Among the couple hundred protesters who marched from North High School Tuesday to join the many hundreds of others who converged upon Auraria Campus in downtown Denver was a woman named Paola.
A couple hours earlier and she might have given me her last name, but a couple hours earlier, the landscape shifted. President Donald Trump pulled the plug on the Obama-era policy that gave Paola and other young undocumented immigrants like her permission to work legally in this country, shielding them from deportation. Technically, Paola is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA] policy. Commonly, she is known as a Dreamer. Paola was five when her mother sent her to the U.S. from Mexico and then joined her here two months later. She is 24 now. She barely remembers Mexico.
The march and rally had been previously planned. Trump’s decision simply amplified the urgency, shifting attention from Trump to Congress to offer a remedy before permits start expiring in six months. The Dreamers marched, along with friends, classmates, allies, many carrying signs and chanting “No papers. No fear. Whose streets? Our streets.” The call-and-response rising and falling as traffic passed along Speer Boulevard. Within the procession of students, conversation see-sawed from defiance to bewilderment.
“I feel worriedness. I feel sadness. I feel confusion. Why would you want to take this away from people you see are happy and doing good?” asked Jasnique Lofton, a North High School student who has classmates who are Dreamers.
I’d spent the 2004-2005 school year writing about North, the predominantly Latino high school in north Denver. This was the era before President Obama authorized DACA when the line between the students who had legal status and those who did not became starkly clear in the form of drivers’ licenses and paid summer internships and college financial aid. Who has a Social Security number. Who doesn’t. The nine-digit moment of reckoning.
Some undocumented youth I met stared into the purgatory of belonging neither here nor there and chose to leave school for work because why not, college was not an option. Their parents couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition. A career wasn’t on the horizon. The military wasn’t a choice, either. A thousand straight-backed ROTC drills wouldn’t be proof enough of one’s embraced identity as an American. The wages of a would-be accountant became the wages of landscaper. A dream deflated.
But most of the Dreamers I met did not waver. They became experts in zigging and zagging when a straight line was unavailable. They were resourceful, optimistic, driven, possessing seemingly boundless faith that this country would do right by them as long as they did right by it. They said they would find a way to get to college and worry about what happened next when the time came. They made the bet – a losing one as it happens – that by the time they graduated from college Congress would have passed immigration reform or, at the very least, the DREAM Act, which would have given them a way to become legal residents and eventually citizens.
By then, Congress had been doing nothing about this issue for at least three years. I remember thinking then as I do now: The cost of Congress’ negligence will be high.
Obama authorized DACA in 2012. It relied upon the discretion of prosecutors enforcing immigration law, sparing young people who grew up here and had clean records from the agent’s knock, the separation from family, the plane trip to a country they did not know. It was offered on a case-by-case basis, in two-year stints, subject to renewal. “We live our lives in increments,” is how DACA recipient Marco Dorado puts it.
The Pew Research Center estimated at the time that 1.7 million young people would benefit. We are at 800,000 now, more than 17,000 in Colorado.
Dreamers describe the change DACA created in their lives as transformational. Yes, it did not confer legal status. Yes, it was temporary. Yes, they had to give to the feds all the information they would need to track them. But, Paola says, Obama presented “an opportunity to show the government that we are worth so, so much and we can give you guys so much more than what you have been seeing now. We have five years worth of evidence now that we have so much to give.”
She walks holding a blue T-shirt over her shoulders as if it were a cape. She wrote upon it: “Undocumented Unafraid Unapologetic.” She said she’d heard the phrase several days earlier from Monica Acosta, another Dreamer. Monica, who has been in this country 28 years and whose mother was deported 12 years ago, stood before elected officials and others in the state capitol and declared herself “pissed off.”
She emboldened Paola, who had never marched, never rallied, who may not have spoken to me had not her sister nudged her and said, “Tell her, tell her all of it.” Paola tells me she has three siblings who are DACA recipients. All four of them are married to DACA recipients. Among the four couples, they have nine children, all citizens.
“Imagine how we are feeling right now, come six months from now, in March, when permits start to expire and what happens to these kids, what happens to all these things we are accomplishing?” Paola asks. “We are like pyramids. You slice off the top and what happens to the kids at the bottom?”
I can hear the objection from some quarters: “Should have thought about that earlier, Paola.” These critics would say the same of Paola’s mother, arguing that she is to blame for this current anguish. I have always found this reaction to reveal both a profound failure of the imagination —the heart of empathy— and a lack of understanding of the role our nation’s immigration laws, not to mention its industries and economy, have played in encouraging illegal migration to this country.
I have yet to meet a Dreamer, Paola included, who blames his or her parents, who says, “I wish we had just stayed,” though I have no doubt those words have been uttered in frustration. The only point in our conversation where Paola became emotional was in describing her mother’s decision, after five attempts to cross the border, to send her children ahead to relatives in this country and then follow knowing she likely would never return home unless she was caught and deported. The spirit of this movement is fed by this younger generation’s sense of duty to their parents, formed in recognition of their mothers’ and fathers’ sacrifices.
“The courage my mother had to leave everything behind was driven by love, love to be able to provide her children with a better chance at life,” Dreamer Salvador Hernandez said at the press conference last week in the state capitol.
Before DACA, Paola worked for a family business. After, she put together her resume and “then all of a sudden you get an interview you thought you were never going to get and then you get a job that you thought you were never going to get and then now it’s been two years for me at a place where I am a supervisor and it’s like a DACA person did that. I just – the before and after is crazy. I don’t even have words for it. It basically went from living, as they say, in the shadows, and going out there and just showing all of your potential. It’s almost like stripping off a layer of clothing and putting yourself out there and all of a sudden people can see what you can do.”
And this is the particular cruelty of Trump’s decision. It snatches away ambitions being realized, futures within reach. It does so in the face of incontrovertible evidence that these students and young adults invigorate this country.
I have come to wish for a better term than Dreamers, though that is the name they have chosen for themselves. I understand it speaks both to aspiration and to recognition of a shared, historical fight for civil rights.
But there is something in the word that suggests starry eyes and softness around the edges. There is nothing soft about the young people whom I have come to know. They come from the builders of cities, from the fecundity of the fields, from sinew and stamina. The Dreamers dream, yes. But they do not only dream. And as I walk away from the Auraria campus, I hear the roar of hundreds upon hundreds of voices rising to ricochet against the campus buildings and shoot skyward:
“It is our duty to fight.”
“It is our duty to win.”
“We have nothing to lose but our chains.”