For most 20-year-old college sophomores, the next birthday cannot come soon enough. That’s certainly the case for Denver native Diana Luna. But for Luna, the anticipation of turning twenty-one is different. “Most of my friends are excited because it means they can drink,” she says. But her next birthday means only one thing. “I can help my parents get legal.”
The Metropolitan State University student is the only one in her family who’s a U.S. citizen. Her parents came here with her two other siblings more than twenty years ago. They remain undocumented. Luna was born after they arrived. As a result, she has a freedom they have never known.
A traffic stop or an immigration raid, says Luna, could change her family’s whole life. “We have talks as a family about being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she says. Her father and sister work at the same restaurant. Her brother sells auto parts. Her mother has an undergraduate degree but from a college in Mexico. Her lack of papers prevents her from getting licensed as an accountant.
Beyond heading to work each day they live simply. They take no chances. The risk is too great; a number of extended family has already been deported.
Victor Galvan, a 23-year-old community organizer for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, hears similar stories every day. His organization helps the undocumented community learn their rights and how to navigate pathways to legal status. But despite the role he plays in helping the undocumented, Galvan is also undocumented, though he qualifies as a ‘dreamer’ and also holds a work permit allowing him to stay.
Immigration has come down hard on his family. Galvan says his father has already been deported. Because Galvan’s two younger sisters – both American – are minors and dependent on the adult Galvan, they, too, are in Mexico. Immigration proceedings have also begun on his older brother and step-father. His mother, though undocumented, has so far been untouched by ICE.
“I always make sure I’m on my best behavior,” he says. “Any criminal infraction could affect me.” Galvan has been in the U.S. since infancy. “I grew up alongside Americans. I played sports. I was in clubs in high school. I do feel Mexican in culture,” he says. “But I’m also an American.” Just not legal. “If I had to go back to Mexico, it would be a shock. I really don’t know anything else.”
For the past six years, President Obama has tried to address the immigration issue. Since he has been in office, Congressional opposition has also fought him every step of the way. Most recently, Republicans held up funding for Homeland Security by including in the bill wording that would kill the President’s executive actions on immigration. At the eleventh hour, they capitulated and passed a clean bill leaving immigration alone.
But the issue has only been delayed. Killing immigration reform remains a sure-fire crowd pleaser for Republicans in safe districts and for Republicans hoping to succeed the President in 2016.
It was hard to diffuse the opposition’s call for deportations and no-nonsense crackdowns on immigrants late last summer when tens of thousands of young children, many unaccompanied, arrived at the southern border seeking asylum.
Since then, the government has allowed many of those fleeing gangs and violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to remain in the country, living with family and relatives already here. Others have been placed in camps in New Mexico and Texas. Many others have been sent home.
Attesting to opposition of the President’s immigration policies was a ruling last month by a federal judge in Texas. He issued a preliminary injunction against the President Obama’s executive actions on his 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and his recent Deferred Actions for Parents of Americans just a day before they were to take effect.
Federal Judge Andrew Hanen ruled that the Administration had bypassed procedural rules. Plaintiffs in the case include Texas and 25 other states. The Administration is appealing.
“We know the lawsuit in Texas has no legal weight,” says Ana Temu, a Colorado immigrant rights advocate. “It’s just a tactic to show disdain for the President. We saw that in their vote to pass a clean DHS funding bill.”
But more than that, says Temu, is the feeling she, as an undocumented person, and others in the same situation feel when Republicans speak out about immigrants. “These people (immigrants) live with fear and danger every day,” she says. “Our parents were the original dreamers and all they want is to keep food on the table and give shelter to their children.”
Galvan is also troubled by attacks from the right. “They call us ‘illegals,’ ‘aliens,’ ‘terrorist threats,’ even ‘drug mules.’” All the labels do, he says, is create barriers. “It’s always an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ paradigm. They never want to include us in the equation and it’s polarizing.”
While the law may be black and white, Luna says, too often, an immigrant’s world is neither. Most of her family is undocumented but she is an American whose values are Mexican by blood and American by birth.
Last month, Luna was part of a delegation that visited the White House to witness the President sign into law designation making Colorado’s Brown Canyon, an area southeast of Buena Vista, a national monument. After the visit, Luna got involved in a campaign to protect the area from, among other things, encroachment and overgrazing.
Luna’s participation in the campaign and role with the Hispanic Access Foundation was not only to protect the area but also to introduce it to and encourage Hispanic families to experience it. Being in the Oval Office for the official signing was also an opportunity to learn how being part of a movement can achieve results.
Back from Washington, Luna once again faces the daily specter of ICE. Because her family lives in the shadows, Luna is also the family’s unofficial chauffeur. Even a minor accident, she understands, could result in an unwelcome visit with immigration. The point was driven home in dramatic fashion not long ago when her brother had a minor mishap with the law.
“He was arrested and ICE found out about it,” she says. “Everything stopped for us.” Luna does not know all the details but says her brother was going to be deported “in days – not weeks.” It is situations like this that have forced her family to create ‘a plan.’ “We have to be prepared…for anything.”