Leonidas Montenegro and his family came to the U.S. from Guatemala when he was 13.
When his dad’s religious visa expired, the family stayed in the U.S. anyway, a not uncommon occurrence.
In 2012, the Obama Administration began its DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which defers deportation for undocumented immigrations who arrived in the U.S. as children.
Montenegro, then in his early 20s, jumped on the opportunity to legally remain in the U.S.
“I was actually one of the first people to apply for it,” said Montenegro, now 27, who lives in Hood River.
“I was really on top of things. I did it myself. I studied the law, I studied the forms, and I went for it. Spent my own money.”
On Sept. 5, President Donald Trump cancelled DACA, but said it would terminate in six months. Trump has since indicated he hopes a compromise can be worked out.
Montenegro has a card designating him as being part of the DACA program, and also has a modified driver’s license, indicating his DACA status.
He knows of only one other person who is in the DACA program. (There are about 11,000 DACA recipients in Oregon, and about 787,000 nationally.) He said it’s like a secret to be in the program. In fact, he said he’d never told anyone he was in the program until he talked to the Chronicle at a recent meeting on DACA in The Dalles.
“I don’t think I ever said it before, ‘til today, because it’s a stigma,” he said.
By now, Montenegro has lived longer in the U.S. – 14 years – than he lived in Guatemala.
“For me, Guatemala, it would be a really, really hard option.”
His older sister is a nurse who married an American and obtained U.S. citizenship. His parents are trying to obtain U.S. citizenship through her.
His family first located in Lancaster, Calif., and Montenegro has lived in Hood River since 2006.
Assembling the needed DACA documentation was exhaustive. Applicants must have clean records – “I’m clean as a whistle,” Montenegro said — be in college, the military, be employed, or be a homemaker raising a family.
He sent them everything from vaccination records to academic records. “I sent every detail of my life. It’s scary, you’re sending your life in a package, and you don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
He has fears that the information he sent, including his home address and work address, could eventually be used against him.
“I’ve been in limbo for a long time,” he said. “I know this is a country of laws, but there’s also morality, and I think in this political world we forget about the humanity and about life and in the end, what matters is the community and relationships.”
Montenegro is a people person who is well known in Hood River, he said.
“I love my family. I love my community. I’m super known in my community. I’m outgoing, I love people, I’m super outspoken.”
He loves the outdoors and has even worked as a model for Bass Pro Shop.
“There is so much evil in the world and so much anger and frustration and chaos. But at the same time there can be beauty,” he said.
He hopes Congress takes a cue from Trump and does pursue legislation that allows the DACA program to continue in some form. “If Congress can change a family’s life, why not?”
He said, “forget about numbers, you’re talking about human beings who are trying to better themselves.” He said he’s an athlete, a runner, a biker, and a climber. “I climb Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams, those are my mountains.”
“I’m passionate about coffee and beer and I love good wine,” he said. He’s bartending and was a barista and manager at a coffee shop. He roasted his own coffee beans.
He wants to get into the beverage industry, specifically beer and wine. He wants to open his own business and be on both the production and retail end of things. He wants his business to be “a gathering place.”
Montenegro is on his third two-year deferment from deportation through DACA. Six months before the term expires, the government sends him a letter reminding him of the fact.
When he did get his deferment, he said it was an easy process. “I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
And now, with Trump ending the program, but also offering a potential opportunity for it to continue, Montenegro said, “If this doesn’t work out, I’m saying goodbye to my home.”
He said, “I’m not perfect, I’m just like any other human being trying to better myself. But I have learned the hard way that kindness is the most important thing. If we’re not kind to each other, what’s the point of life?”
He spoke about the days of slavery in the U.S. “I think the question back then was, if a person is black, are they human? Now, it’s if they’re an immigrant.”
Even so, he’s still upbeat. “At the end, I’m just grateful for this country, for the life it has given me. Most people think the American Dream is dead, but you just have to fight for it, and hope.”