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Home / Articles / News / Features /  American DREAMers
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Photo by Helen Maringer

American DREAMers

As immigration reform moves to the forefront, DREAMers say much work remains to be done

August 21, 2013, 12:00 am

Like other young adults trying to make ends meet, LuzHilda Campos works two jobs, pays taxes, and tries to have a little fun on her days off.

This June, the Mexican-born waitress boarded a plane at Albuquerque’s International Sunport and flew to Washington, DC. The trip wasn’t a vacation. Instead, 21 years after migrating to the United States, Campos jetted more than 1,800 miles to finally be sworn in as a naturalized citizen.

In the shadows of Congress, Campos, 24, and her friend Karla Romero, 22, raised their right hands and read their oaths. Proudly waving American flags, the women pledged to live out the highest values of the land: freedom, equality and justice.

“I am the hopes and dreams of my ancestors. I am the future of this nation. I am the American dream,” the women swore.

Unfortunately, the ceremony and oath weren’t real. The mock event was staged by 500 young activists, including Campos and Romero, who are both members of New Mexico DREAMers in Action—an affiliate of the youth-led immigrant organization United We Dream.

NMDIA students advocate for fair treatment of undocumented immigrants. And for the past few years, they’ve been pushing lawmakers to reform immigration laws. In 2005, they got close with the DREAM Act—a measure that would have given permanent residency status to some undocumented high-school graduates—but it was ultimately defeated by a few votes in the US Senate. Then, in June 2012, President Barack Obama signed an executive order deferring deportation actions against people who crossed the border as children. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was a huge victory for the group.

New Mexico Dreamers in Action activists LuzHilda Campos, left, and Karla Romero, right, flew across the country for a mock citizenship ceremony in Washington, DC.
Jassiel Perez © United We Dream

 

The order allows migrants aged 15-30 who have lived in the country continuously for the past five years to apply for both work permits and Social Security numbers once they pass a background check. It brought relief for many students, but not for Campos. She doesn’t qualify for the program.

“I’m still being criminalized for meeting my family needs,” Campos says, referring to the time she returned to Mexico to help her niece during a medical emergency.

Without protection from DACA, Campos faces the threat of deportation anytime she’s detained. But she’s not giving up hope.

Campos, whose family entered the country legally but overstayed their visas, has been watching politicians debate reform proposals all year. So far, she says, she isn’t pleased.

Campos says a Senate bill, which passed on a 60-39 vote at the end of June, doesn’t “go far enough.” She wants Congress to provide a roadmap to citizenship not only for her and other DREAMers, but also for her parents.

The stakes are high for activists like Campos. DREAMers have watched a record number of family members be removed from the country under the Obama administration. And between July 1, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2012, nearly a quarter of all deportations involved parents with US citizen children. That’s created a huge backlog in immigration courts. At the end of July 2013, it reached a new high: 342,189 pending cases, up from 325,044 at the end of ficsal year 2012.

“They say they support us,” Campos says of New Mexico’s congressional delegation. “But I don’t think they know what we really need in our communities. The senseless deportations and detention abuses have to end.”

For other students, like NMDIA’s statewide coordinator Italia Aranda, DACA “is bittersweet.”

“I could come home and my parents might not be there,” she says, insisting her parents are the “original DREAMers.”

Aranda, 23, spent her early childhood in Mexico City. As a schoolgirl, she often had to complete her homework by candlelight. Her family seemed stuck in the dark grasp of poverty—unsustainable wages, no real job prospects, and often no electricity. Life in the world’s seventh most populous city was a constant struggle.

Aranda’s parents wanted to escape. They wanted to build a better life for themselves and their children. Aranda claims her mother and father looked for ways to enter the United States legally but learned it was nearly impossible. Getting to the front of the official immigration line, they’d heard, could take two decades.

An invisible line in the desert, work visas and valid Social Security numbers were the only things standing in the way of a new life for the Aranda clan.

With immigration stalled, the family opted to cross the border without documentation.

“We jumped the fence,” she admits.

Her parents worried about being caught, arrested and held inside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center.

“It was risky,” Aranda says.

Her father and mother knew they could run out of water or even die in the desert. They worried about being separated from Aranda (then 12 years old) and her younger brother Eddie if something went wrong.

Nothing happened, and the family safely made its way to Phoenix, but lived with the daily threat of detention and deportation.

As a teenager, Aranda knew she was undocumented, but didn’t realize how her status might impact her life for another 18 months. Eventually, reality set in when she began to understand the language and what local television news anchors were reporting about “illegal immigrants.”

Not having a nine-number Social Security card would prevent her from applying for college scholarships, professional jobs and even a driver’s license.

“It didn’t seem right to me,” Aranda says.

With so many uncertainties in her life, Aranda decided to prove herself and set off to excel in her new country.

“I knew I had a lot to contribute,” she says.

A top student at Alhambra High School in Phoenix, Aranda graduated fifth in the Lions’ Class of 2008. Despite the honors and dreams of becoming a doctor, Arizona State University’s $20,000-a-year tuition was out of reach.

“That’s unimaginable,” Aranda says, recalling how depressed she felt at the time.

Financial aid and scholarships were also out of the question. Two years before Aranda earned her high-school diploma, Arizona voters had approved Proposition 300, which requires university students who are not US citizens, or who do not have lawful immigration status, to pay out-of-state tuition rates. They’re also ineligible for any financial aid funded or subsidized by state monies.

But higher education, it appears, was Aranda’s destiny. Chicanos por la Causa, Inc., a nonprofit group that provides assistance to disadvantaged individuals in the barrios of south-central Phoenix, offered her and 99 other immigrant students the money they needed to pay tuition. The dark-haired scholar had earned a full ride after all.

After enrolling at ASU, she quickly buckled down and began to study. But around the same time she was entering pre-med, state lawmakers began debating Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s stringent immigration law. When it passed, Aranda’s family decided to migrate once again: They headed to New Mexico.

“My family just couldn’t live in fear anymore,” Aranda says.

Even with no connections in Albuquerque, she says people in New Mexico “were more welcoming.”

“We didn’t feel persecuted here,” Aranda says.

She quickly took advantage of a state law that allowed her to get a driver’s license regardless of her immigration status.

“For the first time in eight years, I had a government document with my real identity on it. I wasn’t in the shadows anymore,” Aranda says with a grin.

Her smile quickly fades when she talks about trying to transfer to the University of New Mexico. Her scholarship funding had dried up and Aranda didn’t qualify for a New Mexico Legislative Lottery Scholarship because she hadn’t attended high school here.

Determined to become a physician, Aranda decided to take a biology class at Central New Mexico Community College. When a registration clerk asked for her Social Security number, she admitted she didn’t have one.

“Oh, so you’re illegal,” Aranda remembers the clerk saying, loudly enough for everyone in line to hear.

“I couldn’t look around. I was so mad,” she says.

Her struggles continue even today.

Just last week, with DACA paperwork in hand, Aranda went to a Social Security Administration office in Rio Rancho to apply for her Social Security card. Before entering the federal building, she took a minute to talk to SFR about how excited she was.

Yet Aranda returned to the parking lot empty-handed. Her DACA information wasn’t showing up in the computer system. A clerk in the office told her to return and try again in 10 days.





Aranda’s brother Eddie is also facing obstacles. After saving up $465 to apply for DACA, his paperwork was lost in the mail. Federal employees canceled his work permit and told him he’d have to resubmit his application and pay another $465.

It was after her humiliating experience at CNM three years ago that Aranda decided she’d had enough. She vowed to fight for new immigration laws and joined Campos and Romero at NM Dreamers in Action.


NMDIA’s activists believe they have the power to influence Washington policymakers. Still, they’re upset that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ky., didn’t bring the most recent reform bill to a vote before Congress adjourned for summer recess. At the ceremony in June, United We Dream’s director of advocacy and policy, Lorella Praeli, suggested that Boehner and other Republicans take a good look at the faces in the mock ceremony crowd.

“You can bring your party to the evolving America, or you can relegate your party to the past,” Praeli said. She reminded the crowd that during last year’s election, Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote. “This is the face of America, and this is our home,” she continued. “Our community will not stand for piecemeal or comprehensive legislation that falls short of citizenship for our 11 million brothers and sisters.”

According to US Census Bureau projections, by 2030 the Hispanic share of the country’s population will nearly double, from 13 percent to 23 percent, while the non-Hispanic whites’ share of the total population is likely to drop by 16 points, to 53 percent. As the Latino population grows, it will also continue to gain political influence—and New Mexico may provide an advance look at future elections.

“We’re well beyond the ‘we’re happy to be here’ stage, well beyond ‘Sí se puede,’” State Auditor Hector Balderas told the New York Times before last year’s presidential election.

Gabriel Sanchez, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico and director of research for Latino Decisions, agrees the Latino vote is gaining clout.

“The trajectory is that places outside of New Mexico will start looking more and more like New Mexico—not just because of the number of third- and fourth-generation families or English-language preference, but because of the inevitable political power that, even if slowly, Hispanics are bound to acquire,” Sanchez told the Times. “Hispanics, who are 47 percent of the state’s population, make up nearly 40 percent of its electorate, the highest rate in the country.”

NMDIA members insist, however, that it’s not just about acquiring political power. They also point to their economic influence.

According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, for instance, the US economy would grow by $1 trillion if immigration reforms pass.

On the flip side, state-by-state data released by the Immigration Policy Center shows that removing the 5.6 percent of New Mexico’s workforce that is unauthorized would eliminate more than 12,000 jobs and cost the local economy as much as $1.8 billion a year.

“There’s a lot of hypocrisy in New Mexico,” Campos says. A waitress, she enjoys serving tourists and believes many of them visit New Mexico because of the state’s cultural diversity.

“They want to eat our food, listen to our music and buy artisan crafts. What would happen to the economy if we were all deported—bused across the border?” she asks.

State-by-state data released by the Immigration Policy Center shows the impact of immigrants in New Mexico.
Courtesy Immigration Policy Center

Udell Calzadillas Chavez, 18, a political science student at UNM and an activist with NMDIA, is learning just how much political and economic clout he really has. His journey mirrors those of both Aranda and Campos.

By the time Chavez entered third grade, he says, he was used to crossing the US-Mexico border with fake documents.

“For me, it was like a running game,” he says.

But the games got more intense—and a little scarier—as he got older. One Christmas, when he was in fourth grade, Chavez remembers decorating a tree at his grandparents’ ranch home in Chihuahua and looking forward to a visit from Santa Claus. The joy of the season, he says, was dashed when his father hinted they might not be there to open presents. A few days later, the family traveled to Palomas, Mexico, to make their final run across the border near Columbus, New Mexico.

“My parents had paid a coyote a lot of money,” Chavez says of the man who smuggled them across the border.

Seated inside a work van, quietly eating cookies, Chavez watched as his mother and father joined a group of chile pickers working in a field. Hours later, and safely past the border, the family made their way to a safe house in Deming, where they waited for Chavez’ six-month-old sister to be carried across the border in El Paso—also with fake documents.

“My mother was pacing,” Chavez recalls. “She was worried my sister wouldn’t make it across.”

When she did, the family headed to Albuquerque; they eventually resettled in Santa Fe. By the time Chavez finished high school, he was tired of running, tired of living in fear of deportation, and tired of worrying about his future “living in the shadows.”

After graduating from The MASTERS Program, an early college charter high school at Santa Fe Community College, Chavez says he considered returning to Mexico to rebuild his life.

During most of high school, thoughts of a professional future had haunted him.

“I wanted to be able to work in my chosen profession after college,” Chavez says.

He knew a career in the US was impossible because he didn’t have a Social Security number. A work visa was out of the question since he’d been smuggled across the border.

He considered enrolling at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Mexico. With a high grade point average, the bright young man had planned to apply to Stanford, a few Ivy League schools like Harvard, and the World College near Las Vegas, NM. He discovered those prestigious schools would require him to have a Social Security number. At least he’d qualified for the lottery scholarship.

Chavez, whose own English has hints of the same thick British accent spoken by his original language teacher (a man who’d moved to Mexico from Leeds in West Yorkshire), was tired of being considered a criminal. He simply wanted to become an engineer.

The institute in Mexico, he thought, was his best option. He’d talked to the school’s recruiters and “argued with my parents about going back to Mexico to study.”

Chavez says his mother and father were upset about his plans to return to his home country. They’d brought their children to New Mexico in hopes of building a better future for their family here. But, Chavez was intent on returning to Mexico.

“I had a bus ticket, my bags were packed, and I was ready to go to Monterrey,” Chavez says.

Then, just two days before he planned to board the bus, Chavez’ dreams abruptly changed.

DACA altered Chavez’ course—perhaps forever. The executive order meant Chavez could get a job in his field after earning a diploma. He decided to give the US another shot.

No longer pursuing engineering, Chavez switched to political science. He’s using his interest in policy and human rights to advocate for changes in the country’s immigration laws, but he’s uncertain about what will happen when his DACA papers expire in two years.

In those 24 months, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson hopes Washington will approve a law that “turns the nation’s immigration problem into a national benefit.”

The Republican-turned-Libertarian has always sympathized with many of the DREAMers’ goals. During his two terms as a border governor, Johnson did more than speak up for immigrants. If they were detained, and faced deportation, Johnson tells SFR, he granted them pardons “as long as they were not charged with violent crimes or arrested for drunk driving.”

Politicians, Johnson says, have been using illegal immigrants as a scare tactic to get votes for decades.

“Elect me and I’ll save you from the boogeyman,” Johnson says during a phone interview from his home in Taos. “The fear that illegal immigrants are the bane of our existence is as far from the truth as it can be.”

He thinks the country should recognize the benefits of immigration, and suggests stalled immigration lines can be jumpstarted simply by issuing more work visas.

“Then we’ll know who’s in the country,” Johnson says.

He also wants migrants to be issued Social Security numbers after they pass a background check.

“We don’t want criminals coming into the country,” Johnson says. He argues against building expensive fences along the border and wonders why—if the goal is to keep terrorists out—the same walls aren’t being built along the Canadian border.

“It’s crazy,” he says. “If Congress spends billions of dollars to build a 24-foot fence, they’ll just use 26-foot ladders. If Washington decides to spend trillions building a fence a quarter mile into the sky, they’ll just dig deeper tunnels.”

He doesn’t see any discernible benefit in Republicans’ rhetoric on border security, adding, “The Democrats are only giving reform lip service.”

Johnson, who has an ownership interest in a hotel located in Phoenix, watched his own investment income decline when tourists and business groups began boycotting travel to the state following the passage of SB 1070.

On another point impacting immigrants, Johnson says he doesn’t understand why Gov. Susana Martinez wants to repeal a state statute that allows them to get a driver’s license.

Neither do NMDIA’s activists.

In a show of solidarity, nearly 100 students from Española, Las Vegas, Santa Fe and Albuquerque crammed into the governor’s lobby during the first week of the 2012 legislative session. The NMDIA members hoped to convince Martinez not to try to take driver’s licenses away from them.

“How am I going to get to school without the fear of getting pulled over?” one student asked the governor’s receptionist, Anna Serrano.

For other students, a driver’s license not only means being able to get to class, but it’s also a way for their parents to get to work.

Martinez did not come out to greet the students that day, but this year, she agreed to a compromise proposal that would have permitted DREAMers, covered by DACA, to get a license. The bill was later tabled.

Italia Aranda has spent years advocating for immigration reform. Now, a new executive order allows DREAMers like her to be issued a Social Security number after obtaining a work permit.
Peter St. Cyr

As summer winds to a close, NMDIA’s activists are left to wonder what Republicans in the House of Representatives might do when they return from their August recess.

Chavez says he thinks many Republicans understand the power of the Latino vote (many mixed-family members already have become citizens) and want to be strategic, “but members of the Tea Party are pushing them to the right.” He says elected officials, like Rep. Steven King, R-Iowa, “are committing political suicide” when they attack DREAMers and accuse even valedictorians of being drug smugglers.

US Rep. Steve Pearce, the only Republican in New Mexico’s congressional delegation, agrees. King’s recent remarks about students’ calves being the size of cantaloupes “because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” Pearce says, were “divisive” and “unproductive.”

In May, Pearce wrote a letter to Comunidades en Acción y de Fé (CAFé), a multi-faith-based community group in Las Cruces, detailing the importance of real immigration reform and insisting a new system must “ensure immigrants are treated justly and fairly.” Still, Pearce wants border security to be lawmakers’ first priority. “If we are to be successful in our reforms and encourage legal entry, we must create a system that provides applicants with quick responses, honest answers and just treatment,” Pearce writes. “No one should be forced to wait years in a confusing and complex system.”

Like Johnson, Pearce wants a guest worker program that is market-driven, “so potential immigrants of any skill level may quickly apply, free of the arbitrary regulations and caps on guest work visas that we have today.”

It’s unclear what will happen when Congress returns next month. During a rare presidential news conference in August, Obama told reporters, “Let’s get this done.”

But NMDIA activists want to make sure it’s done right—and current proposals, Campos says, are “not what we want.” Aranda, too, says she’d like to see the reforms be more humane and consider immigrants like her mother, a low-paid dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque.

“She comes home with swollen hands every night. She says they don’t hurt, but I can see it in her face that it does,” Aranda says. NMDIA members say they’re not asking for amnesty, but promise to keep fighting for reforms until lawmakers deliver a roadmap to citizenship. With conviction, Campos says, “We are Americans, and we are ready for citizenship.” SFR

Email the author: peter@sfreporter.com

 

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