

Serrano’s parents immigrated to the U.S. several years earlier, fleeing unrest from a civil war and an earthquake. Serrano and his two brothers remained in El Salvador until their parents sent for them. Then, they embarked on a monthlong journey with a guide to the U.S. where they were reunited with their parents.

The brothers lived as undocumented immigrants until 2012 when former President Barrack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Serrano and his two brothers applied immediately and were accepted into the program. They’ve each renewed their DACA status every two years since.

“It was exciting,” Serrano said of getting the status the first time.

Obama created the DACA program by executive order in 2012 in response to Congress’s inability to pass the DREAM Act, a law that would have reformed the U.S. immigration system to give undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children — often referred to as Dreamers — a path to legal residency and earned citizenship.

With the DACA status, Serrano could get a driver’s license and work. It also led him to an associate’s degree in computer networking and security from Vincennes University. Before DACA, he said, there wasn’t much point in getting a degree because he wouldn’t be able to use it to get a job without a U.S. work permit, which is unavailable to undocumented immigrants.

In 2017, Serrano put his degree to use, landing a job in MasterBrand’s information technology department.

His DACA status also allowed Serrano to return to El Salvador two years ago to visit his grandparents, whom he hadn’t seen in over a decade.

El Salvador was different than he remembered. As a child, he said, he was never allowed to leave the house because of the unrest. As an adult returning, he was able to be a bit of a tourist.

He also met his fiancee, Carla, on that trip. She immigrated to the U.S. about two years ago as well and is going through the asylum process, which an immigrant must be in the United States to apply for.

Applying for asylum provided Carla with a work permit while her case goes through the system. It’s been over a year since she applied, and Serrano said a decision could still be a couple years out.

“It’s a long process,” he said. “We have no idea when it will go through.”

Other members of Serrano’s family are at various places in several different U.S. immigration programs.

As undocumented childhood arrivals, Serrano and one of his brothers only have the DACA program as an option to retain their driver’s licenses and work permits. Both must renew the status every two years, paying roughly $500 each time, and the future of the program has been uncertain since President Donald Trump took office.

In September 2017, the Trump Administration announced it would phase out the DACA program, leaving roughly 800,000 young adults in the U.S. with uncertain futures. The policy was challenged in court, however, and five months after the announcement, the court ordered DACA reopened for renewals. Last week, the program was fully reinstated

Serrano applied to renew his DACA in January, paying the $500 fee, and only recently heard that he was approved for another two years.

“If you apply for something, you pay when you start, and there’s no guarantee you’ll get it,” Serrano said. “You’re at the whim of the government if you can stay.”

If DACA would be discontinued or if he loses his status, Serrano would also lose his job, driver’s license and possibly the home he and Carla have built on Jasper’s north side. DACA does not offer a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship.

The third brother who arrived in the U.S. with Serrano in 2004 has since married a U.S. citizen and is in the process of becoming a permanent resident and eventually a naturalized citizen. That process will likely take several years.

Serrano’s youngest brother was born in the United States and is a citizen, and his father has a work permit under the temporary protected status for El Salvador. His father has held temporary protected status, which does not offer a path to permanent residency or citizenship, since 1997 and has worked at Perdue Farms for 20 years.

Temporary protected status for Salvadorians is scheduled to expire in September 2019, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website. At that time, Serrano’s father will face a hard decision: go underground as an undocumented immigrant or return to El Salvador, leaving his family behind.

Serrano said he and his family don’t think often about returning to El Salvador. But if the temporary protected status program isn’t extended for Salvadorians, he said, his father’s situation will force the family to think about it.

“We didn’t have to worry about it as much (before the 2016 election),” he said. “If nothing changes, we’d have to (go back to El Salvador) ... It would be a whole new life.” 

Despite the uncertainty that comes with being an immigrant, life goes on. Daily life for immigrants doesn’t look that different from daily life for citizens. Serrano gets up every morning and heads to his job at MasterBrand’s corporate office. After work, he and Carla usually go for a walk at one of the parks in town. On the weekends, they attend Mass at St. Joseph Catholic Church and visit family or go hiking or camping. They’ve explored most of the nearby state parks a few times. The pair is also expecting their first child in August, who will be a U.S. citizen, and they plan to get married in 2019.

“It’s a constant worry, what can happen next,” he said. “But you just have to live with it and keep up to date with what’s going on.”

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