For Dreamers Who Endured The Horrors Of Joe Arpaio's Arizona, Our Work Is Not Done

Life under the anti-immigrant sheriff led many of us to the front lines of battle against the ideals he professed.
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We all had to stand up, place our hands over our hearts and repeat.

As a 5-year-old, I had no idea what my teacher was writing on the board ― just words in a language I didn’t understand. Next to them, she began to write words I did. At that time, it seemed we didn’t fear foreign languages in America.

Juro lealtad a la bandera de los Estados Unidos de América y a la república que representa, una nación, bajo Dios, indivisible con libertad y justicia para todos.

A translation to the words I did not quite understand: “I pledge allegiance...”

Day after day we stood, children of all colors, and swore this oath.

Even then, I knew I had immigrated. I had vague memories of a mythical land called Mexico: a place my parents fled to find a better life.

Many people speak about legal immigration as if it is easy to attain. Yet they fail to explain how people like my parents, who barely achieved a middle school education, could have navigated a riddled and expensive legal system. How could they have afforded it when they’d resorted to lighting a plate of rubbing alcohol just so the makeshift room they’d created out of aluminum became warm enough to change their infant’s diaper?

People will judge them, but I thank them. They risked it all for a chance to see their child reach higher than anyone in our family dared to dream.

Of course, everything comes at a price. For my family and me, the opportunities we received in the United States were paid for with loneliness, because we were told never to talk about our status. I paid with the pit I felt in my stomach whenever a police car drove behind my parents. I, and others like me, paid by constantly being asked by U.S. citizens, “Why even try to go to college? You’ll never accomplish it.”

Prior to DACA, as someone without status, it was extremely difficult to attend and navigate college. I’d have had to pay three times the tuition my classmates would if I wanted to attend the in-state university; I wouldn’t have been able to apply for most scholarships. I would not have qualified for any loans, and I would not be able to work.

I still remember high school graduation day. As student body president, I was one of the first to walk on stage and receive my diploma. And as I held it in my hands, I was overcome with uncertainty. I imagined a future in which I lived a life struggling under the Arizona sun, burning to a crisp and toiling in the heat just to provide for my family ― living a life much like my father. But the very next morning, I received a letter in the mail. It was notice that I’d received a full-ride scholarship! I would became the first in my family to attend a university. I was torn, living in fear of my uncertain legal status but thankful for this opportunity to learn.

Then, on June 15, 2012, my world changed.

From the Rose Garden, Obama announced that his administration would stop deporting some young people who came to U.S. as children of illegal immigrants
From the Rose Garden, Obama announced that his administration would stop deporting some young people who came to U.S. as children of illegal immigrants
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

With the strike of a pen, I was plucked from the shadows. When President Barack Obama announced his administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, I felt I no longer had to fear deportation to a land I did not know.

But DACA was then ― and still is ― a controversial act. Nearly 800,000 individuals across the nation have benefited, and we have shown our thanks tenfold. Some have found jobs, others have decided to reach for higher education and others offer our help to community resources.

There are, predictably, some who have wasted this opportunity, and they are quick to make headlines. Yet even those who paint DACA recipients negatively must admit that less than 1 percent of DACA recipients have lost it due to criminal activity.

Personally, though, the Obama administration’s actions changed my life dramatically. It meant I could finally learn to drive! I’d held off, because I thought doing so would jeopardize my status in this country. I finally was able to work (and I promise you, there was no one in the nation happier to get a minimum-wage check than I was). My status allowed me to graduate and eventually pursue my dream of going to law school. I fell in love and married the most astonishing woman, also a Dreamer who refused to give up. We have since graduated ― she with her master’s degree, me having just finished law school and passed the bar exam.

And yet, despite our personal achievements, the last few months have been filled with speculation regarding the program. And as someone who grew up in Arizona, I recognize the dark cloud that now consumes the country. Latinos here are accustomed to figures who rise in popularity because of their xenophobic rhetoric. People like Joe Arpaio and former Governor Jan Brewer, who struck fear in our communities. At a time when the general public sought answers to the recession, these two made the immigrant a scapegoat. They understood they could freely attack this mute population ― a population muted because of the fragility of their legal status. And I remember seeing fear in the eyes of people in my community. Parents who were afraid to send their children to school. Who feared venturing to the grocery store. And it’s this same cloud ― a familiar cloud ― that now covers the United States.

Demonstrators protest against Arizona's controversial Senate Bill 1070 immigration law outside Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office in Phoenix on July 29, 2010.
Demonstrators protest against Arizona's controversial Senate Bill 1070 immigration law outside Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office in Phoenix on July 29, 2010.
Joshua Lott / Reuters

In my state, the Dreamers have always been the ones who’ve refused to be silent. We were the immigrants who knew how to navigate the political system, and unlike our parents, we knew the language and knew our rights. Some of us fought back by organizing and protesting in the streets. Others knocked on doors, registering voters; if we could not vote for our cause, we would register five those who could. And finally, others among us defied the odds and sought higher education. We understood that a degree provides a microphone, and a microphone enables us to advocate for people of all communities.

This is a lesson that, today, goes beyond political ideology. Senator John McCain recently warned against the use of scapegoats. At the Liberty Medal Award ceremony, he warned America not to “abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe” and not to “refuse the obligations of international leadership” for the sake of some “half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.”

His words oppose those of people currently in power who have seemingly taken the Arpaio playbook and now claim to “Make America Great Again” by being the nation’s “toughest.” These have brought quick political success, but humanity loses in the long run.

And while many hoped DACA would remain, I always understood it was merely a Band-Aid; I always understood that true security can only come through Congress. This justification for rescinding DACA hasn’t lessened the sting and the looming cloud that threatens the lives of so many in our communities.

With this, we urge those in Congress, those in the White House and those who have not spoken to Dreamers to venture into your communities, because we guarantee you we are there.

We encourage our fellow immigrants to use their voices and tell their stories, because often it is merely ignorance that prevents understanding.

And personally, I will be doing my part as an immigration attorney; I will be consuming information and fighting for the American Dream, because I am strangely optimistic. Always, I think back to those words I engraved into my soul, “I pledge allegiance…” I’m reminded of the individuals who have shaped this country. They were beaten, ridiculed and discredited but they overcame. They pushed forward when times seemed bleakest, and they sewed their story into this beautiful American tapestry. It’s this same grit that I see in my fellow Dreamers. I know we will persevere, because we only know one Constitution, we only know one Pledge of Allegiance. We are Americans, and we will also contribute to its story.

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