Ricardo Rios Is an American Dreamer

In 1991, his parents carried him across the U.S. border at four months old. Now, as he awaits a permanent solution, Ricardo Rios fears expulsion from the only country he’s ever known. 

By Hayat Norimine February 15, 2018 Published in the March 2018 issue of Seattle Met

Ricardo Rios stands in front of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma with about 60 other activists on a winter night. Bundled in rainproof jackets, the crowd hoists signs championing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, just feet away from the fence of the facility many of them have come to fear. Cuando? an organizer shouts. Ahora, the throng answers. It’s January 19, 2018, and just hours before a looming federal government shutdown over the very policy Rios and the activists have braved the bitter wind to support. Si se puede. Sin miedo. Yes we can, without fear.

The DACA recipients in the crowd, the so-called Dreamers whose parents brought them into the country undocumented and are now on average 24 years old, await news reports with extra apprehension. Would Congress save the Barack Obama–era program that temporarily protected them from deportation? 

Rios was a four-month-old, premature baby in 1991, when his parents carried him into the U.S. His mother, then 18, and his father, 20, had paid a coyote to smuggle them across the border, nearly 2,000 miles north from Guerrero, their home in Southern Mexico. The family began their American life in Southern California, then moved two years later to Phoenix, Arizona, where Rios’s sister, Marsie, was born as a U.S. citizen. His two younger brothers would follow. Only Rios and his parents, who then picked onions, corn, and grapes for a living, remained undocumented. 

Like any normal kid, he bickered with his siblings. And watched TV. With no cable channels in the home, TV mostly meant PBS, Fox, and—for a time—a lot of Hell’s Kitchen. He watched every episode he could, every on-camera instance of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s spiking blood pressure. 

A normal kid. Only in high school, when this normal kid drove his father’s car—a 1998 forest green Mustang—it was illegal, since he couldn’t get a driver’s license. Plus, he often heard that police racially profiled Latinos and he worried what it would mean if he ever got pulled over. To his friends he was born and raised in Phoenix. Same with his coworkers at KFC, where he secured a job, until his boss discovered he was undocumented and fired him. (Rios bought another fake social security number shortly after so he could work elsewhere.)

Throughout Rios’s childhood and adolescence, racial tensions in Arizona grew. In 2006, when he was 15, the state approved an initiative that prohibited undocumented immigrants from receiving public benefits, including financial aid for college; his uncle, bound for Arizona State University, lost his scholarship. Rios attended his first protest on May Day that year, in middle school with his mother, marching in downtown Phoenix for “A Day Without Immigrants.” 

Four years later, the state passed a bill that allowed cops to stop anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally and demand documentation. The rumors Rios heard about police racial profiling were now a reality. 

In 2008, when the family moved to Tacoma, where Rios’s father found work in construction, daily life became a little easier. For one, Washington state allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. That meant driving without worrying about every cop car that passed. Attending Stadium High School he met Hannah Chapman; they began dating his junior year. And he started working at restaurants around Tacoma. The fast-moving drama of Hell’s Kitchen plus cooking classes at school had inspired him to pursue a culinary career, and he dreamed of opening his own restaurant. After he graduated from Stadium in 2010, he enrolled at Clover Park Technical College to earn an associate’s degree in culinary arts, thanks to a scholarship program for minority youth. 

“I was always a big guy, but man I could move in a kitchen,” says Rios, who’s nearly six feet tall. “I can’t seem to get away from it, I always end up working with food. It’s a part of me.” 

In 2012, President Obama issued a directive to provide a status for those who became undocumented as minors—a permit, renewable every two years, to go to school and work without fear of deportation. Soon after Rios received this DACA status, he visited the Social Security Administration office for his first real social security number. He confessed to the administrator that he’d been using a fake number throughout his years of employment. And he watched in wonder as she transferred all his documented wages from the fake social security number to a new, legitimate one.

“Just like that, in less than a second,” he says.  

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Rios (right) with his father and mother after dinner at their Lakewood home.

Image: Mike Kane

“For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities,” president Donald Trump said in January 2018, during his State of the Union address, as he introduced grieving parents whose two daughters were killed by gang members. “My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber, is to defend Americans—to protect their safety, their families, their communities, and their right to the American dream. Because Americans are dreamers too.”

The federal government has always grappled with the prevalence of illegal immigration. Many of those immigrants fled dangerous situations in their home countries and brought their children, thinking they would have a better future in the U.S. But unlike former presidents, from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, Trump’s rhetoric defined “American” as “born here,” pressuring lawmakers to eliminate the program that protected even those who were brought illegally before they were old enough to walk.

Obama’s solution to undocumented minors was only temporary. His directive didn’t offer them a path to citizenship; Republicans in Congress back then fought legislation that would have overhauled the U.S. immigration system. Dreamers like Rios still needed to reapply for the status every two years.

That proved problematic as Donald Trump took office on the tide of rhetoric that degraded Mexicans entering the country and denounced any kind of immigration, even legal, issuing executive orders that affected foreign-born residents who held work or student visas. 

So after Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, Rios worried about what officials would do with his information and hesitated to pay $495 to renew his status, since he was unsure how long the program would even last. His DACA permit would expire by May that year, and, as his expiration date creeped closer, he grew more anxious. He finally decided to reapply in April 2017, but by then it was too late; it takes months to process a new work permit. 

Then a lead cook at Western State Hospital, Rios had told his employers that Trump’s new immigration policies would affect him. Because of governor Jay Inslee’s executive order in February 2017, which said that no state agency can discriminate based on national origin or inquire about work permits, Rios considered himself protected from repercussions. 

“I thought that they were going to help me,” he says. 

Rios and his fiancee—Chapman, his girlfriend from high school—were about to move into a new apartment in Lakewood. On May 9, 2017, Rios interviewed for a job that would be a promotion, as a food supervisor at the state Department of Social and Health Services. “I had my cards stacking up right.” 

Things went wrong a day later. Rios was fired from his state job because he was no longer allowed to work. When offered the new supervisor job he couldn’t take it. Not without a work permit. And that apartment in Lakewood? Unable to pay rent, he said no to that too. 

Instead he moved back in with his parents, and returned to undocumented life, working odd jobs and slowly draining the $5,000 saved in his bank account.

 DSHS’s human resources continued to check in with Rios so it could rehire him if he received his work permit. For DSHS it was a difficult job to fill: In a state building that houses 225 sexual predators, the position stayed vacant for months. 

On September 5, 2017, five months after he lost his job, Rios finally received the notice in the mail about his renewed DACA status. But that same day, Trump confirmed what had been the worst fear for many young Mexican nationals—that he would end the Obama-era program. Federal officials said no work permits would be revoked for another six months, until March 2018.

Democratic lawmakers demanded protection for the nearly 800,000 Dreamers in the U.S. as Congress negotiated a spending bill. While Democratic-majority state legislators approved legislation that allows Dreamers to keep their financial aid, regardless of what happens to DACA, many other freedoms undocumented young people gained from DACA—like work permits—remain up in the air.

As of 2016, Washington state has more than 17,000 DACA recipients, the vast majority of whom also hold jobs, go to school, or do both. It’s one of the only states where studies still show a growing immigrant population. The state’s economy would lose an estimated $1 billion, according to the governor’s office, if Dreamers are removed.

“President Trump and Republicans have said they will protect DREAMers and other young people who’ve only known America as home,” U.S. senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, tweeted on January 29. “We must all hold them to their word—and hold them accountable at the ballot box if they don’t honor it.” 


Marsie Rios Marin, Ricardo Rios’s sister, 25, sometimes feels like she won the lottery. U.S. citizenship was the prize, but one that came with a lifelong sense of guilt. Born just a couple years after her brother, she has only known secure citizen status, while Ricardo has been left in limbo for 26 years. 

The differences growing up were stark. She had more mobility, more freedom, including the freedom to make missteps and not face the legal consequence of deportation. She was married in 2016 and moved to Texas, but returns regularly, every few months, because she never knows what will happen to Ricardo or their parents, who are still undocumented—if or when they’ll get caught. 

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The Rios family on vacation at the Grand Canyon in 1996. Ricardo is on the far right. His sister, Marsie, is on the left, held by their mother.

Image: Mike Kane

“I’m so scared that it’s going to be the last time I get to see them,” she says of every visit. When she was growing up, her parents used to tell her if they ever got deported, she would be responsible for her younger brothers. “I had to grow up fast,” she says. Now she works as a human resources assistant at a Texas college, reviewing documents to verify employees’ citizenship. She cast her vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. When Trump won, she called her father to talk about how scared she was. 

As discussions overtake Congress on how to approach immigration reform, Ricardo and Marsie’s parents sometimes discuss the fear of being forced to return to their home country. But their mission, in a sense, is complete. Their children are grown. They no longer have to worry about them. 

When Trump announced he would eliminate the DACA program, Marsie saw the toll it took on her brother. As he moved back in with his parents, he felt like he had failed them.

“I know how hard that was for him,” she says. “I was heartbroken.” 


Ricardo Rios answered his apartment door in Lakewood in January 2018 wearing a collared, blue-and-white-checkered shirt tucked into his jeans. As he explained his stint of unemployment, an industrious kitten—four months old, white feet that look like boots—pounced on the couch, latching its claws playfully onto anything that moved. “Come on, kitty,” Rios said. The feline nearly disappeared in his big hands as he carried it away into a separate room. 

DSHS hired Rios back in September as a food supervisor, the promotion he wanted, when his work permit arrived. But he still dreams of owning his own restaurant. He’s always been goal oriented. Always had a five-year plan. With his immigration challenges, though, some of that hope has drained, and he’s constantly on edge: The apartment he shares with Chapman in Lakewood sits just 10 miles south of the detention center that has loomed over his life like a threat.

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Rios and his fiancee, Hannah Chapman, shop for dinner, which Rios later cooked for the family at his parents’ Lakewood home.

Image: Mike Kane

Four years ago Rios proposed to Chapman along the Ruston Way waterfront on one knee in the rain. But they continued to postpone plans for their wedding, even though if they were married Rios would have an easy path to citizenship.

His friends have often asked why he wouldn’t just get married sooner to avoid deportation. In part, Rios says, he hesitated because he wanted to resolve his own immigration status. Chapman struggles with an anxiety disorder, and Rios dreaded the thought that their relationship would get “picked apart” by immigration officials. “I never wanted it to come down to that,” Rios says. “In my heart, I know I’m American.” 

“It’s really hard on me to see him go through it,” Chapman says, adding that her anxiety problems have been worse since last year. And although Trump rescinding DACA has left them antsy, Rios and Chapman plan to go to Las Vegas to celebrate her birthday in March 2018. And maybe there, they’ll elope. Under Trump’s direction the federal government set a March 5 deadline for the DACA program to expire if lawmakers don’t come up with a compromise. “I want to get married sooner,” Chapman says. “If that’s possible.”


As Dreamers and advocates gathered outside the Northwest Detention Center on January 19, chanting in both English and Spanish on the eve of the government shutdown, some spoke of being disheartened that more didn’t show up to the rally to support them. Sarahi Perez, another Dreamer, quoted Martin Luther King Jr. as she spoke to the crowd.

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends,” said Perez, a 21-year-old Dreamer who didn’t know she was undocumented until she was in the eighth grade. “We will remember who was by our side.” 

Rios grabbed the megaphone. He confessed to the crowd that he was scared to be there right now. It’s the closest he’d ever been to the detention center. Inside, inmates—some whose only crime had been entering the country without a visa—lived in white-walled cells, unsure of when authorities would let them go or deport them. But Rios had faith that this was as close as they would come to the facility.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he told the crowd. “None of us are going to see the inside of this place.” 

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