“My initial reaction was pain,” Gisele Fetterman said, referring to the Trump administration’s announced wind-down of DACA a day earlier.
“It feels like an onslaught.”
Nearly 30 years ago, then Gisele Almeida was herself an undocumented child living in the U.S.
In 1990, a 9-year-old Gisele and her brother were ushered north from Brazil by their mother. The family sought refuge from what was then — and what continues to be — one of the highest violent crime rates in the world. Their mother also sought opportunity. But all three were undocumented when they arrived in New York City, and they remained so, living there under-the-radar and largely in the shadows.
An undated photo of Gisele Fetterman, then Gisele Almeida, taken in Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.Courtesy Gisele Fetterman
“We were undocumented for over a decade,” she told The Incline on Wednesday, “and while I was never under the DACA program, I would have been had it been several years later.”
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which offers amnesty to undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children — was created in 2012 through an executive action by former President Barack Obama. It is now the latest remnant of the Obama-era to be targeted for removal by the Trump administration.
“I have many friends who are DACA, and their future is uncertain,” Gisele added. “I remember being in that place for a long time: the uncertainty and the fear that anything we did, we could be deported at any time. That fear was there for a long time.”
Gisele described a sense of unease — to put it lightly — now gripping immigrant communities in cities like Pittsburgh nationwide.
“I’m board president of the Latino Community Center in Pittsburgh, which ensures Latinos in Allegheny County have a chance to thrive, and there’s a lot of families we serve who are concerned, even if they’re not under DACA directly. It is a fear that they are next, that DACA is now, but what’s next? It’s been a constant targeting of immigrants [under this administration].”
Gisele’s husband, John Fetterman, told The Incline on Wednesday: “It’s cruel, it’s un-American and it hits way too close to home.” John, the current mayor of Braddock, is a former Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.
Gisele Fetterman, then Gisele Almeida, is pictured, at right, with family in an undated photo.Courtesy Gisele Fetterman
“I’ll never understand why anybody would say, ‘I’m going to punish a child — who may have been 3 years old when they came to this country — 25 years in the future for something their parents did.’ And what their parents did was come to this country to try to find a better life for themselves and their children. … I think to punish them is not in the national interest, and I think it’s needlessly cruel and pandering to the most negative and embittered elements of the Republican base,” he said.
John and Gisele are joined in their criticism by Democratic lawmakers, a handful of Republicans and religious leaders, too.
On the other side, supporters of the wind-down argue that the DACA program encourages illegal immigration and needs to be reformed. (Trump has given Congress six months to come up with such a plan or replacement measure.) For some, the immigration issue remains tied to a belief that American jobs are being lost to those who enter the country illegally.
Meanwhile, research says an end to the DACA program — which currently shields about 800,000 young immigrants from deportation (almost 6,000 of whom are in Pennsylvania) — could instead harm the U.S. economy, reducing gross domestic product by $433 billion over the next 10 years.
Gisele, who became a legal resident in 2000 before officially becoming a citizen, said the economic contributions of immigrants, even those here illegally, are undeniable. She said the same for their love of country.
“I joke about this story, but it’s true. My dream was to get called for jury duty. And when it happened, that was the day I realized I was accepted and a part of this for real. I was the only person happy to be there. So our appreciation is much more profound because this is the country we chose. We weren’t just lucky enough to be here. We knew what it took to get here, and my life has been dedicated to showing that I’m grateful to be here.”
She added: “My mom [Ester], who in Brazil had a really important job and a good education, who ran hospitals in Brazil — I saw her move to this country and become a housekeeper. She cleaned hotels and worked as a coat-check girl in bars and clubs, listening to English lessons as she worked. And I saw what she was willing to go through and willing to sacrifice. So there was never a day that I didn’t know to be grateful that I got to be in this country.”
As for Gisele, she learned English from listening to Mister Rogers. She also performed well in school and after going to college, took a job as a nutritionist with a New Jersey non-profit. During that time she came across a 2007 article in ReadyMade magazine about Braddock and its atypical mayor that intrigued her. She made the trip to talk nutrition, food insecurity and public health initiatives and met John. The two eventually eloped to Burlington, Vt., and they now have three children together, ages 3, 6 and 8.
In the years since her arrival, Gisele’s work in Braddock has earned her a series of glowing written profiles and accolades. This work includes the formation of Braddock’s Free Store and the 412 Food Rescue program.
She has also been joined in Braddock by her mother, who will be taking her citizenship test soon. They remain in regular contact with family back in Brazil, some of whom are concerned about the news coming out of the U.S.
“My grandma is in her 90s, and she reads the news, and so I get a lot of frantic calls from her. She called yesterday when she read about DACA,” Gisele said.
She added of her own experience: “I’m proud of my mother’s decision and the courage it took. My mom spoke no English when we arrived, none of us did. … She didn’t know anyone in this country, did not have a place to live. She took a chance because she believed in America so much.”
Gisele said despite everything, they continue to believe.