Rapid Growth's Publisher Tommy Allen sat down to speak with two Dreamers whose lives will be upended along with the estimated 800,000 other Dreamers if DACA is not renewed.
This interview with two of our area’s Dreamers is special because, unlike many other stories I have pursued for my editorial space, this new series of interviews seek to harness the power of dialogue.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
(DACA) was enacted in 2012 and protected immigrants who were brought here to America by a family member as a minor, and were under age 31 before June 15, 2012 (among other restrictions).
Now as the nation debates what to do with our Dreamers, we must begin community dialogue that flows up to the powers that hold their lives and futures in their hands.
The topic of migrations is one that we often misunderstand, so through this interview we hope to glean a better understanding of one couple’s struggles as DACA is debated. As one who has studied not just history but also science, it is fair to remind the reader that everything migrates and has since the dawn of time.
I sat down with Jorge and Keyla (who asked Rapid Growth not show their faces nor publish their last name for safety concerns) at their home over a plate of cookies from Tres Hermanos Bakery (1442 Burton SW).
Unbeknownst to me before arriving at their Greater Grand Rapids home, both of our local Dreamers had just returned from a trip to D.C. as guests of FWD, a lobby group that is "mobilizing the tech community to promote policies that keep the U.S. competitive in a global economy, starting with fixing our broken immigration system and criminal justice reform, according to their website. While there they met with Michigan’s legislators one-on-one, sharing their story with anyone who would grant them the space to listen.
Jorge and Keyla were two of eight such individuals selected from Michigan to speak with our elected leaders. And while this trip revealed a lot of good and bad, it clearly reinforced in them that even our elected officials may not fully understand the task or questions before them.
The purpose of this editorial space this month is to continue with my series of community conversations I started in 2017 with local individuals who are a part of the positive shifts happening in our region.
: Since you have revealed that you both came here as very young children, when was the first time you became aware of your situation?
: I think I always knew, to some extent. I knew my parents were slightly afraid of the police. We were afraid to get pulled over, afraid to engage with any type of law enforcement. So, I think I always knew that that was a risk that we were living in.
: Friends of mine who are teachers at Grand Rapids Public Schools have shared that often an undocumented immigrant’s child at a certain age is instructed where to go should they come home one day to discover their parents have been removed from society due to deportation. Was this your experience as well?
: My parents never sat us down, but I knew (as a child) if something happened I’m would have to go to my aunt’s house or a friend’s house and then call for help. Being the oldest child, I feel you have that responsibility, but I don’t know at what age it really sinks in.
How old were you when you started having these thoughts?
K: In elementary school I knew. Like, fifth grade, I feel like that’s when you start to be aware.
T: That’s heavy stuff for a fifth grader. I do find it beautiful that you two were born in the same state of Michoacán but would not meet each other until later in life at Union High School where you would fall in love and eventually marry after college. What do you recall about going to a GRPS school?
J: I went to Union High School, so I think I was always sheltered from a lot of racism, because it is a multicultural school. It was when I graduated from school that I noticed more racism in college and out in the workforce. Since graduating, I have worked in Sparta and Byron Center, and in these spaces I’ve met a lot of people that are very ignorant on the issue on immigration.
T: Can you share what you mean here? Were your co-workers aware of your Dreamer status?
J: No, not at work since my co-worker don’t need to know. They’re not the human resource department (who does need to know under the rules of DACA.)
T: So, in this case the racism you experienced within the work place was more along the lines of skin color-based profiling and not as a Dreamer because you did not disclose it to your co-workers?
J: Yes. For example, when I was employed at a company in Sparta, I was the only Hispanic on staff. One of the employees there said to me one day that usually they only see Hispanics working in the fields.
T: Do you think he was trying to be funny?
T: So how’d you respond?
J: I didn’t, at the moment. I just kept my head down at my office after that experience. Then one day, when a group of our firm’s employees were working out in the sun, I went outside and saw that guy and said, “I’m usually the one working out in the sun.”
TA: So you tried to use humor to defuse a previously tense situation.
J: Yeah, but I mean, I said it maybe trying to be funny, but maybe I did mean it as a real jab. Because I’m sure what he said to me, he meant what he said.
K: And I feel like he has more examples of these kind of comments. One day he came home and said that while he was listening to music on headphones somebody approached him and said, “Are you listening to Mariachi music?” And it….
J: ….it makes you angry. I mean, I get it that it is a part of Mexican culture, but I don’t come home and put on a Mariachi hat.
T: But those tiny micro aggressions do a lot of harm in the workplace when we don’t take the time to get to know someone for who they are. When someone steps out with a comment rooted in racism then that has to smart a bit as it erodes trust.
J: Well, what hurt more was that I knew that my parents when I was a child came to Michigan’s Battle Creek to work for a local company. But after immigration raided the place, we had to flee to Sparta. There my parents would then have to work in the fields picking apples under the sun. I mean, those comments were a little bit more personal because I know he was probably talking about my parents.
T: But it is also how you do not see yourself because you went to college to get certified to do the work you are doing here. Keyla, I understand you work for a local government, so how has your experience been in the workplace? Knowing it is a risk to be open and out, do your co-workers know your Dreamer status?
K: Yes, many do now. Honestly, at first I was kinda worried as I’m really the only Hispanic in our office. It was hard at first, because I didn’t know what reaction I was going to get back, especially because my coworkers already have this idea of who I am, or know me to be.
But I didn’t want this part of me (if revealed) to then completely change how they feel towards me. And luckily they didn’t after I shared it because they’re great people. They really do understand, and they know now through knowing me that to pass a clean Dream Act is the right thing to do.
T: Listening to both of you talk, it reminds me of what it is like for LGBTQ people who come out as they, too, know the serious risks that can happen to one’s home, work, and even friendships when revealing your true self. How did it feel to be open with something that many Dreamers I know say is a very real risk when opening up to others to share their DACA story?
K: I feel like a weight was just lifted off my shoulders. And its not as if I wasn’t being myself before this revelation. But now that it’s out there, they often ask me, “Have you heard anything (about DACA)?” They really do care.
When they go home at night, some even stop to say things. “I’m praying for you. I’m thinking about you. If I can do anything to help you…” And that just makes your support system so much better, it makes you feel good.
J: Tell them not to just pray, but to call Congress.
T: Why should someone support DACA in your opinion?
K: I think it’s the right thing to do. How are you going to send someone back to a country they have no recollection or connection? (DACA recipients cannot leave the U.S. or they lose their protected status.) The culture is different. Safety speaking—if we want to go into that—Michoacán, our home state, is one of the five states that the U.S. State Department has just issued travel warnings for tourists.
T: So there are very real risks to consider as well when imagining what happens if DACA is allowed to expire without a clean Dream act.
K: It is a safety issue. Questions begin to emerge like, where am I going to arrive? Who’s going to be my support system once I get there?
Tommy: The story of immigrants leaving dire conditions seeking a better way of life is a familiar one for most Americans when we talk about our history since, apart from Native Americans, we all have in our family linages a person who migrated here one way or another.
T: Why do you think they created DACA?
J: Part of the deal with DACA, I feel, was to create space for us young adults and children to come out of the shadows. Through the process and requirements we were offered in the exchange protections from deportation.
T: So you as children would not fall behind in society…
J: But after all we have done since 2012 to comply and to build our lives here, in the only home we have ever known, the government’s backing down on their part of the deal. We’ve all kept clean records—we’ve no criminal records, we’ve graduated—we’ve met all the requirements that they requested…above and beyond.
T: So have you two been able to talk about what comes next as a newlywed couple? Any talk of family planning? (Jorge and Keyla were married in September 2016.)
K: Not till—honestly, not until we know that we have something.
J: It’d be selfish of us to have babies right now. That’s what I tell her all the time.
T: What happens if we don’t see DACA renewed?
J: We were just having a conversation earlier about the pending DACA vote. We were asking, what if it doesn’t happen in our favor? Are we supposed to just pack up and go?
We discussed this much as we tried to figure out as to how we would sell our house, our vehicles. Where are we were gonna go when we landed in Michoacán? I mean, my grandma is 80 years old. She’s not going to be able to pick us up. And I don’t think that’s a conversation that most newlyweds or people our age are having in their twenties.
T: That is a good point since most young couples are discussing plans like building a life, a 401k, a community. What about your dogs? (During the interview the couple’s dogs poked in and out of the room and later their pet bunny hopped around the dining room floor as we spoke.)
K: Yeah, we’re gonna take them with us.
J: But we had to research what airline allows dogs. If we are already leaving our hopes and dreams here, we’re not gonna leave our pets.
T: Your mom and dad? What would a clean Dream Act look like for you as it relates to them?
K: For us, a clean Dream Act wouldn’t make us put ourselves before our family.
J: Our parents brought us here for a better life. Who knows what or how our life would be in Mexico? I mean, I have no idea, you know?
T: Because all you have known since you were born is America. DACA seems to have allowed you to be able to live more fully here without fear.
J: We were in the shadows until DACA.
T: I find it hopeful that you went to share your stories with elected officials last week in Washington. Sharing one’s story is still a powerful way to impart one’s truth.
J: The Washington trip, for me, was very eye-opening, inspiring, and empowering, because I’m in a room with 125 people from all over the country. Looking around I knew we’re all in this together. We’re all from the same place—or come from the same place.
When they grouped us all according to state, we were sat at the Michigan table with the other six Dreamers flown in to speak with elected officials. (Of the eight representing Michigan, one Dreamer was from Lansing and another from Detroit, but West Michigan had six.)
T: How did this trip impact you two?
J: Before this experience, I used to think, “If I just keep to myself, I’ll be safe,” you know?
T: Like if you keep your head down…
J: That thinking made me feel that keeping to myself was kinda selfish as I looked around the room at all the others who came out to speak. Now I know I need to be out there and do something, not just for me but for all of us that are Dreamers.
K: And it’s hard, because we could just stay in our bubbles and stay protected. But then, seeing everything we’ve been working for and all our hopes and dreams at risk, it was like, “So, we’re either going to fight and go all in, or stay and do nothing.”
But we can’t do just nothing, because if nothing ever materializes, then I’m gonna feel so guilty because I could’ve gone out and helped. I look around and see there’s other people in our community who are out there advocating for us who aren’t even DACA or Dream Act recipients.
And then in that moment I knew I would have to fight…for myself and fight for everybody else who are still too scared to come out. I get that now.
Even though we’re out of the shadows (because of DACA), we are still scared. We are still cautious about who we tell, because we still understand it was something temporary. And you live your life two years at a time.
T: Folks may not realize the process one goes through every two years once accepted into the DACA program. But what would you ultimately like to see happen since I cannot imagine what it is like to live your life two years at a time?
J: A path to citizenship. Something permanent. I don’t mind the every two years application. It was part of the deal that we give them all our information.
K: And I think the point of the Obama administration offering DACA was kind of like a last-minute chance, because Congress couldn’t come together, so, you know, they were like, “Well, we can do this,” which is temporary.
Meanwhile, during this time (from 2012 to now), Congress should have come together to figure something out. But then came a new administration, who terminated the program on September 5, 2017, and now they’re all rushing because Congress and the government seems to work on emergencies only.
I mean, when we had this period of five to six years since DACA’s creation, the conversation on a solution should’ve been happening. The negotiations should’ve been happening a long time ago.
J: …about 17 years.
K: Yeah, the Dream Act was first introduced in 2001, so it’s just like how much further are we going to get kicked down the road? This program’s termination was announced in September, and we’re already in January. What we have now post-shut down is a promise to consider and discuss immigration…
J: …in February.
K: And then, what’s gonna happen? Are we going to keep extending the talks? And then on March 5th when it is set to end, what is going happen? When we get to this date and deportations begin, I feel like the urgency’s going be gone.
T: It was recently reported that more than 300,000 people will lose their jobs and be deported from March to November 2018. That is a huge hit to our economy during a time we, as with most other cities, are fighting to attract and retain talent for positions we have trouble filling now…and while we are still under DACA.
K: It’s hard. I mean, we’re doing the right things, and we wanna keep doing the right things. Because nothing was given to us, we’ve had to work even harder for everything we have.
J: Keyla has her bachelor's degree, I have my associate’s. I am working on my bachelor’s. And we did all this without any financial aid. We did not take anything from the government.
K: And that’s a big perception that people think. They believe that we’re on welfare, and that we don’t do anything, or that we are taking from them.
T: Were there any other observations or take-a-ways from your trip to Washington?
K: Somebody said at one of our Washington meetings, “Our parents were the original Dreamers.” Honestly, it’s sad to say, but our parents are at the point that they’ll be extremely happy and satisfied if their kids get protected status even if they don’t get what they really want, too. The immigrants who came here for a better life did so also for their kids.
J: I remember my parents telling me, when I was younger, that, “If anybody asks, just tell ‘em we did it. You had no fault in it. You were a year and a half. You know, they can blame us.”
T: Any closing thoughts?
K: It’s hard to put everything you wanna say because I have all these feelings and emotions, and it’s sometimes hard to communicate them in the right way. But I just want people to know we are just as American as they are, just without this document that we cannot have.
We are part of the community. We are their neighbors. We’re your coworkers. We are teachers who are teaching their kids. We work in the medical field. We’re saving your lives. We’re contributing as much as we can, because we want to, because we feel that we are part of this country just as much as they are.
And so, our whole lives are here, and seeing that everything could fall apart is—I don’t even know how to explain the feeling.
T: It’s a sense of not having security.
K: Yeah. And it’s really a sense of uncertainty, because we don’t know where we’re going be, even in a few months or at the end of the year.
We have to worry about our house, we have to worry about our dogs, we have to worry about where we’re going. Every day, we’re just, based on the news and based on the politics, we’re like—we have to have a plan, literally A through Z because we don’t know.
We wanna do improvements to the house, but right now we’re just like, “Well, we can’t do anything, because we don’t know what’s gonna happen.”
T: Any other thoughts, Jorge?
J: Same thing she’s saying. We’re your neighbors, we’re part of the community-- your classmates, your coworkers. We shouldn’t have conversations about “If I get deported or if you get deported, what do we do? What do we do with the house? What do we do with the cars and all that?”
I think solving this matter is the moral thing to do because it’s just the right thing to do. I mean, if our stories don’t make you feel a certain way, then maybe the numbers might?
There are 800,000 Dreamers. If they are all deported, it is about a $460 billion loss.
Dreamers are projected to add as much as one trillion dollars to the national GDP over the next 10 years. That’s for those elected officials who I know don’t care about our sob stories.
We contribute to this country. We are Americans, other than on paper.