LOS ANGELES, California — Over the summer, José Rivas had an emotional reunion with his family in Texcoco, Mexico. He hadn't been back to his birthplace in about 20 years and had only vague memories of where he came from.
Rivas was 6 years old when he first came to the United States and didn't realize until he was in middle school that he was an undocumented immigrant. At the time, he began receiving invitations to participate in academic competitions that required him to fly to certain cities in the United States. But, understanding the limitations of being undocumented, he refrained from participating out of fear that he would be apprehended.
Being unable to travel without risk, as he grew up, Rivas found himself hoping for a way he could visit his home country.
"Something I always wished [on my birthdays] when I blew candles out was to obtain some kind of adjustment of status to be able to one day return to my birthplace," he told NBC News.
Rivas, a student at the University of Wyoming at Laramie, remains undocumented today, but he did not have to wait for an adjustment in his status to return to his birthplace. Through a study abroad program facilitated by the California-Mexico Studies Center (CMSC), a Southern California-based non-profit whose mission is to promote cultural and educational exchanges between students and professionals in Mexico and the United States, Rivas in August was able to travel to Texcoco, Mexico where he reunited with relatives and learned about his roots.
"[Being] able to hug individuals who your family has talked about for decades … to be there and connect with individuals and [listen] to the same stories you hear in the United States just completes that experience of your past, your customs, the way you cook, the way you bake bread, the way the family gets together for any type of reunion," said Rivas. "That really put cherry on top. It really does make a difference when you're able to connect with family you haven't seen in a long time."
More than 160 undocumented students like Rivas from across the United States are estimated to have participated in the California-Mexico Dreamers Study Abroad program, CMSC President and CEO Armando Vazquez-Ramos told NBC News.
All the participants are recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which was established through executive action under the Obama Administration. It defers deportation for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and allows them to work and study. Approximately 800,000 are protected under the program.
But after the Trump Administration's announcement on Sept. 5 to end DACA, CMSC's study abroad program has become "dead in the water," Vazquez-Ramos said. More than 70 students were expected to travel to their birthplaces in the winter through the program, but will no longer be able to do so.
Along with the termination of DACA, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has stopped processing advance parole permits for DACA recipients. The permit allows qualified foreign nationals to re-enter the United States after temporarily traveling abroad. Typically, advance parole is granted if an individual travels for educational, humanitarian and employment purposes.
The CMSC was established in 2010 and was born from a study abroad program Vazquez-Ramos established at California State University, Long Beach (Cal State Long Beach) called the California Mexico Project. CMSC's study abroad program began in the spring of 2014 when Vazquez-Ramos for the first time took two undocumented students to Mexico as part of a class he has taught at Cal State Long Beach for more than 20 years.
In the last two decades, Vazquez-Ramos has worked to promote the benefits of studying abroad and saw a way to create that opportunity for DACA recipients. In a 2016 study published in "Frontiers: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Study Abroad," authors suggest that studying abroad "promotes gains in students' self-knowledge, understanding their fit in the world of work, and contributes to the development of a more positive outlook regarding career opportunities."
Through advance parole, DACA students were able to travel abroad for educational purposes.
In August, 35 students studied abroad in Mexico through CMSC. The program required them to conduct ethnographic research and examine multiple facets of their past, including how they ended up in the United States, why their family migrated to the U.S., and their connection to their birthplace. Afterward, they were also required to write an academic paper about the experience of reconnecting with their home country and relatives after many years, Lidieth Arevalo Hernandez, Vazquez-Ramos' executive assistant and a multiple-time participant in the program, told NBC News.
When Rivas traveled to Mexico, he had the opportunity to learn about where his grandparents came from and how his family ended up in Texcoco. As part of his research assignment, another question he explored why his family migrated.
Rivas shared that his family's decision to leave Mexico was based on the educational and work opportunities available in the United States, and also so they could be closer to family. His family initially moved to California where some relatives had already settled, and then migrated to Wyoming in the 1990s when there was a need for labor in the natural gas and oil industries, he said. Today, he and his family reside in Wyoming.
Another question Rivas asked his relatives was if they remembered the time that he and his family relocated to the United States. Some became emotional, he said.
"My aunt, for example, was telling me that she used to lie that the plane or vehicle I was going to take was going to crash," he said. "She was legitimately trying to scare me away from moving from Mexico. I was only a child so I don't recall those stories, but it was good listening to their reactions to us having to leave Mexico."
Beatriz Hidalgo, 23, a student at Hunter College in New York, was another participant in the summer program. She spent time in Mexico City and Iztapalapa, where she experienced culture shock, she said. One part of her trip that stayed with her was the number of times family members would gather to eat together. For breakfast, some of her uncles down the block would join them; for dinner, uncles from another block would come to sit at the table.
At one point during her time abroad, Hidalgo told her uncle she wanted to stay with her family in Mexico, she said.
"That unity, that love, and that's something I don't really have [in New York]," she said. "It's just me and my dad [here]. It was happy [there]. I was excited and proud. You can't share these things and expect people to understand them when you say it to them. You can say you're happy or excited, but the feelings were so much bigger than that."
After spending time with their families and learning about their histories, students concluded their three-week journey back to their birthplaces by participating in a seminar at a university in Tijuana where they shared their experiences and findings.
For Karen Marin, 26, a student at Bronx Community College in New York, CMSC's study abroad program provided a positive experience that helped her uncover who she is and allowed her to meet her grandparents, aunts and uncles. She was also able to visit the hospital she was born in and her father's house.
"I know I felt like I was missing a little part of me," she said. "I know when I went back I fell in love with Mexico all over again. I found myself a little more. It's just fulfilling your identity."
The termination of DACA and its impact on the CMSC study abroad program, she said, is disappointing.
With CMSC's study abroad program unable to continue at this point, Vazquez-Ramos in mid-September wrote a letter addressed to California Gov. Jerry Brown, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and University of California President Janet Napolitano requesting that they petition for an injunction that would prevent the cancellation of advance parole applications. The State of California and the University of California in early September filed separate lawsuits against the Trump Administration for the cancellation of DACA.
Vazquez-Ramos argued that while the end of DACA would be effective on March 5, 2018, cancellation of DACA's advance parole provision came immediately. The injunction, he said, would benefit not only CMSC study abroad participants, but all advance parole applicants who filed before Sept. 5. It would further prevent "hardship and emotional suffering" among those in the group who have complied with advance parole requirements, according to the letter.
In the meantime, CMSC will continue moving forward on other projects, Vazquez-Ramos said, including a fundraiser in October for the publication of ethnographic research conducted by study abroad participants. Next year, it is planning to produce a play at Cal State Long Beach based on the experiences of the students who traveled to Mexico.
Despite this setback, Vazquez-Ramos maintains an optimistic outlook for DACA recipients and sees an opportunity for them to steer the situation toward a more permanent solution for undocumented immigrants.
"Of course I was devastated because I knew immediately the implications, but I always see a silver lining to the worst and most challenging circumstances," he said. "It can be a very good thing because it's a wake up call. Our community has to wake up, DREAMers have to wake up, social and student movements have to wake up," he said.