When Merced Ramirez was 4 years old, he immigrated to the United States from Mexico with his family.
Ramirez grew up, went to school and lived what he considered a normal life.
At 13, he decided he wanted to attend a summer program at Penn State University. He got an application and began to fill it out, but stumbled a bit when he reached a box that read “SSN.”
Ramirez went to his teacher at Harrisburg High School who told him those letters stood for Social Security number and that he should speak with his mother because she should be able to help him with it.
“I was 13 years old and I asked my mom, ‘Hey, I need my Social Security number,’” Ramirez said. “I asked her about three times and she would make excuses. ... She finally said ‘you actually don’t have a Social Security number. You don’t have the same opportunities as other kids your age have.’”
His mother had crossed the border illegally with him. Ramirez was undocumented.
“I was devastated,” he said. “At 13, it was heartbreaking and frustrating.”
Ramirez’s parents brought him to the United States as a little boy to get a better education.
His mother graduated high school in Mexico, Ramirez said. His father dropped out of school after the fourth grade to help financially support his family.
Ramirez eventually realized that no matter how hard he worked and no matter how well he did in school, his dream to go to college was now going to be increasingly difficult.
That wasn’t until 2012 when then-President Barack Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — or DACA for short.
DACA is an administrative program that provides relief from possible deportation for certain people who came to the United States as children. To qualify for DACA, applicants had to be under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, have no criminal history, meet certain educational and residency requirements and pay a fee.
Recipients were granted a temporary protection from deportation and a work permit they could reapply for every two years.
“Even though it wasn’t U.S. citizenship, it gave me hope — a lot of hope,” Ramirez said. “I know it gave me hope. ... It was a chance for me to have a better future.”
Ramirez applied and was approved for DACA in 2013, his senior year in high school. For the first time, he could do simple things like legally drive to school and get a job.
He has since graduated from Messiah College with a degree in business, lives in Harrisburg, and has started a video production company with one of his classmates.
Because Ramirez is not a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident, he did not qualify for any federal student financial aid. He paid for college through scholarships and by working part-time while attending classes full-time, he said.
Two of Ramirez’s four siblings were also granted legal status through DACA. His younger sister did not qualify because she was brought to the country after the program’s 2007 deadline. Another sibling is a U.S. citizen, he said.
More than 800,000 people are recipients of DACA.
“It’s a pool of 800,000 individuals who have proven to be the ideal citizen of a nation,” Ramirez said. “We’re proving ourselves. ... I’m proving that when given the opportunity, I will take advantage of it fully.”
The program, however, is slated to end.
In September, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced DACA was being rescinded, arguing Obama had overstepped his authority in creating the program. All current DACA recipients may remain in the country through the expiration of their two years, but no new applications are being accepted.
Current DACA recipients, whose two years expire before March, may also reapply for an additional two years.
Ramirez said his status ends in 2019.
“I grew up in the U.S. I got assimilated to the culture. This is my home,” Ramirez said. “I’m just as American as anyone else.”
As part of a deal to reopen the federal government earlier this month, congressional Democrats demanded a vote of a permanent fix to DACA. It is unclear what this bill will look like and if it can pass both houses of Congress. It is also unclear whether President Donald Trump would sign a permanent DACA bill.
Trump — who campaigned as an immigration hardliner — has recently stated he will not sign any DACA bill unless it includes funding for a border wall between the United States and Mexico.
However, he also expressed an openness Wednesday to a path to citizenship for people like Ramirez, according to the Associated Press.
Without legislation from Congress, it is likely Ramirez, now 22 years old, will lose his legal status at that point. He will either need to move back to Mexico — a country he barely remembers — or risk deportation.
So, why doesn’t Ramirez and others like him apply for a more permanent legal status or citizenship?
“It’s simple. You can’t,” said John Leedock, director of immigration legal services at Catholic Charities of Harrisburg. “There is simply no way in the United States’ immigration law that allows DACA kids to apply for citizenship.”
Ramirez, Leedock and Maria Hernandez, Harrisburg coordinator for the Movement of Immigrant Leaders of Pennsylvania, spoke Wednesday during a panel discussion on immigration at YWCA Carlisle.
Leedock said DACA recipients cannot even apply for legal permanent status.
The only way Ramirez could currently obtain citizenship or permanent residency is go back to Mexico where he has not lived since he was preschool-aged. Once in Mexico, Ramirez would have to begin the yearslong journey to legally enter the United States.
“Dreamers, like anyone in the U.S., (we) are people just like anyone else,” Ramirez said. “We are going to school. We are getting jobs. We are becoming nurses. We are starting businesses. We’re contributing to our communities. ... Removing the label, we are just like other people.”
In December, Ramirez’s father moved back to Mexico to help take care of Ramirez’s elderly grandmother, he said.
“My dad, he decided to go back to Mexico permanently,” Ramirez said. “He kind of lost hope.”
Ramirez’s mother still lives and works in the United States. He said his siblings help to support their mother, who lives in constant fear of deportation.
He said he hoped that one day his mother could come out of the shadows and no longer be afraid.
“We have to take on the responsibility of providing income and helping out in the family,” he said. “For me, I’m not complaining, but it would be nice for (my mother) to apply for a license of a work permit. ... That way she won’t have to live in fear.”
Messiah Lifeways in Upper Allen Township is ready to embrace the future with the completion of a two-year expansion project that it hopes will enrich the lives of its residents, as well as area seniors.
“Really, this is for the community, not just for our residents,” said Kristen Heisey, Messiah Lifeways’ senior vice president for mission advancement. “We’re very open and welcoming to anyone in the public who’s 55-plus. We want them to enjoy our new spaces.”
The $80 million Project Envision expansion is highlighted by Village Square, designed in the manner of a town village with 84 apartments, two restaurants, an “enrichment center,” a day spa and a wellness center. Although residency is limited to seniors 62 and older, members of the general public age 55 or older can register for the facility’s programs and amenities.
An open house kicking off the new expansion is scheduled for from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Messiah Lifeways at Messiah Village, 100 Mt. Allen Drive. Open to the public, the event will offer guided tours, apartment open houses, fellowship, music, raffle drawings for the day spa and wellness center and free restaurant smoothies.
For the 84 new apartment homes, the design aims for spacious. With higher than average ceilings, the airy units range in size from 800 square feet with one bedroom to 1,700 square feet with two bedrooms, den and 2.5 baths. Most have a private balcony or porch.
The new Center for Wellness and Vitality on Village Square features the Cerise Day Spa with massage therapy, manicure and pedicures, and a Himalayan salt wall room with zero-gravity rejuvenation chairs. “A half-hour in the salt room has the same (relaxation) effect as being at the beach for several days,” Heisey said.
Down the hall, a new zero-entry, salt-water pool heated to 98 degrees is twice the size of Messiah Lifeway’s 1988 pool that recently was demolished. A salt-water hot tub also is available in the pool room. Salt water sanitizes the pool and spa without using harsh chemicals.
“This is our second generation of wellness. With our next generation of older adults, there’s a lot more interest in pursuing wellness and fitness,” Heisey said, alluding to the large squadron of baby boomers aging across the nation.
A nearby fitness studio offers pilates, yoga, strength training and more, while the Hostetter Enrichment Center offers an expansion of the Pathways Institute lifelong learning program at Messiah Lifeways. The enrichment center seats up to 300 and is equipped with an induction loop system underneath its carpet. The system enables anyone wearing t-coil hearing aids to automatically pick up the room’s sound, Heisey said.
Village Square restaurants include Kathryn’s on the Square and Café 100, along with a Starbucks counter with in-house pastries. The general public is welcome to dine at these facilities.
Each legislative session thousands of bills and amendments are introduced in the Pennsylvania Legislature. Only a fraction become law, and an even smaller portion receive wide media coverage.
These bills impact the lives of people living in Pennsylvania every day.
Each week The Sentinel will highlight one bill that has not received widespread attention.
The effects of pretrial detention — when someone is held in jail while awaiting trial, generally because of a lack of ability to pay bail — can be detrimental to a person’s life.
Even a short stay in jail can result in the loss of employment, a higher likelihood of being sentenced to prison upon conviction, longer post-conviction sentences and, even in the case of low risk defendants, a higher risk of committing future crimes, according to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
For juveniles, being held in an adult jail can be even more devastating.
Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Delaware County, has introduced a bill aimed at preventing those effects on youths.
“The effects of pre-trial detention and the abuses that accompany it are particularly harmful to juveniles’ physical, mental, social and developmental health,” she wrote in co-sponsorship letter. “Pre-trial detention is uniquely devastating to children, often leading to stunted or deviant adulthood, higher rates of recidivism, and imposes a heavy burden on family members and communities who are most invested in their recovery and success.”
Currently, juveniles are able to be held in adult facilities if they are accused of certain offenses.
House Bill 1697 would limit those offenses to only criminal homicide. A juvenile accused of any other offense would not be able to be held in an adult jail.
McClinton wrote that juveniles held in adult jails are at increased risk of suicide and account for a disproportionate portion of inmate-perpetrated sexual assault.
“Juveniles experiencing behavioral health problems simply get worse in detention, not better, as they do not receive effective treatment,” she wrote. “The transition into incarceration itself is believed to be responsible for some of the observed increase mental illnesses in detention.”
Dozens of police and other vehicles were part of a motorcade honoring slain Deputy U.S. Marshal Christopher Hill before a public memorial service Thursday at the Giant Center in Hershey.
Thousands of law enforcement officers from across the country attended the service, and mourners watched along the motorcade route — which included Interstate 81, Route 39 and Route 322. Hershey firefighters hoisted a large American flag near the Giant Center entrance.
Hill, 45, was shot and killed Jan. 18 while serving a search warrant in Harrisburg. While he and other law enforcement arrested Shayla Pierce, 30, on terroristic threat charges, a man inside the home, Kevin Sturgis, 31, opened fire.
Sturgis killed Hill and wounded another officer before he was himself shot and killed by police. Sturgis, who is from Philadelphia, also had active warrants for his arrest.
Hill is a native of Sacramento, California, but went to school in Northumberland County. He is survived by his wife and two children.