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A Former Mormon Missionary’s Fear of Losing DACA

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“Heavenly Father will provide a way for you to be who He wanted you to be.”

That’s the advice from her mother that Maleny Calderón, 20, a former Mormon missionary and Dreamer, holds deep in her heart when contemplating the possibility of losing her DACA status.

Maleny recently returned to Oakland, California after serving a full-time mission for a year and a half in Houston, Texas for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), otherwise known the Mormon Church.

When she was two, Maleny was brought by her parents from Zacatecas, México, which is currently a part of a travel advisory issued this month by the U.S. Department of State. Zacatecas, along with four other Mexican states, were placed on the same danger level as Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, due to violent crime.

In Mexico, Maleny’s father graduated from college as an industrial mechanical engineer. But after the family fled due to limited job prospects and violence, he became a welder to support his family.

Maleny has always loved school and learning. She successfully graduated high school in Oakland on the Honor Roll with a 4.5 GPA, receiving recognition for her leadership in Oakland rebuilding efforts and for serving as the community service coordinator for the Bay Area Mormon Helping Hands humanitarian program.

She was five when she first realized that something might be different about her family, because they couldn’t travel to visit her grandparents or aunts and uncles.

When she was nine, she began to constantly worry that something would happen to her or her parents, separating their family. She began to fear not being able to attend college, a problem that was hers alone, as her four U.S.-born brothers and sisters did not share that burden.

In high school, her perseverance and high grades qualified Maleny to be chosen along with a small group of students to travel to Europe with her French class. Because of her undocumented status, she was forced to decline the trip and her dream of seeing France was dashed. “I was heartbroken because, despite my hard work and high marks, my undocumented status held me back,” she said.

When she was sixteen, she learned about DACA, and felt a mixture of elation and fear. She worried that her private information might be used against her for deportation purposes, but her mom told her to apply. As Maleny said:

My mom told me that DACA was one of the opportunities I needed to make sure my dreams came true like going to college, getting a driver’s license, and getting a job.

I went from a feeling that I couldn’t progress and was ‘stuck,’ to being able to have more opportunities to do what I wanted to do to help my family and become someone. DACA also allowed me to become the first college student in the history of my family in the United States.

Due to her academic accomplishments, Maleny earned acceptance into Brigham Young University, a highly competitive private school affiliated with the LDS Church in Provo, Utah.

Becoming a missionary

As an 18-year-old BYU college freshman majoring in psychology, Maleny made the decision to serve as a full-time missionary for the LDS church. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ missionary program is based on the New Testament pattern of missionaries serving in pairs, teaching the Gospel and baptizing believers in the name of Jesus Christ. There are currently 407 missions around the world where more than 70,000 full-time missionaries from ages 18 to 25 volunteer their time (and pay their own way). Single men serve missions for two years and single women serve for 18 months.

As a Mormon missionary, Maleny provided community service through teaching English classes and numerous service projects like participating in the Hurricane Harvey clean-up and rebuilding efforts. Through the church’s community service program, Mormon Helping Hands, volunteers partner with the government and nonprofits to help people affected by natural disasters and other emergencies. The Helping Hands program reflects the desire of Mormons to follow the example of Jesus Christ by serving others.

By helping during Hurricane Harvey, one of the worst catastrophic and costliest natural disasters in U.S. history, Maleny said:

I was able to understand how important service is, regardless of religion. It was beautiful to see how different people from all walks of life and faiths came together and were willing to help each other during hard times. It was one of the greatest things.

Missionaries don’t get to pick where we share the Gospel. Our church leaders rely upon prayer and revelation to receive guidance from God about our assignments. I believe that I was sent by God to teach the people of Houston, Texas about Jesus Christ and His teachings, to better understand the culture and even the topic of immigration. I taught a lot of people who were undocumented and afraid. People were scared to even get baptized and to sign a form, fearing deportation from authorities.

The lesson on immigration was personal for Maleny, too, because while she was serving as a Mormon missionary in Texas home to one of the harshest anti-immigrant laws in the nation, Senate Bill 4 (SB 4) she was filled with anxiety and stress because her DACA permit expired during her mission and she could have been subject to deportation. Thankfully, she was able to receive help from local grassroots non-profit organizations that worked together to provide assistance to Dreamers for their DACA renewal applications. Her DACA is now set to expire in May 2019.

Maleny’s mission in Houston ended in January 2018, and she returned to her family in Oakland. She plans on returning to BYU in May to continue studying psychology. Coming back, she was alarmed to hear about the current state of the Dreamer debate in Congress.

“Mormon missionaries have strict rules with no TV and social media,” said Maleny. “After coming home and watching the news and seeing everything that’s happening to Dreamers is overwhelming. It seems there’s no way out sometimes. Sometimes, I feel like I have so much hope for me, my family and my future and it’s sad to think that might disappear.”

Maleny fears being potentially forced to give up her dream of a college education, her job, and her ability to drive. She’s afraid of being deported to an unknown country wracked in violence, kidnappings, and crippling poverty, and she laments the opportunities that would be out of her reach.

“Here in the United States, I understand my worth and what I could accomplish,” she shared. “If I am sent back, I wouldn’t have those opportunities to reach my full potential and it’s scary. I also have four U.S. citizen brothers and sisters and it would be frightening if they would have to return to Mexico with me and my parents.”

This fear is also shared by many mixed-status families. About 5.1 million children under the age of 18, both U.S. citizens and noncitizens, live with at least one undocumented parent, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Maleny has vowed to continue helping in the Dream Act fight and doing her part to help make a difference and give back. “We’re not bad people. Most of us Dreamers honestly just want to help our families and become better people.”

In its first public stance under the new leadership of President Russell M. Nelson, the LDS Church recently issued a statement urging Congress to protect 1.8 million Dreamers from deportation and extend compassion to those seeking a better life:

We call upon our national leaders to create policies that provide hope and opportunities for those, sometimes referred to as ‘Dreamers,’ who grew up here from a young age and for whom this country is their home. They have built lives, pursued educational opportunities, and been employed for years based on the policies that were in place. These individuals have demonstrated a capacity to serve and contribute positively in our society, and we believe they should be granted the opportunity to continue to do so.

The LDS Church’s statement was applauded by the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, a strong immigrant rights supporter, as well as the ACLU of Utah, which said the statement “reflects an increased sense of urgency to solve the issue”. The Mormon Women for Ethical Government also released Fifteen Declarations on Ethical Immigration Policy, which urged Congress to protect Dreamers, TPS recipients, and refugees. Bernardo Castro-Bernal, a Mormon Dreamer and former LDS missionary, said his church’s stance was likely encouraging to other Mormon missionaries who are undocumented.

According to The Salt Lake Tribune, the LDS Church takes a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach toward the immigration status of its members and potential converts. It recognizes that issues of immigration and legal status are of great concern for many of its members, who hail from 188 nations around the globe. Mormon history is steeped in early migration from foreign lands to “live, work and worship, blessed by the freedoms and opportunities offered in this great nation.”

The headquarters of the LDS Church is located in Utah which is home to 10,500 Dreamers.

Rep. Mia Love (R-UT), the Mormon daughter of Haitian immigrants, in December was one of 34 House Republicans to support a call for legislation for Dreamers. But she has not been a vocal proponent for legislative action, nor has she signed the discharge petition which might bring the Dream Act to the floor. More than 100 DACA recipients lose their legal status every day a solution is not reached.