"I am DACA," the man said.
I'd never had a political conversation with the man, but he surprised me last week by asking what I thought President Trump would ultimately do with the roughly 800,000 "Dreamers" who'd been offered protection against deportation on President Barack Obama's watch. I told him that though the president has taken many conflicting positions, he recently seemed reluctant to deport.
I had in mind a pair of tweets the president sent Sept. 14:
"Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military? Really!"
"They have been in our country for many years through no fault of their own — brought in by parents at young age. Plus BIG border security"
That doesn't sound like someone willing to punish those who came here by virtue of decisions made by their parents, I explained. The man said he hoped I was right. Then he told me the reason for his heightened interest.
If that man is DACA, he's the Central Casting version: friendly, conscientious, and extremely hardworking. I never thought much about his immigration status. Sure, I know his English is broken, but maybe subliminally I figured a guy who works with his name proudly painted on the side of his truck door isn't running from anyone. He's 32, the father of two daughters — both American citizens — has a business, and owns a home and car. But now he worries that his decision to come out from the shadows has left him vulnerable on the watch of an unpredictable president.
"When he got elected I was worried because of all things he said when he was a candidate," he said. "We watched the news every day of the campaign and election night when the votes were counted. We just don't know what will happen."
He followed his mother across the border at age 15, taking a dangerous, weeklong trek through the Mexican and Arizona desert. Traveling as the youngest in a group of a dozen, he thought they'd been caught when confronted by U.S. Border Patrol. The agents turned his group toward the south.
"We walked for an hour, and then turned around again," he told me.
Because an uncle was living in Norristown, the man also settled in the Montgomery County community that is home to a large undocumented population. With a fake identity supplied by a friend, he immediately went to work, first in demolition and then in landscaping. After a few years, he began taking yard jobs of his own on the weekends and ultimately began working for himself. It's a classic, American Horatio Alger story of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps — made more difficult by trying to prosper while staying beneath the radar. For 12 years, he tried to stay clear of law enforcement while driving with insurance, but on a Mexican or international license. A DUI represents his sole legal blemish in his 17 years north of the border. It was DACA that enabled him to leave the shadows.
"They have my name, address, and phone number," he says of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "They know everything about me because when I applied for DACA, they wanted all papers to prove I'd arrived in 2000, so I handed over whatever I could find, pay stubs, bank accounts, bills, to prove I arrived here then. But now that all makes me easy to find."
DACA was the man's path to a Pennsylvania driver's license and Social Security card. With the latter, he was able to buy a house and equipment for his business that would otherwise have been impossible to acquire.
"I've been here half my life," he told me. "I'd like to become a citizen."
He's never been back to Mexico. And he believes that if he and others in his position were to be sent back now, the move would jeopardize any future prospect of the United States getting undocumented people to step forward as the Dreamers did.
"Everyone will be afraid the same thing will happen; nobody will give information," he said. "They will think it will be used against them."
In the meantime, he tries to cope with the constant uncertainty and to assuage the concerns of his daughters, the older of whom is a teenager. She told me she worries about her father while dreaming of going to college in the United States. Half of the students in her suburban public middle-school class are undocumented, the 13-year-old told me, adding, "I'm worried I'll be sent to a country I don't know."