Dismantling racism: the fight for immigration reform

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Here we explore the story of Juan Fernando Delgado, a young resident of Grandville Avenue and DACA recipient, and what it means to navigate access to education, resources, and basic needs as an undocumented immigrant. 
The choice to immigrate into the United States is never easy. For many families, immigrating involves leaving family, material objects, and a home country behind for a chance at better economic opportunities, education, and healthcare access. They are dreamers hoping for a brighter future for themselves and their family.

One such family are the Delgados, originally from Mexico but now residing in Grand Rapids. Juan Fernando Delgado, whose name we have changed in order to protect his identity, the second oldest of the family was the first to cross the border at the age of four years old. He was entrusted by his mother and father to relatives who were making the trip via car into Tijuana, California. At the time, his family was attempting to come to the United States so that their second oldest son could receive care for a medical condition that was untreatable in Mexico.

Delgado remembers having to be dragged into the car because he was not aware of what was happening.

“I remember my father called me to reassure me that things would be okay. My mom brings up the fact that I was so young and had to cross alone into the United States,” says Delgado.
Juan Fernando Delgado
Delgado explains that he hid from border patrol agents on the backseat of the van underneath a blanket . He was the first one to arrive at the United States and days later his mother, father, and brother followed. Initially the family settled in Los Angeles, California, but the Delgados’ now call the southwest community along Grandville Avenue their home. After Delgado’s father obtained more stable employment in Grand Rapids the family made the decision to move to the Midwest.

Faced with a lack of immigration status, the Delgado family had to be very careful navigating spaces many of us take for granted. A trip to the grocery store could put the entire family at risk of deportation if they were stopped by the police and were unable to provide proof of legal immigration status.

“Because we didn’t have papers we have been kind of isolated in a way. We didn’t go out to places because we didn’t have the money to go because we couldn’t get a good job. We couldn’t do certain things because they may require papers. We couldn’t go to certain places because we were afraid they would require papers,” says Delgado.

Despite being very careful with how and when they gave out their personal information, Delgado’s father was detained in 2008 and deported back to Mexico. Upon his father’s deportation, his mother Esther became the sole income provider for the household. It was not until 2015 that Delgado was able to help support his family through employment he obtained thanks to a legal work permit possible through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Because access to food stamps or Medicaid is only granted to green card holders or naturalized citizens, the family couldn’t receive the kind of support needed in times of crises.

“I applied to DACA in 2015 when I turned 15 and within six months of applying I was accepted. The very next week I turned 16 I began working at a local packaging company,” explains Delgado.

DACA is a program passed by the Obama administration through an executive order in 2012. To be granted a work permit, an applicant must prove they arrived to the United States without legal status before their 16th birthday, has lived in the country since June 15, 2007, were under the age of 31 on June 15, 2012, are in school or have graduated, and have no record of a convicted felony, or a misdemeanor.

Even after these guidelines are met, an applicant is not guaranteed approval. It is up to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer’s discrepancy to decide if the applicant has provided enough evidence for DACA approval. A DACA permit does not protect an individual from deportation.

Siang’ani Odera, a Grand Rapids resident involved in local organizing efforts believes advocating on behalf of the immigrant community needs to protect whole communities of undocumented immigrants; whether college educated or blue collar.
“There is entire communities of undocumented immigrants with complex narratives that are constantly under threat of deportation. Only getting behind those who are deemed a respectable model minority is unveiled racism,” explains Odera.

Teresa Hendricks, executive director, and attorney at Migrant Legal Aid, a Grand Teresa HendricksRapids non-profit organization advocating on behalf of migrant workers and their families, echoes the words of Odera, in that she believes coming to the United States is not a choice families make because they have other alternatives in their own countries.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in the United States there have been a total of 886, 814 initial grants of DACA and 884,661 renewals. According to a 2012 study from the Pew Hispanic Center, there are 120,000 undocumented individuals living in Michigan. Among these are the 6,430 DACA recipients from 2012 to March 2017. Delgado and his brother, Javier, are two of the 6,430 young adults who have received a work permit through DACA, but are no longer guaranteed status after their permit expires.

On September 4, of this year, the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, recommended a termination of the DACA program stating the passed legislation was a result of an “unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch.” President Donald Trump made the deciHundreds of Grand Rapids residents gather downtown on September 5th to protest against President Trump's decision to end DACA.
sion on September 5th gave the program a six-month window until it phases out.

Delgado’s permit does not expire until 2019, but because of that he is unable to reapply in the next six months.In other words, only those whose permits expire before April 5, 2017, and those who have already applied or apply before October 5 of this year will be granted a work permit for the next two years. Those whose permits expire even a day after March 5 will no longer have a valid work permit and could be at a higher risk of being removed from the only country they have ever called home.

“Failing to provide compassion and a path for these young people to have some stability is not good for the whole fabric of society here. It is not in conjunction with humanitarian standards,” explains Hendricks.

In response to the rescinding of DACA, senator Justin Amash tweeted, “Our constitution vests all legislative powers in Congress. Let’s work together to responsibly address #DACA and other immigration matters.” Rapid Growth asked Senator Amash for comment, but at the time of publication of this article, we had received none.

In the city of Grand Rapids, Mayor Rosalynn Bliss is in full support of DACA, believing that young people are an important part of our community today and in the future.

“This is about supporting the young people who enrich and strengthen our Mayor Rosalynn Bliss communities. We stand with them and want them to know that we see them, value them and are ready to defend them. We support action at the state and federal levels to ensure those who qualify for DACA can continue to live and flourish in our city,” states Bliss.

The city is an active member of the Welcoming Michigan Initiative and Mayor Bliss has joined a coalition of other mayors from across the country to show support for DACA as part of the #WithDreamers Initiative. As part of the initiative, the city accepts all countries’ consular identification cards as an official ID. This allows individuals who carry these to use them to open a bank account, obtain library cards and sign up for utilities such as water service and trash removal.

The city of Grand Rapids is not formally a sanctuary city, a term used to describe cities where resources and funding are not used to enforce federal immigration law. In other words, there does not yet exist an ordinance, or law put into place to shelter undocumented immigrants from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). There are no sanctuary cities in the state of Michigan. Los Angeles and Chicago are examples of sanctuary cities. Find an official list of sanctuary cities here. On July of this year, the Department of Justice announced that sanctuary cities would not be granted several federal enforcement grants if they did not cooperate with ICE. 

According to Delgado, the executive decision by President Obama to pass DACA was an attempt to push Congress to reform the process of immigration into the United States.

“It is technically unconstitutional what President Obama did. It is the job of Congress to do what he did, but he did because Congress wouldn’t pass anything,” explains Delgado.

In 2015, there were approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, according to data obtained by the Pew Research Center. Data from the think tank also demonstrates that 8 million undocumented immigrants are currently employed and overrepresented in the agricultural and construction sector. Out of 11 million undocumented immigrants accounted for in 2015, almost 1 million of them have been granted DACA status.

“I am grateful for what he did because it gave me and my brother a chance to get a life and have hopes and ambitions,” says Delgado.

By being able to work Delgado believes he has a chance to make their family’s American Dream come true. Even though DACA provides Delgado the opportunity work and to apply to universities, he still does not have the same kind of opportunities and access citizens of the United States have. He is not able to apply for food stamp benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), apply for health insurance through the Healthy Michigan Plans, or receive federal aid to pay for higher education.

Delgado dreams of a country where the mandate is citizenship for all. “We are a part of this culture. We are here. It takes the entire community to support and condemn the racist and the bigotry we have in America.”

For those who want to advocate for immigration reform, Delgado encourages people to first get educated and to vote. He would also like to see those who have the financial capability to use their economic capital to support immigrant communities. In terms of changes at the state level, he would like to see Kent county issue county driver’s licenses, similar to the permits issued in Kalamazoo county and Washtenaw county.

Juan Fernando Delgado“I would love for my mom to be able to drive without the fear of deportation,” says Delgado.

One day, Delgado dreams of becoming an astronomer. “It would be an amazing privilege to go into the field of Astronomy one day,” says the young resident of the southwest community of Grand Rapids.

On The Ground GR

On The Ground GR is a Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found touching along the Grandville Avenue of Grand Rapids.

Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.

You can follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (#OnTheGroundGR @rapidgrowthmedia), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo (read more about Michelle here), you can email her at [email protected] and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

On The Ground GR is made possible by The Frey Foundation, The Grand Rapids Community Foundation and the Steelcase Foundation organizations working to guarantee all communities thrive.
Photography by Dreams by Bella.
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