By Vinny Lavalsiti and Matthew Ochoa, reprinted with permission from The Summit at Grossmont College
Images: property of The Summit and Grossmont College's Graphic design program
October 10, 2017 (El Cajon) -- Martha Amezcua was nine when she came to the United States, and she didn't know a lick of English, creating a hefty language barrier between her and her classmates once she enrolled in school. Her silence, because of the language barrier, led to a lot bullying.
More than two decades later, Martha Amezcua -- now 31, a student at Grossmont College and a mother of four -- is so longer silent about her situation.
“I’m always open to share my story because I'm not going to make a difference if I'm quiet,” she said.
Amezcua is a “Dreamer,” a young person who qualifies for the Dream Act, legislation that would grant a pathway to citizenship to young people who were brought to the United States as children without documentation.
Immigrating from Tijuana, Mexico -- just 25 miles south of Grossmont -- Amezcua’s family came to the United States for the same reason that drew many others: Opportunity. Dealing with an abusive husband, Amezcua’s mother divorced her father when Amezcua was only 6 months old. The divorce played a large role in the family’s immigration.
“At that time, if you were divorced, society was very judgmental and you were looked down upon,” Amezcua explained. “My mom struggled, as a result. She didn’t have much family support. So, we had two options: We either stayed there and ended up starving or homeless, or we try coming here (to America) to look for opportunities.”
While she has had opportunities, Amezcua -- like many of the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients in the United States -- has faced her fair share of challenges from her undocumented status.
“I went through a lot of pain in high school,” she said. “My senior year I received the opportunity for a full-ride scholarship. But because of my status, I wasn’t able to receive it. I couldn’t go to college because I couldn’t get a job. And when I did, the pay was very low.”
Amezcua was forced to take a 10-year break from school.
“I tried enrolling at a college during those 10 years while working, but I had to wake up at 5 a.m. and work till 11 p.m. I ended up getting sick, getting fevers because I was so exhausted,” she recalled.
It was this grief and heartache that inspired Amezcua to serve as an instrumental role in Grossmont’s Dreamers Club.
“I wanted to make a difference so other students didn’t have to go through the same thing,” she said.
Amezcua had aspirations of becoming a doctor out of high school and enrolling in a four-year institution. These life dreams were derailed, however because of her status. DACA -- which stands for “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” -- is a temporary program that allows a valid work permit and the ability to obtain a social security number. This made Amezcua available to work; however, the amount of money made from a day job as a cashier is hardly enough to be able to pay the yearly tuition at a university.
So, Amezcua did what she had to: “I had to take a long break. Tuition was super-high, so I had to drop out.
“I later enrolled at Grossmont College,” she added. “Now programs such as the Dream Center and EOPS help with my educational finances. They help with book vouchers and stuff. But we (DACA recipients) don’t qualify for full financial aid. We don’t qualify for loans either.”
Often due to these barriers, DACA recipients are faced with two options: Go to school, or work and support your family.
Life as an undocumented immigrant can be a thorn in your side to your educational and career aspirations. Along with that, when undocumented and residing in the U.S., the thought of “What if?” is always in the back of your head.
“I have kids,” Amezcua said. “What am I going to do if they (Border Patrol) show up and all my kids see what’s going on? You don’t know when and where you’re going to go. I left Mexico at such a young age and was raised in the United States, so it’s stressful not knowing what life will be like if I get deported.”
When Donald Trump was elected president, Amezcua said her nine-year-old child came home asking if she was going to be deported.
“‘Mom are you going to be taken away? Am I going to see you? Am I going to come back from school and not see you?’” Amezcua recalled. “That breaks my heart because my kids should not be thinking that. If I were to be sent back to Mexico, I would be having to take my kiddos to places and situations I don’t know, so they’ll be in the same level of uncertainty as I am.”
The mental toll Amezcua’s children would have to endure is unfathomable. Imagine being at home and hearing Border Patrol knocking on your door, and watching your mother and father get stripped away from you in the blink of an eye. That’s the lasting image that these mothers, fathers and children will see if deportation comes along.
The issue has been a hot-button one in the news, as Trump has threatened to roll back DACA. And now that the DACA recipients have submitted all their information to be accepted into the program, their addresses are now readily available to the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
“Now that they have my information, I asked myself, ‘Are they going to show up?’ We’ve heard about raids where parents have been taken from the children and deported. I had that fear of ‘What If that happens to me?’” Amezcua said.
The effects of the Trump administration and its decision are omnipresent. “They (undocumented immigrants) didn’t come here to commit crimes,” Amezcua said. “Why are the people that are supposed to protect -- the President and Congress -- doing the exact opposite? Why are we being attacked like this? We are human beings. We should have the right to live and not be treated like that. As a society, we talk about how unacceptable bullying is, yet we are treated as if we are nothing by our country’s leaders.”
During his presidential campaign, Trump declared that undocumented immigrants were “criminals” and “rapists.” This anti- immigration fervor has caught on across all 50 states.
“As a Latino and undocumented community, we get judged and called different names-- ‘criminals’ and ‘rapists,’ for example. But my mom came (to America) because she was trying to provide for me and look for opportunity,” Amezcua said.
She recounted on an earlier experience that happened just north of the state Route 125: “Not too long ago, I went to a bank in Santee to cash a check, but it was closed so we waited in the parking lot until it opened. I was with my brother who was wearing the Mexico soccer team jersey at the time. We were out there waiting for the bank to open its doors and a man looked at us and said, ‘Did you know when Mexicans come here, we lose millions of dollars because all of them send the money back to Mexico?’ We just stayed quiet and ignored him but he continued his nonsense. Absolutely no one did anything to support us in that parking lot. People like him are influenced from people in power such as our president.”
The trials and tribulations Amezcua’s mother endured took a toll on Amezcua’s conscience. This has motivated her to speak out on the injustices occurring to the Latino, undocumented community.
“Once we got here, my mother worked, taking care of li le kids and was paid nothing,” Amezcua said. “She was overworked and underpaid, just to make sure I was okay. But she did it anyways because she was taking care of me. I saw her get called names that shouldn’t be repeated.
“Seeing my mom struggle and the unfairness she encountered pushed me to make my voice heard. I cannot stay quiet to unfairness,” she said, adding that although she is frustrated with the DACA decision, she will not be deprived of her happiness.
“Being the mother of a family, I have to be that rock,” she said. “I can’t let anything affect me and I need to be strong for them so they, themselves, can concentrate on school and not worry. That motherly instinct kicks in and I feel that I have to be there for them.”
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is an Obama-era legislation that allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States under the age of 16 and were younger than 30 years old when the legislation was passed in 2012 to acquire a valid driver’s license, enroll in a place of higher education such as Grossmont College, and legally join a workplace.
However, DACA doesn’t lay down the steps for the path for these recipients to achieve U.S. citizenship. This has caused a lot of questioning from immigrant advocates, saying that the legislation left people in limbo.
The American Immigration Council states that in order to be a welcomed immigrant to the United States, you have to meet at least one of these three prerequisites for entry: have family ties back in the U.S., have employment ties to the U.S., or qualify for humanitarian relief. Along with these requirements, applicants are required to pay a fee of $495 to just be considered, not accepted, for the program. The average age of DACA recipients entering the country is 6 and the origins of the recipients have predominantly been from Mexico, along with El Salvador and Guatemala.
You may have noticed that the term “Dreamers” has been floating around campus, the news or your own dinner table quite a bit lately-- but who exactly are they? “Dreamers” stems from the proposed DREAM Act in 2001 which made citizenship available for those attending college and enlisting in the military. The name caught on despite the Act being voted down most recently in 2010.
A lot has transpired with the DACA program since Trump has taken office.
Trump has had a wavering stance on the decision of DACA since the very beginning. On his campaign trail, he exclaimed his intent to dismantle and “immediately terminate” the DACA legislation, but later took a more enlightened position. In January, Trump said that “(Dreamers) shouldn’t be very worried” about deportation and said that DACA is a very difficult subject for him and that he’d deal with DACA “with heart.” Earlier in September, the president caused a lot of ambiguity and left a lot to be desired for both political parties, answering “We love the Dreamers” in response to the question if Dreamers should be worried.
Recently, the Trump Administration and Attorney General Je Sessions announced that DACA would be removed and made obsolete. Sessions referred to the legislation as an “unconstitutional exercise of authority” that was enacted by Trump’s predecessor, former President Barack Obama. Sessions added that DACA has put our nation “at risk of crime, violence and terrorism.”
These accusations by Sessions are quite contrary to the DACA program’s eligibility requirements. DACA applicants are subject to strict background checks. To qualify, you cannot have been convicted “of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor” or “have more than three misdemeanors of any kind,” and that you must not be of “threat to national security or public safety.”
Members of both parties, but predominantly Democrats, have expressed their discontent, categorizing the move as a cold-hearted effort that was unfair to young immigrants and could harm the economy.
So why has all this come up now, you ask? During this past summer, 10 state attorney generals, led by Ken Paxton of Texas, wrote to the Department of Justice and gave President Trump an ultimatum: rescind DACA or go to court.
Why didn’t Trump stand his ground and go to court? Well, Trump would’ve been very unlikely to succeed in court considering this situation directly reflects that of which occurred in 2014. The Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) policy was beaten and battered immediately by 26 states stating that DAPA would provide relief not authorized by Congress.
Trump deferred the decision on DACA to Congress, giving them a six-month time period to review the policy before the recipients are stripped of their rights that are given unto them from DACA.
How will Congress deal with DACA?
On the optimistic side, Congress can provide full relief to the recipients, reviving the DREAM Act which would allow undocumented immigrants to start a process towards citizenship. However, this is likely to happen only if the majority on the right gets what they seek: stricter immigration. For example, although DACA recipients are able to become citizens, there will be future cuts to legal immigration to satisfy the need of Republicans. A glimmer of hope for Dreamers rests in vigilant oversight, including Republicans such as Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-SC., and Je Flake, R-AZ., from DACA supporters in Congress to protect them from deportation.
However, if Congress fails to act, undocumented immigrants are vulnerable to deportation as early as March 6.
RESPONSES TO DACA
Along with the protests across the country, the state of California and agencies within have been proactive and have taken the result of the DACA decision into their own hands.
On Sept. 12, Gov. Jerry Brown, D-CA., announced that the state of California will provide $30 million in assistance to Dreamers to counteract Trump. $10 million of that original amount will be used for DACA recipients in places of higher education.
Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, condemned Trump, saying: “We will not let one man with xenophobic tendencies undercut years of progress we have made in California to integrate these young adults into our society and economy... California is their home and future.”
The University of California School system and UC President Janet Napolitano led a lawsuit for rescinding protections from students without legal status, taking the first legal e ort to block the Trump administration’s decision. Among all the UC campuses, there are about 4,000 students who are enrolled as undocumented immigrants.
The UC system argued that the decision is a “violation of constitutional guarantees of due process and federal law against government actions that are arbitrary, capricious or an abuse of discretion.”
The California Federation of Teachers (CFT) has not been shy to respond either. Joshua Pechthalt, President of the CFT Union, stated, “Ending DACA is a destructive and heartless act that will cause severe harm not only to these young Dreamers, but to their families, communities, and the broader society and economy... We vow to stand by our students and their families, and will do whatever we can to ensure they receive an education free from fear.”
Dreamers will most likely have to wait for better days, as the future of the program is looking pretty bleak and obsolete. Just under 800,000 individuals will be affected by this decision, losing their work permits and being subjected to deportation. Of these numbers, 220 DACA students attend Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges.
All of the information that recipients had to display to be considered for DACA may end up coming back to haunt them. The information will remain the department’s system and may be distributed to the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) if requested and that’s a big “if.”
Acting ICE Director Thomas Horman had this to say during a congressional hearing this summer: “If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by being in this country, you should be uncomfortable, you should look over your shoulder. You need to be worried.” This antagonizing statement is just a microcosm of the continuation of harsh immigration policies.
Just refer to the Muslim Travel Ban back in January, the constructing and reinforcing of the border wall along Mexico, and most recently, the pardoning of former Arizona Sheriff, Joe Arpaio. Arpaio was convicted of racially pro ling Latinos and dispatching them to federal immigration authorities with no evidence, solely on the belief that they were undocumented. Arpaio sentenced immigrants to inhumane conditions in the Arizona summer heat,
encircling them with electric fences, and denying the immigrants of basic needs.
Arpaio committed monstrous acts of refusing people of basic sanitary systems and oppressing women to result to using bed sheets, undergarments and bottoms that were soiled and stained from menstrual cycles.
What has Grossmont College done to support our DACA recipients?
The administration and staff at Grossmont have several bodies and entities into place to assist those who have or are currently receiving benefits from DACA. The most visible and possibly well-known is located right in the front of the school in an unlikely form.
The Financial Aid office, which has its camp set up in Building 10, has been supportive of the civil liberties of DACA recipients. Due to the combined e orts of administrators and students, a “safe space” was created at the behest of Michael Copenhaver, the head of the department, now called the Dream Center. The Dream Center functions as a place for all students to begin a dialogue on social issues, particularly DACA and the undocumented community, as well as focus on retention and education. One administrator, Katherine Beltran, has also established a similar “safe space” for individuals who may want to discuss such issues.
That’s not where the buck stops, either. The EOPS Club, headquartered in the Griffin Center itself, has found a way to support their fellow students. During the summer semester, EOPS instituted a new Summer Training Program for those who look to become a part of the club, and a large focus in the process is how to understand and talk about social issues, especially DACA.
Finally, former DACA beneficiaries also have the Assembly Bill 540 program to help support and cover some of the support gaps left by DACA’s cutting. AB 540, signed into law back in 2001, allows an exemption from the non-resident fees charged by colleges for select non-residents if they have attended at least three years of high school and received a diploma or its equivalent from an educational institution.
These support systems, as well as many others, are always available to people who may need them, and for more information, an individual may go to the Administration Building (Building 10) for more information in how to get involved or apply for the programs and clubs listed above.
The Dreamers program at Grossmont consists of around 75 self-identified undocumented individuals who seek to support those in the undocumented community. The goal of the Dreamers is to create a larger sense of belonging and awareness for those who have had the potential to feel isolated from the rest of the campus due to their status.
Given recent political discourse, the purpose of the Dreamers is to have a student-run organization that will educate others on the situation many undocumented people face here in the United States, and even here on campus.
The Dreamers also provide assistance to students who may be struggling, whether at home or at school, due to their AB 540 status, as well as helping them and other incoming students with the transition from high school to college, and retention of both grades and enrollment.
The Dreamers are based in the ASGC Clubroom and meet every first and third Thursday of each month from 11 to 11:45 a.m.
Grossmont sociology professor Julio Soto (left) -- who surrounds himself in pictures of several political and social rights activists including Che Guevara and Malcolm X in his office -- has been involved in student social affairs since the late 1990s, originally working in the Financial Aid office on campus here at Grossmont. In those early years, Soto had the opportunity to work with several students who would later be eligible for DACA benefits. Soto, having grown up with the benefit of citizenship, had this to say regarding those he had worked with and the impact DACA has had upon their lives: “DACA allowed for folks who qualified... through a lawyer or fees, access to employment... they’ve been working under the table... but now they had the opportunity to really advance their careers.”
The effects of the DACA legislation nationwide are not limited to simply career prospects or educational mobility; it also has had an impact on the very communities it serviced and the perception of those around them. DACA recipients, and members of the undocumented community as a whole, began to form a sense of unity and a more active role in the discussion of immigration.
“It created a sense of identity,” Soto said. “A lot of people are now more open about their status, and that has increased more awareness... DACA recipients continue to be detained, see the recent actions by ICE... and people realize that this is a human-rights issue.”
Support for the Dreamers rings true through Grossmont, all the way to the top of the food chain. President Abu-Ghazaleh, when asked about the campus stance regarding the DACA decision and what Grossmont will do, said: “We are a public institution that deals with primarily our student population... DACA students are part of our community, they are students, they are people... the college will continue to serve them through the AB 540 program and other ways that we can.”
In an email about DACA assistance, Dr. Cindy Miles, chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, agreed with the college president regarding California DACA students: “We want to support them every way we can during this difficult time, just as we support all of our students on their educational journeys.”
Professors, counselors and administrators will continue to support the students on campus affected by the cutting of DACA legislation. The state of California, to some extent, will also retain protections and benefits to these students in the form of the California Dream Act. The act, which as of October 2017, is still fully in place, others a statewide opportunity for former DACA recipients in the form of fee waivers and other benefits such as the ability to apply for financial aid.
The message is clear: To those affected by this decision, Grossmont College is behind you all of the way, to the best of its ability.