CLEARWATER — They put their life savings into this place, worked overtime busing tables, bartending, picking up any odd job they could to open a business they could call their own.
So when the time came last summer to sign the lease on the building for their Southie Coffee shop on 1500 S Missouri Ave., they thought about how it could all be taken away in an instant.
President Donald Trump in 2017 ordered an end to the Obama-era program shielding from deportation 700,000 immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and grew into adults without citizenship. But as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, hangs in limbo amid legal challenges, Bella Rincon and Steven Gonzalez, both 28 and protected under the program, would not let go of their American dream.
“If it’s cancelled, we’ll lose it all, everything we have worked for,” Rincon said. “Everything is here, and we’d have to go back to a place we don’t even remember. We want to push forward and live our dream.”
Even when they were too young to understand that citizenship was nothing without a piece of paper to prove it, Rincon and Gonzalez said their families taught them to work hard to be an American.
Rincon immigrated to California with her parents and brother at age 9 in 2000 from Venezuela, soon after President Hugo Chávez took office and an era of political, economic and cultural turmoil swept in.
Her father would work 12-hour shifts driving a forklift and then read the dictionary with her at the dining room table to help with her English, Rincon said.
Gonzalez’s family left Argentina for California in 2000 when he was 9 after his father was laid off as a subway mechanic and a crippling recession that would lead to widespread unemployment and hunger was taking off.
Rincon was studying architecture at Chaffey College in California when her father got sick, and without health insurance returned to Venezuela, where he died in 2010. Without legal status to travel, Rincon could not attend her father’s funeral.
Unable to afford her last year of college, Rincon moved to Clearwater in 2009 where her brother was living. Working to support herself and her mother and family in Venezuela, there were few times she didn’t have two jobs at once: as a bartender, a saleswoman in a cigar shop, and then Indian Shores Coffee, where owner Greg Bauman said she “grew into the entrepreneur she is now.”
She said she was hopeful in 2012 when then-President Barack Obama enacted DACA, for former child immigrants who can prove they’ve gone through school and have no significant criminal record. DACA gave her a work permit and the ability to get a drivers license. It relieved her fear of being in the country with no avenue to gain legal status.
Although Gonzalez was working two jobs in construction and house cleaning to put himself through Salt Lake City Community College, the expense was too much to finish. With new DACA protection, he moved to Clearwater in 2014 where his sister had landed, and soon began work at Indian Shores Coffee, picking up a passion he never knew he had.
“He was like a sponge where he learned everything even though he had no coffee experience,” Bauman said.
By then Rincon had left Indian Shores Coffee for a job in insurance, but the two friends were brought together when Rincon’s brother and Gonzalez’s sister began dating.
With similar backgrounds, they were both hungry to do more for themselves, to establish a business that was theirs and continue the American Dream their parents created for them.
In 2016 they began planning for Southie Coffee, a homage to their native South America.
But after Trump’s September 2017 announcement pledging to end DACA protections, Rincon and Gonzalez knew deportation could come no matter how deep their roots.
“It’s a matter of hope, hope that things will change,” Gonzalez said. “I gave up everything for this. The best part of this is working hard for yourself so that whatever is hard today won’t be hard tomorrow. It’s part of the American dream.”
When DACA took effect in 2012, it gave immigrants who were brought here as children and built lives in America as adults a reprieve from constant fear of deportation to countries many of them don’t even remember, said Deyanira Aldana, education justice program manager for United We Dream.
Without legal status, undocumented immigrants are often restricted to minimum wage or cash-only jobs with little empowerment to demand fair treatment. Many, like Gonzalez, had to pay out-of-state tuition if colleges admitted them at all.
After versions of the DREAM Act that would have granted citizenship to qualified immigrants already in the U.S. failed to pass Congress, Obama enacted DACA to temporarily shield those who came to America as children, giving them the name Dreamers.
The work permit that came with DACA status provided freedom to obtain better paying jobs, pursue careers, access to health insurance. But as a temporary deferment that must be renewed every two years, it did not come with a permanent path to citizenship, prolonging a key element of the immigration reform debate.
“What we need right now is champions in Congress to start pushing for legislation that is permanent that will also not hurt our communities,” Aldana said.
Since Trump’s call to end DACA, it has faced a whirlwind of legal challenges. While no new applications are being accepted, existing DACA recipients like Rincon and Gonzalez are permitted to apply for renewals.
“DACA is really on a lifeline,” said Tampa immigration lawyer Christian Zeller.
Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday that DACA was not being considered as a bargaining chip in the deadlock over border security that has partially shut down the federal government.
Zeller said it will take either a Supreme Court ruling on whether Trump can phase out DACA or Congress passing a law protecting the recipients to determine the program’s future.
Amid the uncertainty, Rincon and Gonzalez have a business to run.
Beyond their life savings of $35,000, the two friends invested nearly round-the-clock work to get to opening day Sept. 24.
Rincon spent dozens of hours researching city code to secure permits and getting the building into compliance. Gonzalez completed most of the plumbing, rerouting of electrical plugs, installing sinks and painting work himself.
In the early mornings before and the evenings after her full-time job insurance job, Rincon makes all of the empanadas, muffins, sandwiches and burritos from scratch. After Gonzalez closes the shop at 6 p.m., he begins his second job at Uber Eats to keep him afloat in this first year as a small business owner.
The long hours are worth it when they see regulars drinking coffee in the shop’s plush couches and eating muffins they made that morning, the local antidote to the chain coffee shops of the world. But Rincon and Gonzalez also see Southie Coffee as another emblem: the embodiment of the immigrant story about working hard for a dream.
“We consider ourselves American even though the paper work doesn’t say that,’’ Gonzalez said. “It’s all we know.”
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.