Sixteen years ago, 10-year-old Jaime Leiva got into a car with a couple he’d never met and crossed the border into the United States.
He’d memorized the name of one of their children in case his identity was ever questioned, but he didn’t grasp the magnitude of the moment. He just wanted to see his mom and dad — whom he hadn’t seen in years — again.
“I didn't really realize that I was doing anything wrong,” Leiva told InsideEdition.com. “Now I’ve come to understand that it was something that most people see [as] bad, but when I was at that age, I didn't realize what I was doing."
“Before I knew it, I looked up … I was in the United States.”
He said the family eventually dropped him off in Phoenix, Arizona, where Leiva laid eyes on his father for the first time since he left El Salvador in 1999, three years prior.
“I didn't really react. Reality didn't really sink in at that point,” Leiva said.
But that didn’t last long. As Leiva and his father drove to Des Moines, Iowa, where the family made their home, he broke down.
“Halfway through the trip ... we were at a resting station and I ... started crying nonstop for 30 minutes. It was that moment I realized the journey was over and I was finally united with my dad.”
A Future Thanks to DACA
Leiva said his life has changed for the better since that fateful day in 2002. Now 26, Leiva resides in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, widely known as DACA, an American immigration policy that allows some individuals who were brought to the United States illegally as children to receive work permits and go to college.
“One of the biggest misconceptions is that DACA recipients are people who came into the country illegally and now they're trying to get some benefit,” Stephanie Delia, managing attorney for City Council Services at CUNY Citizenship Now, told InsideEdition.com. “The truth of the matter is most of these people came here so young. They had no control over it.”
The program was announced in June 2012, when Leiva was 20, and established through an executive order by President Obama.
“It was all over the news,” said Leiva, who quickly applied upon hearing of it.
Until then, he’d always worried about his future in the States. His approval came as a relief, giving him hope.
“I was very happy because obviously that was going to open a lot of doors for me. That was going to allow me to get a job, a good job, and different things like build credit, buy a home,” he said. “I felt very blessed to fall into that program and to be able to obtain a work permit.”
In September 2017, however, that future seemed suddenly threatened when the Trump administration announced a plan to phase out the program.
The announcement came after a June 2017 letter from 10 attorneys general promising to sue the administration over the program, which they called “unconstitutional” because the legislative process had been skipped entirely when DACA was established.
Trump said “the legislative branch, not the executive branch, writes these laws – this is the bedrock of our Constitutional system, which I took a solemn oath to preserve, protect, and defend.”
"I do not favor punishing children, most of whom are now adults, for the actions of their parents,” he added. “But we must also recognize that we are nation of opportunity because we are a nation of laws."
Since that announcement just over a year ago, DACA has been caught in legal snarls, its continued existence in jeopardy. While current DACA recipients can still re-apply every two years for renewed grants, no new applicants are accepted.
“I just hope that people don't stop fighting,” Leiva said. “I just wish that more people got to learn more about different cultures and different stories and [could] see how people came here and why people came here and what things are like in those countries right now.”
Crossing the Border
In the late ‘90s, Leiva’s parents made the decision to leave El Salvador for the States.
“Things were getting tough in El Salvador — violence and economically things weren’t looking positive,” Leiva said. “He was trying to provide a better future for the family.”
While Leiva did not want to disclose how his parents entered the U.S., he said his father left first, his mother following a year later in 2000. The pair settled in Iowa with a plan to bring their three sons along later on.
After their arrival in the U.S., Leiva’s parents were eventually granted temporary protected status in the U.S., which is given to immigrants who can’t return to their home countries safely due to conditions or circumstances there.
Meanwhile, Leiva remained in El Salvador and was cared for by his great-grandmother and other close relatives until 2002.
“I received a phone call from my dad and he told me that it was time for me to come to the U.S. and meet up with them,” Leiva said.
His parents hired someone to take him on the journey from El Salvador to the U.S. Carrying only a backpack filled with a few belongings and “little bit of clothes,” then-10-year-old Leiva set out on the journey with a man he didn’t know.
“Sometimes we were in a car, in a bus. We walked a few times for a couple of hours,” Leiva said. “It took us a few days to get to the Guatemala-Mexico border.”
When Leiva and his guide arrived in Veracruz, Mexico, they went to the house of a family that Leiva didn’t know. He said his guide left to “go buy groceries” and never returned.
“That left me, 10 years old, stranded in the middle of Mexico,” Leiva said. “I didn't really know anyone. All I had was my dad's phone number and the hope that the family where I was staying was going to be able to help me out.”
Thankfully, the family agreed to let Leiva stay until his parents could figure out an alternative plan.
Months went by before Leiva received a bus ticket to Juarez, Mexico, from his family. Set right on the U.S.-Mexico border, Juarez was then and is now among the most dangerous cities in the world.
“Growing up and getting older, [I realized] the danger I was in. I look back at it and I was thankful of how oblivious I was to the situation,” Leiva said. “I just remember being at the bus terminal in Juarez playing video games. And with everything else going around me, I was just a little kid in the middle of Mexico.”
His memory is murky, but from there, he eventually met up with the family that ferried him across the border and into the U.S.
“When I was a child, I would hear stories about the U.S. and how things were different here, a lot of opportunity,” Leiva said. “People made better money, everything was better, the food was better, everything else was better.”
But transition was difficult at first for Leiva.
In school, he was one of the only kids who spoke Spanish, but he learned English quickly.
“It was easier because I was young,” Leiva said. “Kids adapt easier than adults.”
After graduating high school in 2010 , Leiva wasn’t sure what was ahead of him.
A soccer coach from the AIB College of Business recruited him and offered him a scholarship. He was still undocumented at the time, but Leiva said the coach “took a chance on him.”
When Leiva was a college sophomore, DACA was announced. He applied and was approved.
“I was very happy because it allowed me to get a job, it allowed me to live a more normal life,” Leiva said. “I didn't have to be worried about a cop being behind me and getting pulled over because I was going to have a license now. It was going to be very different.”
Making America Great
Leiva, who just welcomed his first child with his wife, also a DACA recipient, works at an insurance agency now. In his free time, he runs a nonprofit, the United Futbol Academy, he founded in Des Moines last year.
The organization not only teaches children soccer, but also helps them develop leadership skills. Leiva and the three other soccer coaches who work for the United Futbol Academy are all DACA recipients.
“We're already seeing the positive impact and we're excited for the years to come when these kids get older and they get out in the world and make a difference,” Leiva said.
He said he hopes others are aware of the positive impact DACA recipients are having in their communities.
“We're not here to take away. We're here to make it better, and I just wish that people would see it that way,” Leiva said. “That we're here and we're part of the country and we're ready to make it better.”
He added that he hopes the U.S. is able to continue to live up to its name as the “land of opportunity.”
“I hope that doesn't change,” he said. “I think it's big enough and there's enough resources here for not only people locally, but for more people to come in and find a better future for their families.”