WASHINGTON ― Last summer, a little girl with black hair and dimples came to live with Lisben and Alex Aguirre in their gray three-story home in northeast D.C. The Aguirres are foster parents — great ones, according to Maraldy Gutierrez, a social worker who places children with them — and the little girl called them mommy and daddy from the moment she met them. The Aguirres want to have biological children, too, and although Lisben has suffered a series of miscarriages, she recently had two surgeries she hopes will eventually allow her to carry a pregnancy to term.
It should have been a good year. But the Aguirres are scared it will all fall apart.
The married couple are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allows nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to temporarily stay and work without imminent fear of deportation.
President Donald Trump rescinded DACA in September and told Congress to pass legislation to help recipients by March 5 ― a deadline that is about to go by without action. If Trump and lawmakers fail to reach an agreement, all of the so-called Dreamers could eventually lose their status. The Aguirres would be unable to work legally and could find themselves at risk of deportation, leaving behind the children they want to give a home.
But for now, the Aguirres are trying to live normally. On weekdays, Lisben drives the little girl and a 17-year-old girl in their care to school near her job in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, where she cares for children for two families. The boy who lives with them, who just turned 18, goes to school at night. By the time Lisben leaves, Alex is long gone: He gets up at 4:30 a.m. so he can take a bus around 5 and make it to the breakfast and lunch shift at a Capitol Hill restaurant where he works as a waiter. He sometimes sees lawmakers there, and a few times has told them he’s a Dreamer and gotten hugs or promises to fight for him in return.
So far, Congress hasn’t acted. All the Aguirres — and the social workers and children who depend on them — can do for now is pray, and keep on doing the best they can.
“They are one of our most committed foster homes,” Gutierrez said. “I can’t think of a time that we have called them and they have said no.”
The Aguirres were both born in Guatemala and came to the U.S. when they were 15 years old, but they didn’t meet until years later. Alex came here to work, hoping to send money back for his family. Lisben’s parents sent her to the U.S. after she ran away with her then-boyfriend, whom she later married. Lisben is now 35 and Alex is 36.
The next years weren’t easy. Lisben’s first husband left her because they had trouble getting pregnant. Her next boyfriend hit her. He threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement if she left him or told anyone about the abuse. One day, he hit her in the stomach so badly she had to see a doctor. She found out that she had been pregnant, but the blow caused her to suffer a miscarriage. The surgery to remove the fetus left her with scar tissue. She has had five miscarriages since.
When Lisben met Alex at a karaoke bar around 2002, she wasn’t ready for a relationship. They didn’t start dating until more than a decade later, after running into each other at an immigration rally. Alex sent Lisben a Facebook message asking her to meet up one evening. She had just poured a glass of wine and was planning on a relaxing evening in, but decided to go out anyway. They wound up at karaoke again. They started hanging out more often, and by the fall of 2015, their friendship developed into a relationship.
They got serious quickly. As their relationship progressed, Lisben decided to tell Alex she wasn’t sure she could have a baby. He reassured her he didn’t see her as any less of a woman and that if she couldn’t get pregnant, they’d build their family another way. Within two months, Alex and Lisben were engaged. They were married the following summer.
That same year, Lisben was approved for DACA. Her new status meant she would finally be able to apply for positions with her nursing assistant and teaching assistant certifications. Alex received his in two years earlier.
In September 2016, a woman from their church community suggested they become foster parents, arguing they could be enormously helpful to bilingual children in need of a home. Alex and Lisben decided to go for it.
“We’re giving our hearts. We’re trying to make a better place for other people. We’re helping as much as we can.”
They went through months of screenings and trainings to become foster parents — and finally got their license and became foster parents last June.
But before the Aguirres could take in foster kids, they needed a bigger place. They told the foster care agency that they would move, but Gutierrez didn’t expect them to act so quickly. It’s a struggle to find foster parents in D.C. at all in part because high rents make it difficult to find people with enough space to do it.
The Aguirres first looked at two-bedroom apartments when a friend suggested they try to buy a house instead. They were surprised to find one they could afford, and with four bedrooms ― enough to take in three kids at a time. Alex felt he had finally accomplished the American dream. Thanks to years of hard work, he owned his own home. The couple’s framed foster care home license stands displayed on top of a glass bookcase in their new dining room. The lower shelves of the case are dedicated to wedding photos and religious paraphernalia.
“I can say I made it,” he said. “We made it.”
Taking in foster children changed Alex and Lisben. When they first met the little girl who embraced them as mommy and daddy, Alex cried.
“I need them and they need me,” he said. “That fills the space in my heart to be a dad.”
The Aguirres’ next dream is to have a baby or adopt. Lisben found out last month that she will need a third surgery to remove scar tissue from her uterus so she can successfully carry a child. If not, they’d like to look into adoption.
But since Congress hasn’t passed any legislation to help Dreamers like the Aguirres, even though lawmakers in both parties say they want to, those plans are on hold. Multiple proposals, including Trump’s, failed in the Senate last month, and the House hasn’t even voted on bills to firm up DACA recipients’ status. The Trump administration is accepting renewal applications, but only because a court forced it to. Lisben applied to renew her DACA protections after the injunction and is waiting to be approved, while Alex’s permit is set to expire next year. They want a permanent fix.
Now the Aguirres are afraid of having children, since their child would be a U.S. citizen and they would not. They wouldn’t want the baby to have to leave his or her native country should they lose DACA and need to leave.
The failure to pass Dreamer legislation would also complicate their plans to adopt.
“If we want to adopt, how can we adopt if they don’t pass the Dream Act?” Lisben said, referring to a bill that would grant Dreamers legal status. “We’re going to cut our dreams and the dreams of the kids who were born here, so it’s not fair for them and it’s not fair for us.”
The Aguirres have a Plan B for if Congress fails to step in to help them. Neither wants to go back to Guatemala, where there are few job opportunities and they worry they’d be in danger as new arrivals back from the U.S. But maybe they could go to Canada or somewhere in Europe.
For now, the U.S. doesn’t feel safe. Their house doesn’t have a peephole in the front door, and since they applied for DACA and became foster parents, the government is well aware of where they are, should Trump decide to target Dreamers for deportation.
“They know where we live,” Lisben said. “That is one of our nightmares now but that’s not stopping us from what we’re doing. We’re giving our time, we’re giving our money, we’re giving our lives, we’re giving our hearts. We’re trying to make a better place for other people. We’re helping as much as we can.”