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Dreamers call for immigration reform before Republicans take control in Congress

 Participants at a DACA rally in Glenwood Springs, November 2019.
Alex Hager
Aspen Public Radio
Participants at a DACA rally in Glenwood Springs, November 2019.

With Republicans set to take control of the House in January, Democrats are racing to introduce immigration legislation that would protect the so-called Dreamers, people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

DACA was introduced by the Obama administration a decade ago and grants temporary status to those who meet the stringent qualification criteria.

Immigrant rights activists and DACA recipients, including many from Colorado, gathered in DC this week, to call on lawmakers to prioritize immigration reform.

One of them was Fort Collins resident and DACA recipient Jesus Castro, a community organizer originally from the Mexican state of Sinaloa.

He spoke with Shannon Young about the DACA program and what’s at stake.

Jesus Castro: I have had DACA for the last 10 years, and it's been really amazing, it's been a really good experience, because it has allowed me to work legally, it has allowed me to go to school, pay in-state tuition.

But it prevents me from a lot of things.

I cannot leave the country, we are in this limbo, and it's not like a permanent program, it's not a permanent solution.

In order to have something more permanent, and I can stay in this country and eventually become a citizen, we need the DREAM Act, or a path to citizenship.

So the main idea for us is to talk to elected officials and tell them, 'hey, it's time.'

We grew up in this country, we are part of this economy, we call this place home, and we want to have something better.

We want to have a permanent solution and feel safe, and in order to feel safe, we need a path to citizenship.

Shannon Young: And there have been several moves around DACA in the courts recently, can you catch listeners up on where things currently stand and what's at stake?

Jesus Castro: I think DACA has been at risk since since its beginning.

There's a lot of people that have said that DACA is not a legitimate program, and that's what the court cases are fighting right now whether DACA is legal or not.

And I think that's like a big issue, you know, to talk about, but I can tell you what's at stake for us is our livelihoods.

Over the past 10 years, because of DACA, we were able to get a social security number, a work permit.

Many of us have families that we're taking care of, we're going to college, and (in) my case, I'm going to college for the second time.

I live on my own, I have health insurance, I have this amazing job, and losing DACA could pretty much take all of those things away from me.

The way that I live, you know, just like surviving in this country, but also it can put me at risk of deportation if this program goes away.

And I moved to this country when I was 13 years old, so I'm a little older than other DACA recipients when they get to this country, but I can tell you that I remember my country, that situation of my country, and thinking about that it's really scary.

And also as a queer man, where I'm from, it's a very machista state, and that also really scary for me.

I know what I'm going back for, I know what's going to happen if I go back, and that's a really scary thought for me.

Shannon Young: Qualifying for DACA is a complex process and status, as you said, requires a renewal every two years, give us a sense of the process one has to go through to even qualify.

Jesus Castro: There's a lot of steps in order to qualify for DACA.

I think one of them is you had to have come to this country before the age of 16, before the summer of 2007, no criminal record, it's like a huge process.

It's an application where you fill that out, and they ask you questions about if you've been associated with gangs, if you had committed crimes in the past, and you go through a background check every two years.

You go to the immigration office, in this case I go to Denver, they take my fingerprints, and they check that I haven't committed any crimes and you know that they have a clean record.

So it's a really strict program, and even though if my record is clean, there's still always a possibility that I might not get renewed, because it's upon the discretion of the immigration officer.

So it's a really scary thing.

It's like every time I had to go through this process, which I'm about to because my DACA expires in March of 2023, I get really stressed.

It really takes a lot of my mental health and I'm scared even though I know I don't have a criminal record or anything.

It just puts a lot of stress on my mental health.

Shannon Young: Dreamers represent a small but very visible portion of the immigrant population. Has that status caused you to feel a certain weight of responsibility when it comes to advocacy work, or even in publicly sharing your very personal story?

Jesus Castro: I take a lot of pride to be a Dreamer.

I actually, when I heard about DACA, and I heard others say it's an opportunity for me to build a different future to do something with my life, I said, if get DACA I'm gonna get a Dreamer tattoo, and I do have one, just the word Dreamers.

I'm really proud, but it's also a sense of responsibility.

I started organizing when I was 22, because of DACA, and at first, it was self interest.

I was like, I need something from this, I'm gonna help these organizations to help me figure this out.

But that day, I discovered my true passion.

I just got a little emotional, because I realized how organizing can change someone's life, and it became my life.

I work for an organization here in town, it's Fuerza Latina, and I'm the program coordinator, and that helps the Latino community in Northern Colorado.

And it became part of who I am like, organizing, I'm always organizing, I'm always advocating, because it's just part of me, but I also had to be honest, in the way that I was put in this position.

I didn't have a choice.

I had to step up and be like, I need to make change for myself, for my family and for my community.

But I again, I was not given that choice, I had to do it.

But I love doing it.

So I have mixed feelings about it.

You know, it's like, I love it, I discovered my passion, what I want to do for the rest of my life, but also I know that I was put in this position by the situation, by how people treat the Dreamer community, and we haven't acted on it yet.

I love it, but also, I was kind of like, just dragged into it.

But again, I have a lot of love and a lot of passion for what I do.

Shannon Young: What do you hope the outcome of this visit to Washington will be?

Jesus Castro: I hope that people in DC will understand a little more what we go through.

I think immigration obviously, a lot of people see it as a political issue.

I see it as a humanitarian issue.

There is a crisis, and there's a reason why people like myself and my family are here.

And we need to understand, why is that happening and how can we help this people?

I love this country, this is home for me.

I love Mexico, too, but I grew up here, I became a man and I just want them to understand that I am an American, without documents, you know.

This is my home and I hope that yes, they see, like I said, this is a political issue, but there's people behind that political issue.

And we need to focus and change the narrative to understand the people, not the issue.

If we actually pay attention to what we got through the reasons why we're here and focus on how do we help this community, we can make change but we need to stop politicizing the immigrant community, because I think that causes a lot of issues.

So I hope that when we go there, and we explain why we're here, why are we advocating for this issue, they see the human component of it and not just another political issue.

Shannon Young: I've been speaking with Jesus Castro, Fort Collins-based DACA recipient. Thank you for your time today.

Jesus Castro: Thank you so much for having me.

And I hope people that hear this interview, get a little glimpse about DACA and what we're trying to do and that we here to stay and that we love this country and we hope to to make this a better country for a very long time.

This story from KGNU was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

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