Young Arizona immigrants fight for a piece of the American dream

Luige del Puerto//September 17, 2012

Young Arizona immigrants fight for a piece of the American dream

Luige del Puerto//September 17, 2012

Young Arizona immigrants fight for  a piece of the American dreamEarly in September, Reyna Montoya awoke to hear the heavy downpour outside her home in Mesa.

She reacted the way most Arizonans would — with a giddy enthusiasm and a sense of wonder at seeing a million tears fall from the sky to wash away the desert heat.

“We never get to see the rain here,” she said.

Montoya, 21, was recounting the story to make a point: Arizona is her home and she’s not going anywhere.

And in one motion that so perfectly captured her American ways, she took out her cellphone to shoot a video of the rain.

But Montoya is not an American. She and her family, except for a sister who was born here, are living in the country illegally.

Montoya’s story is a familiar one. Originally from Tijuana, she, a brother and her mother crossed the Mexico-U.S. border legally to join their father, who earlier left for Arizona in search of better opportunities. And then they overstayed their visa.

She was 13 at the time.

Fast forward to today, and Montoya is among thousands who are fighting for a piece of the American dream in a state that has enacted the country’s harshest laws to crack down on undocumented immigrants like her.

In June, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that offered Montoya a shot at what could pass for normalcy.

Essentially, Obama went around Congress to implement provisions that are similar to the Dream Act, the proposal to provide a path to citizenship to illegal aliens who were brought to the country as children and satisfied certain requirements.

Like the Dream Act, Obama’s new policy provides immediate relief from deportation to illegal immigrants who are under 30 and came to the U.S. before they turned 16, have been living here for five years and have no criminal record.

Unlike the Dream Act, the new policy is neither a pathway to citizenship nor does it grant a legal status to “Dreamers.”

On Sept. 7, Montoya turned in her application for the federal program. 

If successful, she could lawfully remain in the U.S. and obtain a work permit.

Montoya appears to meet all of the program’s requirements: She arrived in the U.S. when she was 13 and has been living here since. She doesn’t have a criminal record and has a bachelor’s degree in political science and in immigration policy and economy.

But unless she’s accepted into the federal program, Montoya can’t find work — not legally anyway.

Indeed, while it provides relief from deportation, the new policy also perpetuates a life of limbo for “Dreamers.” In short, Montoya would still belong to a status-less generation — people who grew up as Americans but aren’t legally integrated into society.

More worrisome for the young illegal immigrants, Obama’s policy could be terminated, at any point, by the federal government. Immigration lawyers had welcomed the new policy, but they also warned that it potentially exposes individuals to deportation if the policy is reversed later, especially since the government has now obtained applicants’ information.

Montoya is also keenly aware that Obama unveiled the new program in the middle of his re-election campaign, which led some, including her, to suspect the president’s motivations.

Perhaps more than any other segment of America’s young population, Montoya and others like her are at the mercy of the nation’s leaders, their fate subject to ever-changing political winds.

The political conditions and the laws in Arizona will have to change significantly for Montoya and others to feel secure, even feel welcomed, in the state they call home. It’s not exactly clear, for example, how the police would implement SB1070, which requires law enforces to inquire into individuals’ legal status if there is suspicion that they’re in the country illegally.

• • •

Gov. Jan Brewer’s response to the new federal program was to deny the Dreamers a driver’s license and to ensure they can’t gain access to public benefits. The governor’s edict starkly illustrates the state of limbo Dreamers are caught in.

But Brewer’s action also gave Democrats and pro-immigrant advocates an opening to push the issue beyond this election cycle.

What to do with Dreamers could become the next focal point of Arizona’s immigration debate.

Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, assistant Democratic leader, said the issue will be a priority for her caucus next year.

Sen. Steve Gallardo, a pro-immigration advocate, said he plans to introduce his version of the “Dream Act” bill next year.

At the least, he’ll fight to allow the Dreamers who qualify under Obama’s new policy to get a driver’s license, he said.

“If lightning strikes and Democrats win both House and the Senate, she

(Brewer) can expect the bill on her desk within the first week,” he said.

Actually, Gallardo assumes the GOP will retain its control of the Legislature after the November elections. He also doesn’t think Brewer would agree to sign his pro-illegal immigrant ideas into law.

But the issue is too important to drop, he said.

“I see these kids every day… and it’s hard to look at them and tell them to stay in school, to study hard, when they know at the end of the day, when they finished high school, that’s the end of the road. 

So I think it’s very important for us to continue to push these types of bills to keep this discussion going,” he said.

Gallardo said if his efforts fail anew at the state Capitol, he’ll consider attempting to put the Dreamers issue on the ballot for the

2014 elections.

He said good place to start would be to roll back a provision of Proposition 300 that bars undocumented students from getting in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. The 2006 ballot measure passed with more than 70 percent of the public’s support.

But there might be more to the Democrat’s suggestion than bluster. A poll conducted by ASU’s Bruce Merrill in April showed that a vast majority of Arizonans — 73 percent — support the Dream Act.

Merrill said the poll’s results don’t reflect a shift in attitude among Arizonans.

Arizonans are overwhelmingly hawkish on border issues, but they’re also supportive of legislation that creates a path to citizenship for families that have been living here for some time, Merrill said.

“I think that’s because the whole electorate in Arizona, contrary to the popular mythology, is pretty moderate,” the pollster said.

One Republican lawmaker, outgoing Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, captures the public’s nuanced view on the young and undocumented.

Gray said she’s open to changing the law to allow those who qualify for “deferred action” to get in-state tuition, if they met certain conditions, such as having lived in Arizona for many years.

She feels compassion for the kids who were brought to the country by their parents and therefore didn’t themselves break the country’s immigration laws, she said.

She also admitted this is an issue on which she has “gone back and forth.”

“There’s compassion for students who obey the law. They work hard for the American dream, and do we put that roadblock in front of them?” 

Gray said.

• • •

Gallardo might have his altruistic reasons, but the Democratic Party is likely to benefit if he and others can successfully paint an unflattering picture of the GOP as a party that’s hostile to Hispanics.

Nationally, about two-thirds of Hispanic registered voters already identify with the Democratic Party.

And while the American public is generally supportive of SB1070’s “show me your papers” provision, the overwhelming majority of Hispanics disapprove of the law, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

The danger for the Republican Party, then, is to be portrayed as “anti- immigrant” and therefore “anti-Latino.” Proposals that are meant to elicit a sharp response from the GOP, such as the ones Gallardo is contemplating for next year, might solidify that perception.

Joseph Garcia, director of the Latino Public Policy Center at ASU’s Morrison Institute, said Brewer’s executive order illustrates this risk.

The practical impact of Brewer’s order is to hinder people’s ability to go to work, Garcia said.

“(But) we’re no longer talking about ‘anti-immigration’ because they’ve already been granted a two-year work permit. Perhaps, they’re viewing it somewhat as anti-Latino,” he said.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the D.C.-based pro-immigrant group America’s Voice, put it in starker terms. Sharry said the GOP is allowing Brewer and other hardliners to define the party’s position on illegal immigration, and it’s not a pretty picture.

“How does being a schoolyard bully, trying to keep down the best and the brightest of the Latino community, help Republicans electorally?” 

Sharry said.

Immigration has become a defining issue for Hispanic voters, he said, adding, “And the Republican extremism on immigration is driving more and more Hispanics into the arms of the Democratic Party.”

• • •

In August, the Morrison Institute released a study that predicted Hispanics’ growing influence at the ballot box.

The authors said this influence won’t be fully felt for 20 or 30 years, but their prediction doesn’t bode well for the GOP.

In a nutshell, even if the current registration patterns hold, Hispanics’ share of the adult population will grow to 25 percent from

15 percent by 2030, simply because the Hispanic population is growing much faster compared to other ethnic groups.

And more crucially, about 99 percent of Hispanics who were under the age of four two years ago are citizens, which means Arizona will see a 178-percent spike in the number of Hispanic citizens who are aged 20 to 24 — meaning of voting age — by 2030.

In contrast, the number of non-Hispanic citizens is expected to increase by only 42 percent.

The study’s authors concluded that over time, the number of voters who identify themselves as Republicans will fall until they roughly equal the number of Democrats chiefly because independents’ share will surpass both parties.

Garcia, who also speaks for the Morrison Institute, said if party and voting preferences continue, fewer conservative Republicans and more Democrats and independents could get elected to office.

“They’re in danger of losing a huge mass of (Latino) voters in the future,” Garcia said. “By 2030, Arizona could easily be turned from a red state to a blue state, based almost entirely on the huge amount of Latino voters coming up.”

• • •

Some Republicans have privately acknowledged the risks of losing the Hispanic community vote through the harsh anti-illegal immigration rhetoric that’s emanating from the state Capitol But others mounted a vigorous defense of Brewer’s action.

They said the governor’s job is to defend state laws and voters’ 

intent, and the public has repeatedly supported laws to deny illegal aliens access to taxpayer-funded programs.

They also said Obama engaged in a blatant political stunt to court the Hispanic vote and delivered nothing more than false hopes to the young and undocumented.

They added that the president’s new policy, together with his administration’s decision to sever agreements with local agencies to enforce immigration laws, merely reinforced a pattern of indifference toward solving the illegal immigration problem.

“(This is) an attempt by the Obama administration to circumvent the political process of solving our country’s problems by playing a political card for temporary political gain,” said Chuck Coughlin, one of the governor’s advisers.

Coughlin believes a compromise could be worked out to accommodate the Dreamers — but within the confines of the law and not through a unilateral executive order that goes around Congress.

“This country has never been in favor of victimizing children,” 

Coughlin said.

Kurt Davis, a Republican political consultant, said enforcing the laws and protecting the border is not a radical position.

“You can’t pick and choose which laws are going to be enforced or not going to be enforced when you’re talking about things like our border, our civil rights, (and) the safety of our citizens,” Davis said. “If that’s considered a hard core position, then there are a lot of hard core Americans out there.”

Davis said there’s also a practical reason for resisting piecemeal solutions to the immigration problem: It lessens the incentive to find systemic immigration reform.

“To get immigration reform done, you have to have things that will make it palatable for people on both sides of the issue to vote for it. Well, every time you solve one of these easy pieces, you reduce your negotiating opportunities in the larger immigration debate,” he said.

• • •

Inside the Arizona Dream Act Coalition’s office in Phoenix there are two prominent posters: One of Obama and another of Romney. Both reflect ambivalence by the Dreamers toward the two candidates.

The Obama poster cries out: “1,000,000 deportations. Obama: Stop the deportations.”  The Romney poster simply says, “Veto Romney, not the Dream Act.”

Montoya, the coalition’s vice president, said she’s grateful to Obama for the opportunity he’s giving to “Dreamers.”

But she also added: “At the same time, we understand that it is politics and it’s just like a game and they go back and forth.”

It’s a cold realization from a 21-year old who has just graduated from ASU.

But far from becoming cynical, Montoya exudes hope. She is part of a movement that’s reaching out to voters with a single purpose — to keep the Dreamers in mind when they go the polling precincts.

“It comes down to the people and the power of the people and making sure that we are mobilizing those Latino votes, and they’re not only going to be voting for either Democrats or Republicans—but for a cause,” she said.