I wrote this article about immigration reform and the young people it will affect. It ran in the Grand Island Independent today.
By Jacy Marmaduke
He remembers two black cars pulling up alongside a dusty playground in Chihuahua, Mexico. Two faceless drivers exchanging unheard words. A round of gunshots ripping a trail through the afternoon like Roman candles.
All the children froze. Twelve-year-old Juan Gallegos leapt from the rusted swing set and ran to the haven of the school, ducking beneath the window of a crowded classroom, breathing hard. Recess ended early that day.
It was 2001. The Mexican corn economy had collapsed, leaving Juan’s father with no buyers for his deli meats and cheeses — now deemed luxury products. There was no money for food, and drug violence rose like a murmur in a quiet room.
So the Gallegos family — Juan, his parents and two brothers — deserted the three-room house where Juan had learned to walk, making the 24-hour drive to America in a borrowed blue pickup. Although the family’s visitor visa expired within six months, they would never return to Mexico.
“When you have to feed a child, you’re going to do whatever it takes,” Juan said. “And crossing a border is a lot less than joining a drug cartel.”
The Gallegos family came to Hastings to lead a new life undocumented. For Juan’s parents, that meant working below minimum wage to strip fat from pig carcasses on an assembly line and repair machinery at the meatpacking plant, scraping to meet each month’s rent without federal aid. It meant relentless fear of deportation. It meant life in the shadows.
But that all could change for Juan and his brothers — at least temporarily.
President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy now offers young people such as Juan a chance to attain a two-year reprieve from deportation, a work permit and maybe even a driver’s license. However, the policy doesn’t offer Juan what he craves most: a path to citizenship.
“This is a critical step, and it’s going to make a huge difference in the short term for these young people. But at the end of the day, it’s not a long-term solution for them,” said Becky Gould, executive director of Nebraska Appleseed, a nonprofit law firm that works for justice and equal opportunity in the state.
A long-term solution, Gould said, would mean a complete turnaround in the immigration system. She said the system doesn’t recognize an increased need for workers in a country where meatpacking plants, textile factories and construction projects have increased tenfold in the past several decades.
For many prospective immigrants, there’s simply no line to stand in for legal citizenship.
“There’s a big hole in the middle of the system where, if you don’t qualify for a high-skilled business visa and you don’t already have family here with immigration status, there’s essentially no way for you to apply,” said Darcy Tromanhauser, Nebraska Appleseed’s program director for immigrant integration and civic participation.
The problem is, nobody seems to know about that hole.
“The (public) reaction usually is, ‘That’s crazy!’” Tromanhauser said. “’Why aren’t we doing anything about it?’”
Policy parallels DREAM Act
Obama introduced the deferred action policy in June, but the policy draws parallels with the DREAM Act, a bundle of proposed legislation that’s made congressional rounds every year since 2001 — and failed each time.
Versions of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act reflect a range of subtle differences, but the concept is the same for all: Certain young undocumented immigrants would have six years to obtain a college degree and become American citizens.
But for some, that proposal is more nightmare than dream.
“It completely undermines the role of law,” said Kristen Williamson, spokeswoman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a nonprofit that seeks to end illegal immigration and establish tighter quotas for legal immigration. “It sends the message that, as long as you get over the border and don’t commit any violent crimes, you’ll be granted amnesty and allowed to stay in the country.”
U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns voted against the DREAM Act twice in the 111th Congress, and he has publicly decried Obama’s executive directive as “blatantly ignoring the Constitution and the will of the Congress.” Gov. Dave Heineman said the state will continue to deny driver’s licenses to successful applicants because they are not “legal citizens.”
A learning, a dreamer
Cruising down Hastings Avenue in a yellow Ford Cougar his father restored, 23-year-old Juan Gallegos smiles when he notes the red brick building where he learned English.
He has always liked school. He walked from his first home, a studio apartment where he slept on a pull-out couch with his two brothers, to Hastings Middle School every morning and was always 30 minutes early.
In 2011, Juan graduated from the University of Nebraska Kearney with a multimedia degree — the first in his family to graduate from college. He wants to use the degree to manage his web and graphic design business, Conexion Bilingual Marketing & Printing. He also wants to work with social justice organizations and create an Internet presence for small businesses in Central Nebraska.
With money from his business, he could buy a house and support his parents, who still work at the meatpacking plant, and his brothers, who work on irrigation projects in the fields while saving up for college. But without citizenship, Juan can’t get a loan to fund his dream.
So, in the meantime, he works at odd jobs. He helps community members with web design in exchange for a cup of coffee or a Runza. He just finished an internship in Colorado with two gay and immigrant rights groups. He campaigns for immigration reform and attends conferences around the country with organizations such as United We Dream, a network of youth-led immigrant groups.
And in 2010, when the DREAM Act finally passed for the first time in the House of Representatives, no one was watching closer than Juan. He shouted, “Si, se puede,” (meaning “Yes, it is possible” or “Yes, we can”) in the streets of Grand Island with hundreds of other “Dreamers” marching for immigration reform. He watched the wind of public support fill the sails of a movement.
And then he watched as the DREAM Act failed in the Senate — by five votes.
Sitting in the familiar Blue Moon coffee shop in Hastings, Juan didn’t fight the tears.
“We’ve been living here for years and years, and you finally see a little window, and that window is closed by (five) votes.”
To cope, he started drinking — every weekend. At 21, he netted a misdemeanor for supplying alcohol to minors — a group of his drinking buddies.
“It was a low point in my life,” he said. “I know that’s not the person I am. I’m not a drunk.”
When the deferred action policy passed this year, the window that had closed in 2010 seemed to open again — if only by a crack.
“It wasn’t what we were looking for, but it was something,” Juan said. “It was hope.”
Public support needed
As the cycle of immigration influx and native backlash ebbs and flows, Nebraska Appleseed’s Gould said America has a lesson to learn: Change isn’t bad.
“This is the lesson we keep not learning,” she said. “Now is a moment for us to step forward as a country and say, ‘We’re not going to do this anymore.’”
The question for immigration reform isn’t how but when, Gould said. Lawmakers already have laid out most of the framework for reform, but Gould and Tromanhauser said both parties will have to work in unison to pass further legislation.
Eventually, public support could be the push the reform movement needs. A Bloomberg National Poll conducted in June showed 64 percent approval of the deferred action policy.
Jose Soto, vice president for Access, Equity and Diversity at Southeast Community College, said the public needs to hear the stories of undocumented immigrants who aspire to achieve legal status. As a Puerto Rican who came to Arkansas in the 1950s, when water fountains were still segregated by skin color, Soto said he identifies with the struggle of emerging from society’s margins.
“These are young people who are valedictorians and honor students and volunteers in hospitals and schools,” said Soto, who has a law degree. “They’re doing great things. We need to tell those stories.”
Waiting and hoping
And what about Juan’s story?
Soon, he will apply for deferred action. If he’s accepted, he can obtain a work permit to raise seed money for his business.
But he also has a traffic cone in the way of his future: a criminal record. The misdemeanor from two years ago wasn’t a violent crime, but it’s a smudge on his record all the same.
As for how that smudge affects his status, Juan will have to wait and see, just like thousands of other undocumented immigrants.
Meanwhile, he thinks of the youth immigration conference he attended at 21 that turned his life around, of meeting dozens of people with stories like his own. He thinks of the time he rallied in front of the White House, standing beside undocumented immigrants chained to each other in their caps and gowns. He thinks of the mobs of protestors dressed in white, gushing through the streets of Los Angeles, Denver, Grand Island, like water through a pipe. And he has hope.
“That’s maybe why we’re dreamers,” Juan said. “Because we’re willing to do a lot, even if it seems impossible. We’re going to look for ways to demonstrate that it’s not.”
About Deferred Action
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program offers undocumented immigrants — 30 or younger with a clean background and high school diploma who came here before they were 16 — a two-year reprieve from deportation and a work permit.
For some, it could mean the ability to attain a driver’s license. But the policy provides no path to citizenship.
President Barack Obama announced an executive directive to de-emphasize deportation of young undocumented immigrants in June, and the Homeland Security Department began accepting applications for the deferred action policy on Aug. 15.
As of mid-October, about 180,000 people had applied for the deferred action program, and about 4,600 had been approved, according to an Oct. 12 Washington Post article. No applications have been rejected, but the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will take about two months to reject an application.
The policy could apply to as many as 1.7 million people, according to Pew Hispanic Center research.