My Sinking Ship: Navigating the Wake of DACA’s Repeal

By Agatha Pacheco · 2 years ago

I would always forget where I was when the sudden start of the engine and calm rocking awoke me every day at the start of my voyage. To look up and see my captain stretch out of his slumber while my crewmate’s feet poked out from his bunk was something extraordinary. To someone else, the smell may have sent them to their grave, but I barely even noticed it after a couple of days living and working on a 32-foot fishing boat, The Cayuse. Stepping out into the Nushagak River in Alaska, surrounded by water, was like being in a dream. Did I wake up? Or was I still in a dream from the comfort of my bed?


My former self would have assumed that yes, I was simply dreaming, caught in the net of my subconscious. Since what was possible for me to accomplish and enjoy was constrained by my immigration status for so much of my childhood, to think I could partake in any kind of worldly adventure involving travel was just a fantasy. Before qualifying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), I expected that the only way I would ever get to travel would be through the descriptions from journalists. The combination of being poor and undocumented made the possibility of seeing the world in the flesh unrealistic and unattainable, but DACA changed that for me. 


DACA is a 2012 program that gave people brought to the U.S. illegally as children temporary relief from being deported. Former President Barack Obama passed DACA through an executive order, and DACA has since changed the lives of 800,000 people, including myself. The program granted me a work permit and a Social Security number; those two things alone have opened so many doors that it’s hard to imagine achieving all that I have without DACA.


When I first traveled to Dillingham, Alaska in the summer of 2016, not only was it an opportunity for me to experience a new place, but there was also a huge possibility that I would come home with some cold hard cash. If I couldn’t make a buck, I probably wouldn’t have been as willing to go in the first place. Unlike many people who can travel and leave work for two months, not making money just wasn’t a possibility for me and my family.


The experience of living on a boat for a month was as romantic as the sea itself. In my solitude, the surrounding water echoed my thoughts and I became enamored with writing poetry. I fell in love with the views of never-ending sunsets, and for the first time I felt like a human with no borders in my way. I awoke to pods of belugas surrounding me in the dewy mornings after a brief twilight and beastly boats competing for the best territory in heavy winds and choppy waves. Sometimes I simply watched the stars fade as the night turned into day in a matter of moments. While life on a salmon fishing vessel isn’t for everyone, I loved it for the worldview it gave me.

My first season ended badly, however. My captain was inexperienced, and the communication was so bad between the crew that I barely learned anything. If I wasn’t being yelled at unnecessarily while working, I was generally writing in a journal keeping track of the days and my thoughts. The lack of communication and culture of punishment for not learning fast enough eventually pushed me to jump ship, and I was devastated to know my adventure had come to a bitter, unsuccessful end. Even though I hadn’t made any money, I had seen so much and craved freedom. I went back the following season, found an experienced captain, and learned far more than I did the year prior.


It’s amazing to be able to say that I carved my own way to travel, even if it meant I was working demanding hours in a not-so-ideal environment. I was willing to put myself through that because it was the first and only way I’d seen the world outside of stories and documentaries. So many people don’t realize how privileged they are to not have anything in their way when it comes to traveling, whether that’s economic or immigration barriers. Traveling allows people to be connected, to acknowledge each other as a family in this house we call Earth. But when that sort of community is only available to the people who are conveniently able to afford travel, it produces an unrealistic picture of our global community. This past summer, in my second season in Alaska, I listened intently to my captain as he told me of all his travel adventures. He further fueled the fire within me and taught me so much about how to live in the spirit of travel. I wanted so badly to experience the world as he did; living country to country, immersed in the cultures and the people. Knowing I couldn’t only made me want it more.


After a hard day’s work, we would sit together and sip on whiskey, sharing our life stories. On one occasion, I confessed to him that I was DACA. I felt like a fraud, telling him I couldn’t travel to all the places he’d suggested even though I said I would, but he was sympathetic: I was the first DACA recipient he had ever met. He had so many questions about how I felt and what it was like, and it felt good to tell him. The fact I had gotten myself to where I was now truly impressed him, but it also saddened him. “The thought of you not being able to travel is deeply disturbing,” he said. His voice was somber and genuine. He quickly suggested I visit all the U.S. has to offer and to not be deterred. Only someone who has seen all the corners of the world could understand what I was missing out on, and his discomfort has followed me ever since.


Inspired, I took my earnings from that season and went on a road trip along the West Coast earlier this year. I camped on abandoned beaches, close to the familiar sounds of water on the shore. I stopped in odd towns, looked up at trees as old as time, and exchanged stories with any person willing to do the trade. And just like my captain, I surfed some waves in Santa Cruz, California. The familiar sense of living without barriers took hold. Then reality turned and just like when I woke up in Alaska, I wondered if I was again dreaming, but this time I was caught in a deep fear manifesting itself as a night terror. While in San Francisco, the news that President Trump had rescinded the DACA program reached my ears. Just like that, my spirits were disenchanted, and I felt as stuck as I had been when I was a child. I ended my road trip in San Francisco and drove straight through wildfires to get home and be with my community in solidarity.

It’s been four months since then. Congress has two months to pass legislation to protect us and our families from inhumane standards of punishment for seeking the American Dream. My life is in the hands of people who will never know what it’s like to be me.


They will never know how empowering it is to find yourself among the world when you thought the world wasn’t for you. Their power is inherently tied to their identity, while mine was found through personal exploration and travel.  I just wish the U.S. was more like Alaska, where if you show up, work hard, and prove you can make it, people welcome you regardless of your gender, immigration status, or ethnicity. But it isn’t, and therefore I have to come to terms with what may happen once my DACA is over. Will I be unjustly deported? Will my family be torn apart? Will I live my life in the shadow of my potential because I lack the Social Security number to be employed as a journalist?


I’m not sure what to expect anymore, but maybe I’ll be surprised and find myself on a boat towards citizenship on the horizon, and more adventures beyond that. Or so I hope.