They came with their entire lives in a folder.
That’s how Jesús Guzmán, one of the founders of the DREAM Alliance of Sonoma County, describes the 160-plus undocumented youth who came to the Deferred Action Application Fair on Aug. 18, 2012.
“They had documents from anywhere they could get them, with a name and a date to show where they’d been before age 16,” he recalls.
The fair in the Roseland Elementary School gym was part of a national effort to turn these stacks of papers into social security numbers for those called “DREAMers,” children of undocumented immigrants under age 31 who came to the United States before age 16. Known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama administration’s initiative was signed into law last June, offering two-year, renewable citizenship to DREAMers who have lived continuously in the United States for at least five years.
On that Saturday in August, the room was full of volunteers and lawyers behind folding tables, with handmade signs directing applicants through the complex process. The application for Deferred Action costs $465 and asks second-generation immigrants to provide a paper trail for years during which many of their families lived and worked under the radar.
Still, Guzmán says the atmosphere in that elementary school gym was both powerful and full of hope.
“It was the first time we recognized that everyone in the room was undocumented, everyone was an ally,” he says, adding that although some of the attendees had been brought together before—to look into college resources for immigrant youth, for example—the fair was an explicit acknowledgment of citizenship status. “It took a lot of courage for folks to come out and be in the same room,” he says. “We’re taught in our own families not to say we’re undocumented, because it’s dangerous. It makes us vulnerable to deportation.”
This has been especially true under the very administration responsible for DACA. In its four years in office, the Obama administration has deported 2 million undocumented immigrants, the same number deported by the Bush administration over the course of eight years. And while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) may focus on people who have broken criminal laws—according to its website—local numbers tell a different story. According to the Press Democrat, in 2011, for example, only half of the 921 inmates released to immigration officials over the course of a year had been convicted of the crime for which they were incarcerated, or had any criminal record at all.
Home ICE raids in the city of Sonoma’s Latino neighborhoods were an early catalyst for Guzmán’s activism. The 23-year-old grew up on a small dairy farm in Sonoma, the son of undocumented Mexican parents who emigrated when he was one year old. As a high school senior in 2007, he remembers classmates beginning to protest the seizures and deportations by quietly excusing themselves from class. And while he knew what they were doing, their protest wasn’t made explicit to anyone else.
“There was no message, so it just looked like truants walking out of school,” he recalls. “It pissed me off, because they were trivializing what we were going through.”
So he helped organize a walkout. When the group of roughly 125 students left their classes en masse, he remembers telling anyone who asked that the group wasn’t cutting school; it was trading biology or English class for a course in social justice.
At the Santa Rosa Junior College several years later, he continued organizing around immigration issues, such as vehicle checkpoints and car impounds when undocumented drivers couldn’t produce a license. In the spring of 2011, when the statewide Dream Network began mobilizing around the nascent Dream Act, he and his sister, Diana Guzmán, began rallying around the bill, which would allow DREAMers to apply for student financial aid. After Gov. Brown signed the bill in October, the student group, now known as the DREAM Alliance of Sonoma County, turned its attention toward Deferred Action.
There are 1.4 million potential DACA beneficiaries nationwide, with nearly two-thirds (900,000) between the ages of 15 and 30, according to the Immigration Policy Center. The rest are “future beneficiaries” between the ages of five and 14, who will be able to apply in high school. California has the greatest population that could benefit from DACA, at 300,000, with Texas (150,000) and Florida (50,000) as distant runners up.
But though the group sees DACA as a momentous victory for immigrant youth, Guzmán says their recent push has been around their families, whom he calls the real dreamers. Speaking of that auditorium full of hopeful students back in August of 2012, he says: “It was fantastic that we had legal protection, but it still left our families vulnerable to deportation. Our own families are still at risk.”