[dropcap]L[/dropcap]IKE a lot of Coloradans, Jorge Tellez will be watching fireworks with his buddies tonight, celebrating the nation’s independence.
But Tellez’s patriotism isn’t limited to just one day a year.
“I love this country,” he says, shrugging. “I don’t know why, but I do. It’s home.”
Tellez, 20, can’t really remember a time before living in Colorado. He immigrated here from Mexico City with his parents and three siblings at age four. Growing up, he attended Douglas County High School where he made good grades and stayed out of trouble.
Then, as a junior, he did what many high school boys dream of: he saved up the money he made working at a local mariachi restaurant and bought his first car. But when he went to the DMV after that long awaited 16th birthday, he was denied a driver’s license almost instantly because he didn’t have a social security number.
So, while his American born peers drove to school — the quintessence of cool, as anyone who remembers being a teenager knows — Tellez obeyed the law and continued to ride the bus. As his Chevy Cruze gathered dust in the garage, he began to understand what his lack of citizenship really meant.
“As a kid, I didn’t even know I was an immigrant. I just thought I lived in America like everyone else,” he says, noting that the driver’s license rejection was just the first in a series of obstacles borne from an immigration status over which he had no control.
Tellez remembers being called names because of his nationality and ethnicity in high school. When it came from other kids, it was easy to brush it off and walk away. But then his English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, Mrs. Corr, called him a name he’d never heard before — a dreamer — and that one stuck.
“I didn’t even know what that was,” he says, “But she explained it to me.”
“Dreamers” is a label that has come to define of generation of young people with stories similar to Tellez’s — the undocumented children of immigrants who, through no choice or fault of their own, are growing up in the U.S. without the same access, opportunities or rights granted to the rest of their peers.
As Tellez approached the end of high school, all he wanted was to join the Air Force. He had met with recruiters and began training with a couple of his friends. Two months before graduation, he learned that he couldn’t enlist without citizenship or a green card. “I was heart-broken,” he recalls.
Without plans for after graduation, Tellez was in a bind. In-state tuition in Colorado was unavailable to him at the time, also because of his immigration status. Luckily, Mrs. Corr, his devoted ESL teacher, helped him get in-state tuition in New Mexico, where he attended his first year of college as a criminal justice major.
Then, in 2012, President Obama made an announcement that promised some stability for Dreamers like Tellez. The administration authored a memorandum to the relevant immigration, border and customs agencies called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA for short. It ordered these agencies to practice prosecutorial discretion when it comes to Dreamers, sparing them from deportation for two years and giving them the chance to apply for work authorization. To be eligible, applicants must have immigrated before age 16, lived continuously in the U.S. for five years prior, attained — or in the process of attaining — a high school degree or GED and stayed clear of felonies or any major misdemeanors.
Tellez immediately applied for deferred action, moving back to Castle Rock from New Mexico to live and work closer to his family. Armed with his new work authorization from DACA, he was hired by a local U.S. Bank where he still works as a teller. His manager there praises him for his tireless energy, friendliness and positive attitude. He’ll have to reapply for DACA this month to get another two years of deferred action.
In the meantime, the Colorado state legislature passed the ASSET bill, which lets Dreamers like Tellez pay in-state tuition at public universities. So in the fall, he’ll start attending Metro State University as a business major. He’ll continue to work 40 hours a week on top of a full course load. “It’s gonna be hard,” he realizes. “But I know it’ll be worth it.”
As the first in his family to attend college, Tellez already has taken a huge step forward. Still, he has even bigger dreams.
“If I could join the Air Force, I’d be the happiest guy in the world,” he says wistfully.
This past spring, the Department of Defense was on the brink of enacting a new policy, known as Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest (MAVNI), that would allow Dreamers to enlist in a program long available to temporary legal immigrants with special language or medical skills. To qualify, these new recruits would have to meet essentially the same rules as the DREAM Act — having arrived in America as a minor and completed high school or an equivalent degree. Under the proposed policy, military Dreamers who serve honorably for two or more years could apply for citizenship.
Tellez followed the news about MAVNI closely, thinking it might be a way he could finally realize his dream.
But then, in late May, President Obama ordered the Pentagon to put the program on hold for fear it would further agitate House Republicans who, at this point, are responsible for holding up a legislative overhaul in Congress.
Now, an influx of unaccompanied children from Central America flooding across the Texan border and the high-profile primary loss of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a supporter of reshaping the immigration system, muddy the already fraught political waters, making it apparent that, at least until election season is over, any talk of reform for Republicans is risky at best and toxic at worst.
The GOP has become wary of any “path to citizenship,” equating it to an amnesty program that incentivizes more illegal immigration.
Democrats, on the other hand, are poised to reap the electoral benefits of Republican inaction, potentially locking up the Hispanic vote for 2016.
For now, the 113th Congress seems to have slumped over on immigration reform, with little chance of revival. On Monday, President Obama announced he would do what he can on his own, expressing frustration with the legislative branch for failing to “pass a darn bill.” He issued an executive order to reallocate enforcement resources from the interior of the country to the border, and will look for ways his administration can unilaterally address the immigration crisis without congressional action.
One thing the administration can do is instruct the Pentagon to start allowing Dreamers to enlist. There has been bipartisan support for this concept in the past, and a growing rally cry from Dreamers themselves.
Tellez attended a rally in Washington, D.C. last fall to protest inaction on the military question. There, he met Rep. Mike Coffman who represents him in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District.
When Rep. Coffman took office in 2008, he echoed much of the same anti-immigrant rhetoric of his predecessor, Tom Tancredo — even introducing him as a “hero” of his at a Tea Party rally. In 2009, Coffman co-sponsored a bill that would have excluded children born in the U.S. to immigrant parents from the constitutional guarantee of citizenship. He voted against the DREAM Act in 2010, calling it “a nightmare for the American people.” As recently as last year, Coffman voted to dismantle DACA and resume the deportation of Dreamers.
“I was nervous at first,” Tellez recalls of his brief meeting with the congressman, “Like what’s he gonna say to me? I’m an immigrant. I was scared.”
But Colorado’s 6th has been redrawn so that it now encompasses more of Aurora — and is now more than 20 percent Hispanic. Given his record on immigration, redistricting puts Rep. Coffman in a vulnerable position come this November. He’s facing a serious challenge from former Speaker of the State House Andrew Romanoff who is more than happy to debate immigration this campaign season.
The Coffman campaign recently ran an ad that shows Romanoff saying he “threw Hispanic voters under the bus” in 2006 — a quote that Romanoff has since disavowed. The Romanoff campaign has run its own slew of attack ads, targeting Coffman’s staunch position on immigration in the past.
Since his district was redrawn, Rep. Coffman says that meeting with his constituents has transformed his stance on immigration. He now supports an immigration overhaul, despite opposition within his party, and even co-sponsored the ENLIST Act, which would allow Dreamers like Tellez to enlist.
And so, back in D.C. last October, Tellez the Dreamer and Coffman the Congressman talked for awhile, with Coffman ultimately promising to do whatever he could to help Tellez and others in his situation. Coffman co-sponsored the Military Enlistment Opportunity Act of 2013, which would create a path to citizenship for Dreamers who serve honorably in the military. The bill, which has yet to be brought to a vote, would expand the scope of opportunity beyond MAVNI to include Officer Candidate School, special forces, military police, cyber security and linguist jobs.
Cesar Vargas, co-director of the DREAM Action Coalition, says the time is ripe for executive action on the military component of immigration reform. “The President can pick up his pen and update Department of Defense policy to allow Dreamers to enlist. He can do it immediately such that Dreamers could be ready to go to bootcamp by the end of this summer,” he says.
Though legislation may be stalled for now, members of Congress — especially Republicans like Coffman — can help pressure the administration to take executive action on the issue by voicing their support for these policy changes. Democrats like Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Illinois and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York are growing increasingly vocal in their support for the administration to act.
Meantime, Tellez will keep working toward his dreams, unfazed by political inaction. He visits ESL classes at Douglas County High School every once in a while at the request of his old teacher, Mrs. Corr.
“I’m trying to be a role model to [the students]. I just say, ‘Don’t give up. You can do it, too’,” he says.
Tellez’s dreams aren’t just his own. They’re the dreams of his parents, whom he says he wouldn’t see for days on end as they worked jobs on a ranch and in retail to give him and his brothers and sister as much opportunity as possible. Out of gratitude, he wants to give back what they’ve given him. He wants to make them proud.
“I wanna have kids in the future,” he says. “Right now I’m focused on graduating college and getting my degree so I can give my kids a good life. I want to save money so I can spend time with them, have the American Dream. That’s why I’m trying to do my best.”
Tellez never stops dreaming of the day he can join the Air Force. “I would do engineering,” he says. “Tthat would be so cool.” His eyes and laugh trail off as he imagines a future in which he can serve his country in uniform. And then he snaps out of it. For now, he tightens the tie around his collar in preparation for work later in the day.
“I just take each day as it comes.”