For a dozen years, Belen Sisa kept a secret even from her closest friends. To them, she was Belen the excellent student, the varsity cheerleader, the homecoming queen.
In fact, Sisa sits on the edge of America’s dizzying immigration system – she and her parents are in the country illegally.
She is light-skinned like her mother and she speaks without a trace of a foreign accent, which meant she easily escaped any suspicion of being undocumented.
“I was leading a double life,” she said one morning at a coffee shop in Gilbert. “I knew it, but I never felt different than anybody else until I got to high school.”
In high school, she saw her friends obtain a driver’s license and land their first jobs. When they asked why she hadn’t done any of those, “I would lie because I was scared that someone would go and tell immigration (authorities) or people would see me differently,” she said. More than anything, she wanted to blend in. She wanted to be just like any other teenage American girl.
She was 16 when Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB1070, the sweeping immigration law that required the police to check on people’s immigration status if there is a suspicion they are in the country illegally. She saw her mother burst into tears as news of Brewer’s signature on SB1070 blared on TV. Sisa knew her carefully constructed double life was slipping away – fast.
She always feared her status would be uncovered. But S1070 “escalated” things. Now, she feared the police. She feared for her dad, who drove to his landscaping work and, toiling under the Arizona sun, is much darker than she is. She feared he wouldn’t come home one day and they won’t even find out why.
Sisa was getting sucked into an unescapable limbo, unable to settle in the present or make plans for the future.
“I thought my graduation day was the end of my life,” she said. “I felt like I had worked so hard. I felt like had done everything right. I did extra-curricular activities. My dream, since I was little, was to go to college, and it all came crashing down.”
But it didn’t all come crashing down after high school. Today, Belen is attending Chandler Gilbert Community College and only has three classes left. She plans to take up political science at Arizona State University and become a lawyer someday. At ASU, she will pay in-state tuition, a reality that has only begun to sink in.
And she has changed. From the student who simply wants to blend in, she is now among the most visible faces of the conundrum that America so far refuses to confront – the fate of children who were brought to the country at a young age.
The still unfolding story of Belen Sisa, 21, (her full name is Maria Belen Sisa), an outspoken and articulate Dreamer, and thousands of others like her exemplify how much has changed, and how much has remained the same in America’s struggle to find an answer to illegal immigration.
THE LEGACY OF SB1070
Enacted five years ago, SB1070 affirmed Arizona’s status as Ground Zero in the fight over illegal immigration. It was necessary, supporters argued, because the federal government had abdicated its duty to protect the U.S. border with Mexico, and states like Arizona were experiencing illegal immigration’s ugly underside.
Three years before, Arizona had passed a law that penalizes businesses that hire undocumented workers. The U.S. Supreme Court would later uphold its constitutionality. But Brewer’s signature on SB1070 gave immigration hardliners, led by then-Sen. Russell Pearce of Mesa, their biggest victory yet. The two laws, which Pearce authored, meant Arizona would not only crack down on businesses that hire illegal workers, the state would catch illegal immigrants on their way to work.
After SB1070, hardliners hunkered down to press for more. They introduced a slew of measures that included a proposal aimed at triggering a lawsuit, which supporters believed would compel the U.S. Supreme Court to deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. An omnibus immigration bill in 2011 would have denied illegal immigrants access to such public benefits as operating vehicles or enrolling in community colleges. It required public housing authorities to evict families if they allowed an undocumented resident to live with them.
But if SB1070 embodied Arizona’s strict-enforcement approach to illegal immigration, it also invited a national boycott, soured Arizona’s relationship with Mexico, triggered protests and, more significantly, compelled the business community to snap out of its somnambulant state.
Prior to SB1070, the business community had worked from behind the scenes to influence the outcome of immigration legislation. After SB1070, business leaders began advocating from the front.
“It was as united a front as I’ve ever seen here in Arizona, saying basically we’ve hit the theoretical limit on what the state can do in the area of immigration, and if we take another step, we will be causing grave reputational and economic harm,” said Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
In March 2011, about 60 CEOs representing some of the biggest corporations in Arizona and America delivered a message to Pearce: Stop. It’s unwise to pass additional state-only immigration measures.
But Pearce, who was just elected Senate president, was in no mood to listen. He put five immigration bills up for a vote, and was humiliated by their resounding defeat.
Democrat Steve Gallardo, a former legislator who is now a Maricopa County supervisor, said the CEOs’ letter gave enough Republicans political cover to vote down the measures.
“You have no idea how many times folks, Republicans, had come up to me and would tell me, ‘Steve, I agree with you. This is ridiculous that we’re having to have this debate. However, my district wants it,’” Gallardo said.
Without the business community’s intervention, “it would have been difficult for Republicans to stand up to Russell Pearce,” he added.
LOSING AT EVERY LEGAL TURN
In 2010, the immigration pendulum had swung to the right, oscillating to the farthest point with SB1070. But it was now swinging back to the center.
In the next several years, a series of lawsuits defined and curbed what states like Arizona may do to confront this emotionally-wrenching subject.
And at almost every legal turn, Arizona lost.
Ruling on the Obama administration’s challenge to SB1070, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all of the state law’s key provisions, save the requirement that the police inquire about people’s legal status. (This provision is currently under litigation). The justices ruled that Congress has the sole authority to regulate immigration, and SB1070’s provisions infringed on the intricate immigration framework it has established for the nation.
Then in 2012, under pressure to offer something after failing to deliver on his campaign promise to pursue immigration reform aggressively, Obama bypassed Congress. He issued an executive order to allow hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the country as children to remain here and obtain a work permit.
When Brewer countered with an executive order mandating that state agencies deny public benefits, including a driver’s license, to those who are eligible under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Dreamers sued and prevailed. Last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Brewer’s order was driven by an animus toward Dreamers and concluded that denying them driver’s licenses amounted to a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and limited their ability to get a job or advance professionally.
Then this year, Dreamers won another crucial legal battle and gained the ability to pay in-state tuition at community colleges.
FROM A STICK TO A TOOTHPICK
The mood in Arizona appeared to have shifted as the courts defined what states may do to curb illegal immigration and Obama’s go-it-alone directives gave Dreamers a legal foothold to the American Dream.
Immigration and border security remain high priorities for the electorate, but policymakers no longer have shown any appetite for revisiting bruising immigration fights.
Additionally, a consensus is emerging that Dreamers are a special class, and America should not punish them for the sins of their parents.
“The probability of anybody saying I want to deport the Dreamers, you know, that doesn’t seem very probable today (and it’s) certainly not as probable as it might have been six, seven, eight years ago,” acknowledged Sen. Steve Yarbrough, a Republican from Chandler.
Consider this: Just two years ago, the Arizona Board of Regents rejected a proposal to create an out-of-state tuition rate for Dreamers at 110 percent of the in-state tuition rate. But after a trial court ruled that Dreamers are eligible for in-state tuition at community colleges, the regents this month extended in-state tuition rates to Dreamers who have a federal work permit.
Regent Jay Heiler said many Americans would arrive at a different set of policy judgments surrounding Dreamers than for other undocumented immigrants.
“People draw a distinction between those who are brought here as children and have since remained and become part of the community… and those who continue to come as adults and have not become assimilated into the community,” he said.
Perhaps one of the biggest changes emanated from the Governor’s Office. At every turn, Brewer fought efforts to extend public benefits to Dreamers. But when Gov. Doug Ducey learned that ABOR has adopted in-state tuition rates for qualified Dreamers, he accepted the regents’ decision while blaming the courts.
The change in the atmosphere is palpable to Hamer, who recently returned from a trade mission to Guadalajara, Mexico.
“I was at your office at a podcast show. And I was asked if, during that visit, SB1070 came up at all, and up until the time that question was asked, the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind,” Hamer told the Arizona Capitol Times. “I’ve taken a number of these trips. That’s the first time where it wasn’t somewhere lurking in the room.”
Perhaps the biggest change can best be glimpsed in Pearce. He was on top of the world early in 2011. He had secured the Senate presidency and was still riding high on the passage of SB1070. But by November, he became the first legislator to get successfully recalled and ousted from office. He ran again in 2012, but was defeated by a Republican with a more nuanced approach to solving the country’s illegal immigration problem.
Having lost his tremendous political clout, Pearce is reduced to writing op-eds, recently lamenting the governor and lawmakers’ inaction following an “anarchist” judge’s decision that Dreamers are entitled to in-state tuition.
“At one point, I’ll be honest, he carried a big stick,” Gallardo said of Pearce. “He went from a stick to a toothpick.”
PUTTING ON THE PRESSURE
The most remarkable evolution, however, happened to the Dreamers. Many undocumented immigrants had retreated further into the shadows following the passage of Proposition 300 in 2006, which provides that residents who do not have lawful immigration status are not eligible to pay in-state tuition. But some refused to be cowed, and instead, turned SB1070 into a rallying point. Dreamers organized and adopted non-violent civil disobedience as a strategy.
They knew they had to win America’s sympathy first before they could move the political needle. So they escalated the political pressure by risking even deportation. In 2010, five young immigrants dressed in caps and gowns held a sit-in at U.S. Sen. John McCain’s Tucson office. It was the first time Dreamers risked being deported to countries where they’ve never lived to show the only nation they ever knew what it was doing to its children.
Other high-risk actions followed. Nine Dreamers (some were earlier deported to Mexico but others deliberately crossed into Mexico), marched into the U.S. border, got arrested, and drew attention to the Obama administration’s deportation record. Many credit the Dreamers for pressuring Obama to adopt the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The collective action of Dreamers and others also politicized the young and undocumented, including Sisa.
“When I saw other people fighting for me was when I said, well, what am I doing? I can’t leave my family’s future and mine, too, in other people’s hands,” she said. It helped that her deferred deportation application was accepted in 2013. She began speaking out, and recently penned an op-ed in The Arizona Republic to ask the university regents to allow her and other Dreamers to pay with in-state tuition.
But while things have a changed, a lot remained the same. Sisa’s parents don’t have the temporary protection she enjoys. Congress remains deadlocked, and the immigration rhetoric is likely to escalate as the 2016 presidential race approaches.
State Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who authored the birthright bill in 2011, said America is in the eye of the storm. The flow of illegal migrants to the U.S. had plunged during the Great Recession, and as the jobs disappeared, so did the “visible problem” of illegal immigration.
“When the jobs return – the border is unsecure as it always was – they’ll come back,” Kavanagh said. “And then we are going to have a replay of the whole situation.”
Hope, however, is the currency of dreams, and Sisa is optimistic about what the future holds.
“I can definitely see progress in the future. I don’t know if I would be brave enough to say that we know it’s going to happen. I think that if we work toward that, it will happen,” she said. “Especially with the presidential election coming up next year, we will approach the candidates. We will make sure that they are on our side – or else, we will make it impossible for them to get elected.”