Dreaming on

Local students push forward despite fears of being deported under Trump administration

Chico State student Giovanna Vera applied for enrollment in the DACA program so that she could earn enough money to pay for college.

Chico State student Giovanna Vera applied for enrollment in the DACA program so that she could earn enough money to pay for college.

Photo by Gabriel Sandoval

Giovanna Vera was 3 years old when she came illegally to the United States from Mexico. She has only a vague recollection of her parents’ American friends driving her through a crossing at the border.

During much of her childhood, she didn’t know she was an undocumented immigrant because her parents rarely discussed the issue. But not having papeles caught up with Vera while she was attending Pierce High School in Arbuckle—where she maintained a 4.0 GPA while holding leadership roles in the school’s Associated Student Body, Spanish Honors Society and Future Farmers of America chapter. Without a valid Social Security number, she discovered, she couldn’t apply for federal financial aid for college. That meant she’d have to pay out of pocket for higher education. Her family struggled financially, working under-the-table jobs for low wages, but Vera was determined to attend a top-tier university.

“I guess I didn’t want to let anyone down,” she said. “I didn’t know how to explain that the valedictorian of the high school was going to a community college.”

Undeterred, she applied for admission to several prestigious California universities, including Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, where she was accepted and enrolled in 2010. She wanted to study civil engineering there because it consistently ranked as one of the finest engineering universities in the state. To make that happen without government assistance, she secured about $15,000 in private scholarships prior to her freshman year. However, eight months into her studies, she ran out of money.

“I couldn’t even get loans, which was kind of like my backup,” she said.

Vera reluctantly moved back to the North State, where she helped support herself by making and selling tamales. Slowly but surely, she scraped together enough cash to pay for one course at Butte College. Then, something happened that promised to change everything: then-President Obama unveiled a Department of Homeland Security program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, aka DACA. Initiated in June 2012, the program provides individuals who came to the country illegally as children two years of temporary relief from deportation, as well as a permit to work in the United States, but only for those who meet certain requirements, including not being convicted of a felony or posing a threat to national security. Of the estimated 10.9 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, some 1.9 million were eligible for DACA last year and about 750,000 enrolled in the program between 2012-16.

Vera immediately applied for DACA and her application was approved about a year later. By then, Gov. Jerry Brown had signed two groundbreaking assembly bills, AB 130 and AB 131, making undocumented people eligible to apply for institutional scholarships and state-funded financial aid, respectively. Together, those laws and a few others including AB 540, which allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition, formed the California DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act.

But Vera, now 24, and others in her position are worried about the future of DACA under President Trump, who campaigned heavily on matters of immigration. In speeches and at rallies, Trump cast immigrants as criminals, highlighting acts of violence, including murders. Even though numerous academic studies have shown immigrants commit crimes less frequently than native-born citizens, Trump promised to curb illegal immigration, build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and deport millions of immigrants—a promise he’s beginning to make good on. He also vowed to cancel all of Obama’s executive orders, including DACA.

One of Trump’s recently signed executive orders, which streamlines the deportation process and gives Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) leeway in detaining immigrants, has been particularly distressing to undocumented students. At least four DACA recipients have been detained since Trump’s order came out, including one in Washington state who had no criminal record. Another was detained in Texas, reportedly for possession of marijuana. A third was arrested by Border Patrol agents in San Diego on charges of immigrant smuggling. He’s currently in detention in Georgia. In Mississippi, a 22-year-old student was briefly detained after she publicly spoke about her fear of being deported. Her status expired in November, but her renewal application was under review.

Trump’s order says: “We cannot faithfully execute the immigration laws of the United States if we exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement.” Although this portion of the order is vague, it implies that no undocumented immigrants, even DACA recipients, are exempt from the possibility of deportation.

It is unclear whether Trump will cancel DACA, or to what degree he’ll change it, says Andrew Holley, an immigration attorney based in Chico.

“Trump’s been all over the map, and that’s consistent with his inconsistency,” Holley said during a recent interview with CN&R.

Holley, who came to Chico from San Francisco to establish his own practice in 2014, says Trump has several options when it comes to DACA, including shutting out first-time applicants. The president could allow people to maintain their work permits but not allow them to renew them, he explained. He could also cancel the program completely and authorize authorities to send recipients a letter instructing them to go to immigration court for removal proceedings.

“On the other hand, he could expand DACA,” Holley said. “That’s what Obama was going to do. And he could even just keep DACA [in place].”

The Chico attorney explained that Obama had tried to expand DACA by adjusting the age and time limitations, making older and younger undocumented immigrants eligible for the program. Those currently enrolled must have entered the country prior to June 15, 2007, before reaching age 16. In addition, only those born before June 15, 1982, qualify for the program. Applicants must also pay a fee, have their photos and fingerprints taken, as well as submit extensive paperwork verifying their personal and educational records, among other criteria. When the two-year period ends, recipients must reapply to renew their status.

But Obama’s planned expansion of DACA and the initiation of another executive order, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, aka DAPA—which would have given similar protections to millions of undocumented immigrants with American children as well as children granted lawful permanent residency—was met with legal challenges. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which deadlocked 4-4, so a decision by a lower court to disallow the orders was upheld.

Vera renewed her two-year status just before Trump took office. It expires in 2019, if DACA remains intact. But other recipients have less time until theirs expire, and those who are not yet eligible because of age requirements are now especially vulnerable.

Many conservatives viewed President Obama as weak on enforcing immigration. However, Obama actually deported more undocumanted immigrants than any other U.S. president.

istock photo

On Feb. 20, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly released two memos directing his department on the ways in which it should follow Trump’s immigration orders, including speeding up deportation hearings, expanding the pool of undocumented immigrants prioritized for deportation and training local law enforcement officers to act as immigration enforcers. As of press time, ICE raids had led to the detention of hundreds of undocumented immigrants across the country since late January. While federal authorities have said the sweeps are routine, many Democrats and immigrant advocates have fiercely opposed the efforts targeting low-level offenders and people with no criminal histories.

Vera enrolled full-time at Butte College after getting her DACA status, landed a job there as a student assistant in the Office of Recruitment, Outreach and Orientation, and got involved in student government, ultimately becoming president. These days, she works as a staff member in the community college’s recruitment office, and she has moved on to studies at Chico State, where she expects to earn a degree in civil engineering in May 2018.

Both of the local campuses have relatively small populations of undocumented students, and yet staff from each institution has gone out of the way to support them. Chico State has set up a Web page called Our Democracy, specifically to address concerns of the campus community. It includes a DACA and immigration section for “students, educators and social service providers” with answers to common questions.

On Feb. 22, Chico State President Gayle Hutchinson forwarded an email from the California State University chancellor to all students. It was in response to Secretary Kelly’s memoranda on immigration.

“Unless otherwise required by law, we will not enter into agreements with law enforcement agencies for the purpose of enforcing federal immigration laws,” the message reads. “Our University Police Department will not honor immigration hold requests, nor will it contact, detain, question, or arrest individuals solely on the basis of being—or suspected of being—a person who lacks documentation.”

Drew Calendrella, Chico State’s vice president for student affairs, said university staff members understand the concerns of students who fear the loss of DACA and the threat of deportation as a result of the prevailing rhetoric on immigration.

“They hear stories, you know,” Calendrella said. “‘Immigration showed up someplace and took somebody away.’ ‘Is that my parents?’ ‘Are they looking for me?’ So, there is a kind of paranoia, and understandably so, just because of a person’s status.

“The beauty of it is,” he added, “we [at the university] don’t know what a person’s status is.”

A recent estimate of the university’s undocumented student population is roughly 200 to 300, Calendrella explained, but that number could be low because the campus doesn’t formally track such students. Not all of the them are beneficiaries of DACA or the California DREAM Act, he noted. A cohort of staff informally counts them, but only the ones who voluntarily step forward.

Vera says Butte College has about 200 undocumented students.

She, attorney Holley and Cindy Melendrez-Flores, a program coordinator in Butte’s recruitment office, hosted a workshop at the community college for undocumented students following the election. It aimed to inform the mostly 18- to 20-year-old students about DACA, the California DREAM Act and their rights as residents of the state.

“Every student said their biggest fear was DACA being taken away,” Vera said. “Our biggest hope was that students could really just stay strong” and not drop out of college.

Since then, similar workshops and clinics have been held on both campuses and in the community.

Holley’s participation includes sharing advice.

“Avoid contact with law enforcement, if you can help it,” he said. “Go get a driver’s license, because the No. 1 way that undocumented immigrants come into negative contact with immigration and law enforcement is through driving and not having a driver’s license.”

While California laws for undocumented residents will remain intact regardless of Trump’s actions, the elimination of DACA would mean that students will no longer be able to work legally, making it more difficult for them to pay for tuition and fees.

Before DACA, Vera said, students needed a detailed plan to go to college, which included having a place to stay and a job that paid them under the table so they could meet their living expenses. Not many undocumented people could afford to do that in years past, she continued, but the old way of life might become reality again if DACA gets axed.

Claudia Martinez, 20, is a Chico State student who worked as a farm laborer in her teens. Born in Michoacán, Mexico, she crossed into the United States illegally with her family in 2003, when she was 5.

Chico immigration attorney Andrew Holley has participated in workshops advising undocumented immigrants of their rights.

Photo by Gabriel Sandoval

On the day of Trump’s inauguration, Martinez met with CN&R inside a local coffee shop. She teared up throughout the interview.

“Knowing that that permit is in jeopardy is really sad for me,” she said, “because I know what it’s like to be without it. I don’t want to go back to those old days.”

In 2016, Martinez, who commutes to the university from a small town outside of Chico, won the CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement. The honor is given to one student per year from each of the CSU’s 23 campuses. It came with a $6,000 scholarship and the prestige of being the student of more than 17,000 on campus to win the award.

A first-generation college student, she majors in concrete industry management, a field historically dominated by men, and serves as vice president of Women in Concrete, a student club. She also works as an assistant in the university’s Educational Opportunity Program office.

The journey thus far, Martinez said, has not been easy.

Martinez recalled her 10-day trip to the United States, which began on a bus that departed from her hometown and arrived near the border. Along with her mom, older brother, grandpa, a bag of clothes and water, they commenced a two-day hike through Arizona to reunite with Martinez’s father, who was working as a farm laborer. Her mother had only mentioned the expectation of a better life, but nothing about how difficult the journey might be.

“When we got to the desert,” she said, “that’s when I began asking myself, ‘Why am I here? Why did my mom not tell me this is what we were going to do? Why did she leave this part out?’

“One thing I will never forget is having to walk in the dark, and just feeling the cactus hit my knees and my shins, and I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t cry, I couldn’t make any noise.”

At one point, Martinez’s grandfather had to pick her up and carry her.

Along the way, Border Patrol agents detained them. They stayed the night in a U.S. holding facility and, in the morning, were sent back to Mexico. They stayed the night in a hotel, then trekked through the desert once again the following morning. This time, they ran out of water. So, they drank from a ditch.

“I remember feeling the little grains of sand in my mouth and thinking, my mom would never let me do this in Mexico, why is she letting me do this here? What’s happening?” Martinez said, wiping tears from her eyes.

To be sure, her biggest role models are her parents, who sacrificed so her family could have a better life, she said. “Dropping out and giving up is not an option. I have to make them proud.”

She expects to graduate in May of next year.

Saulo Londono is the chairman of the Butte County Republican Party and a district director for the California State Legislature. In a recent phone interview, he detailed his personal views on illegal immigration and DACA, but said they do not represent the views of his affiliations.

Londono emigrated from Brazil to the States in his teens in the late 1990s. His father had obtained a work visa prior to bringing his family to Colorado. Londono eventually attended a San Diego college and moved around the state. In 2014, he became a naturalized American citizen.

Londono understands the desires of immigrant families, given that his family wanted a better life, too. He nonetheless echoed the sentiment of many Republicans. “We’re a nation of laws,” he said.

But having gone through the system himself, he supports immigration reform. “We not only need to reform our visa system, but we also need to reform our citizenship processes,” he said. “We need to reform just about everything as it relates to the immigration system.”

He also noted the difference between wittingly and unwittingly breaking the law.

Claudia Martinez, who’s studying concrete management at Chico State, was recently presented with one of the California State University system’s top student awards.

Photo by Gabriel Sandoval

“I certainly believe that part of the immigration reform bill should treat those who came here as children, through no fault of their own, a little different than the rest,” he said.

Londono’s opinions contrast those of District 1 Rep. Doug LaMalfa, who, along with some of his Republican colleagues in Congress, has expressed no desire to amend federal immigration laws.

“We don’t need to reform immigration,” LaMalfa said in a video on his YouTube channel in November. “We need to enforce the immigration laws we have.”

LaMalfa did not return CN&R’s request for comment on his views on DACA and illegal immigration.

Under Obama, immigration enforcement was strict. The former president actually set the record for the most deportations of any sitting president. Under his administration, more than 3 million people were sent back to their countries of origin, according to Department of Homeland Security records compiled by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. It should be noted, however, that the majority of those deportations happened at or near the U.S.-Mexico border and, prior to 9/11, some of those would not have been categorized as deportations.

With the growing furor surrounding recent ICE raids, California Democrats have introduced state Senate Bill 54, which, if passed, will turn the Golden State into a “sanctuary state,” meaning local law enforcement will be limited in its ability to assist ICE.

In California, attorney Holley noted, there’s also the Trust Act, which already hinders the ability of local law enforcement to hold undocumented immigrants and hand them over to ICE. But many counties in the North State, he said, take that as optional, meaning they claim the discretion to comply or not comply.

“I know this firsthand, that a lot of them do not comply with that,” he said, “because many of the law enforcement officers in these local counties, in this local area, have a predisposition, have personal preferences and attitudes regarding undocumented immigrants, and they want to deport and remove every single one of them.”

He added that SB 54 likely won’t change local attitudes.

The Truth Act is another California protection for undocumented immigrants, he noted. It became effective on Jan. 1 and says that, if local enforcement officials want to grant ICE an interview with a person in custody, that person must attest, in writing, to understanding his or her legal rights.

Locally, in late February, the Chico City Council refused to even discuss the topic of becoming a “sanctuary city” when local community organizers spoke about the subject to the conservative-majority body in the packed council chambers.

For Vera, news that local leaders either won’t discuss the topic of becoming a sanctuary or in fact want to be deemed a “non-sanctuary” region, is hurtful. “I love this city; it has given so much to me, and I feel like I’ve given just as much back,” she said. “To hear that is just a complete slap in our faces.”

The Obama administration chose to unveil DACA on the 30th anniversary of Plyler v. Doe, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1982 that ruled it was unconstitutional to deny undocumented children the right to free public K-12 education. The case was prompted by a Texas law that had permitted local school districts to ban undocumented students or make them pay fees. The decision introduced the argument that undocumented children were not at fault for their status because of a violation of law by their parents.

As decades passed, so did millions of unauthorized immigrants through the nation’s borders. Those immigrants brought children with them. Those children, who entered public school systems, pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and coalesced with American culture.

In 2001, Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, tried to remedy the mass influx of immigrants, which observers said stemmed from weak security measures at the borders and a broken immigration system that failed to create a path to citizenship. The two senators, buoyed by immigrant advocates and the stories they told, introduced a bill in Congress called the DREAM Act, which would have provided undocumented people a path to citizenship. But the bipartisan bill failed to pass.

Over the years, that legislation has been reintroduced in various incarnations by both Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, failing each of the nine times between 2003 and 2010. In late 2010, House Democrats passed the DREAM Act by a vote of 216 to 198. But days later, when the Senate voted, the bill narrowly failed with a vote of 55 in favor and 41 opposed. Only 60 votes were needed for it to pass, yet five Democrats opposed their party while three Republicans reached across the aisle to register their support. An additional three Republicans (including Hatch) and one Democrat did not vote.

In Obama’s 2012 announcement on DACA, he criticized the Republican lawmakers who blocked the DREAM Act and prevented him from signing it into law. He also noted that DACA was not amnesty, immunity or a path to citizenship—as some critics had argued. It was a “temporary stopgap measure,” he explained, until Congress approved a comprehensive immigration reform bill—something that has yet to transpire.

“Put yourself in their shoes,” Obama told the crowd. “Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life—studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class—only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak.

“We have always drawn strength from being a nation of immigrants, as well as a nation of laws, and that’s going to continue,” he continued. “And my hope is that Congress recognizes that and gets behind this effort.”

Like many of their classmates, Vera and Martinez have high hopes for the future—in the classroom and beyond—and are cautiously optimistic, given their circumstances. Both appear to be using the uncertainty as fuel, making them stronger by sharing their stories and educating themselves on their rights and the immigration process.

They expressed appreciation for the struggles of their parents, who sacrificed for their families, either by working in the fields and orchards, in fast food restaurants, or on construction sites.

“If anyone knows the undocumented community, and you see how hard people work just to get what they have, and to be where they are, and you see people who take everything they have for granted, and who are just complaining about the people who are legitimately trying to make their lives better,” Vera said, “it’s rather disheartening. Not just in the United States, but it makes you look at the whole picture—of how people treat each other.”