When Sarahi Gutierrez heard about the Supreme Court’s decision last week to uphold the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, she felt she could finally relax.
“We had made plans a, b, c, d just in case they said ‘yes’ to ending the program,” she said. “The Supreme Court’s pending decision was looming over us every single day.”
As a recent Eastern Washington University graduate, Gutierrez was unsure whether she would be able to continue with her plan to attend law school and was even more unsure whether she would ever be able to work in the U.S.
So when Gutierrez scrolled through the news last Thursday, she was ecstatic when she read that the Supreme Court ruled the Trump administration had unlawfully ended the DACA program, providing nearly 650,000 DACA recipients in the country with temporary relief.
But as Gutierrez celebrated the victory with family and friends, she said there was more to do for undocumented immigrants.
“DACA is more like a Band-Aid solution being held to people, and not everybody is eligible. There’s still people who are undocumented in this country who still need that amnesty,” she said. “Senators and congresspeople need to know that there isn’t just one thing that’s going to fix this.”
Gutierrez’s family first came to the U.S. around 1998 when she was 5 years old. It was a huge culture shock for a girl who was used to seeing people who looked like her all the time.
Growing up, she didn’t sign up to attend field trips or for the College Bound Scholarship because the questions about her made her parents fearful.
“It was really hard for me to disclose my status to anybody,” she said. “I thought at a very young age ‘don’t tell anybody that you’re undocumented, that could lead to deportation for you and your family.’”
It has taken Alexis Gallegos, a current EWU student and DACA recipient, time to come to terms with what being “undocumented” really meant.
It was when he was first applying to colleges and financial aid that he understood he didn’t have the same opportunities as U.S. citizens despite arriving in the U.S as a child and “basically being born here.”
“Your friends are talking about the colleges that they want to go to and apply to, and it kind of makes you feel like an outsider because you don’t have the same opportunities,” he said. “It’s hard to come to terms with that.”
Undocumented students don’t qualify for federal financial aid or loans, and it’s much harder to be approved for outside loans, Gallegos said.
State legislators passed a bill during the 2020 session, creating a loan program for undocumented students who are not eligible for federal student loans because of their citizenship status.
But the resources remain limited.
The state also passed into law several bills to protect immigrants against discrimination in housing and other sectors, regardless of their citizenship status. But a bill to restrict immigration officers from school grounds did not make it out of committee.
Gallegos credits his success in college to mentors and university officials , but he had to put a pause on school after his father was deported.
His absence took a toll on Gallegos and his family. Most people will never now what that’s like, he said. To them it’s just a statistic, it’s just something they read and then scroll over, but they won’t have to see that empty seat at the table.
“When that happens and you are still attending school, you just go into this mode of where it’s kind of hard to make any progress,” he said.
Gallegos said he had to step back a bit and realize that it wasn’t his responsibility to be a father figure to his younger sisters but rather to be the best brother figure he could be.
Since Gutierrez was in high school, she said she felt an immense pressure to be “picture perfect” so people would not focus on her legal status and attach negative stereotypes to her. Her early activism was geared toward helping translate for Spanish-speaking parents in her predominantly white high school.
“There’s always this mental checklist that all of us have to do every time we enter any type of space, even if we’re talking to somebody who we think might help us,” Gutierrez said.
Undocumented students have to be vigilant about whether the person they’re talking to is aware of immigration policies, whether they’re DACA-friendly and if it’s safe to share their legal status with them, she said.
It wasn’t until she arrived to college in 2016 that she became more active in her community and set out to help undocumented students find the resources they would need to succeed, Gutierrez said. It was also the beginning of her coming to terms with her status and being more open about it, she added.
Once she was able to do that, she began organizing marches and rallies for immigrant rights in Spokane through organizations like Latinos en Spokane.
While attending school, Gutierrez used to drive to Whitworth University so she could participate in clubs and support groups for undocumented students.
In another part of the state, Maria Yepez, an immigrant rights activist and recent Washington State University graduate, also celebrated the Supreme Court ruling.
“I remember having my brother’s papers ready,” she said. “It was really emotional for my family. I was like, ‘Wow, one day really made the difference.’”
Yepez has lobbied for a Clean Dream Act and for immigrant rights, which has taken her all over the country, including to Washington, D.C., Sacramento, Olympia and Spokane.
It’s been months of waiting for that decision and it was hard to see DACA recipients strung along for so long with uncertainty and fear about their fate due to the Trump administration’s efforts to undo the program .
“I’ve gotten used to knowing I’m different here in the U.S.,” she said. “But I do believe we deserve the right to be treated equal, our citizenship or our status should not be what makes people see us in a different light.”
Like many other DACA recipients and undocumented students, she was able to find support in college and joined the Crimson Group, an advocacy and support group at WSU.
DACA is renewed every two years, and the fee is $495, Gallegos said.
A few months ago, Gallegos lobbied in Olympia for a series of bills, including an open courts bill that prohibits civil arrests inside or near courthouses unless it’s to comply with federal law. The bill, which was enacted, also restricts judges and prosecutors from collecting a person’s citizenship status unless it’s for a criminal investigation.
“My crazy idea is to someday hopefully run for senator or representative of the state of Washington,” he said. “My passion is to be a social worker, but that just made me think maybe I can help my community that way.”
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