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Undocumented and Unafraid: The Dreamers’ Fight for Human Rights Continues

By Eileen Truax

Border fence that separates San Diego, CA from Tijuana, Mexico
Border fence that separates San Diego, CA from Tijuana, Mexico. Photo credit: V. T. Polywoda

“Numbers are not looking well.” This was the welcome phrase that I got just a minute after I arrived to the Election Night Watch Party organized by a group of academics in Downtown Los Angeles. Electoral results were falling state by state, and the evidence started appearing before our eyes: Donald Trump, a man who verbally attacked Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, journalists, women; the one who promised to build a wall in the border and to deport eleven million undocumented immigrants, was about to become President Elect.

My first instinct was to look around. An event that has become a tradition during election nights in this city, the place was full of politicians and their young aides, journalists, activists, and as part of the latter, the leadership of undocumented youth groups, those known as Dreamers.

As many now know, the Dreamers are those young undocumented men and women who were brought by their parents to the United States when they were minors—some of them just two or three years old. They have spent virtually all their lives here, studying, speaking the language, sharing the culture, planning their future and how to thrive, just as any other American kid; but due to their lack of proper immigration documents, once they become adults, they can’t do much: they don’t have a work permit, or a driver’s license, or access to scholarships to attend college. Although a legislation piece aiming to fix this situation, the DREAM Act, was presented in Congress in 2001, it has languished there for fifteen years without being approved.

In 2012, President Barack Obama ordered an Executive Action known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which gave undocumented youth a temporary work permit and an exemption from deportation. This measure was renewed in 2014 and 2016, but during his campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly stressed that he would revoke the program and deport their beneficiaries, as well as the rest of the undocumented population.

Like many other people in this country, after the election results were confirmed, I couldn’t sleep. I was checking my Facebook page and clearly many of my contacts were not sleeping either. Some of them were Dreamers, and after the initial shock, their messages started to look very similar to each other: invitations to keep fighting, to not feel defeated, to stay strong.

“I’ve lived my whole life undocumented and fearing the worst,” shared one girl from Arizona. “My parents have been fighting for more than twenty years to give us a better life. I will not do anything that we have not done before. I’m ready to stand up and fight back.”

Next Sunday, on his first TV interview as President-elect, Donald Trump changed the numbers: he said that he would deport two or three million undocumented immigrants, giving priority to those who have criminal charges or represent a threat for the United States.

Although three million is still a large number, if Donald Trump keeps that criteria to be applied to deportations, he would be walking in the footsteps of the Obama administration. What that young woman stated on her Facebook page on Election night is true: although DACA provided some relief to about one million young people, the threat for our communities is not new. Barack Obama has deported the highest number of undocumented immigrants in the country’s history, an average of 400,000 a year: more than three million during his administration.

Not only have the numbers have been high, but the criteria to make those deportations has not being applied as Obama stated. Until 2014, less than half of the people deported by the US government had some kind of criminal charge on their record.

If this is the policy that Mr. Trump will apply during his administration, we can expect that many hard working families will keep being separated, just as they have in recent years. And just like then, their only alternative will be: stand up and keep fighting back.


DreamersEditor’s Note: The following excerpt is from Eileen Truax’s Dreamers: An Immigrant Generation’s Fight for the American Dream. One of the Dreamers Truax interviewed was Nancy Landa, whose family came to the United States from Naucalpan in the state of Mexico when she was nine. One morning in 2009, immigration agents detained her while she was driving to her government office job in California. She was twenty-nine at the time. With only the clothes on her back and her handbag, she was put on the immigration bus from a Los Angeles detention center to Tijuana, Mexico, where she had to build a new life for herself.

On June 15, 2012, she found out through her friends that President Obama had announced the Deferred Action program, which unfortunately came three years too late for her and her family. She decided to fight back the way she could, by writing a letter to President Obama, telling him about her circumstances. His response was not what she expected.


June 17, 2012

The Honorable Barack Obama, President of the United States

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20500

RE: Order to End Deportation of Young Undocumented Immigrants

Dear Mr. President:

I was moved to know that after 26 years of inertia, there is now in place a policy that will allow young undocumented immigrants to integrate themselves into the fabric of American society. At the same time, it was hard for me to accept that this reform came almost three years too late for my brother and I, whom would have otherwise qualified. Instead, we were deported at age 27 and 29, respectively.

Starting at the age of nine, I was part of a class of people that lived in the shadows afraid to be exposed due to our legal status. Despite these challenges, I excelled academically and graduated in the top three percent of my high school class. I went on to earn my B.S. degree. I was an active participant in my community offering countless volunteer hours to further social causes.

Four years ago I thought your candidacy offered the hope we needed to change the direction of the country including its current immigration laws. Although I could not vote for you, I volunteered on your campaign believing that reform could be possible. The reality is that under your administration, deportation of non-criminal undocumented immigrants has increased and has contributed to more family separations than during the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. The failure to take action earlier has irreversibly impacted the lives of hundreds of immigrants that are thrown out of the United States on a daily basis. I and my family are among that number.

I was forced out of a country I called home without the opportunity to collect my financial documents or a change of clothes that would have allowed me to sustain myself that first week in Tijuana. Yet I continue to live with limited professional prospects in my native country due to current US policies.

I write to you now, to request three changes that would make a difference for people like me:

  1. Increasing accountability of the Customs Enforcement Agency and their deportation procedures
  2. Removing the 10-year ban for deportees so they can successfully appeal their cases
  3. Reforming the visa process so deportees who are working in their country of origin and are required to travel to the US for business purposes are not ineligible for a visitor’s visa

What I really hope for is true immigration reform that provides the 12 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship. In the meantime, implementing the above changes will make the current legal process more humane.

Most respectfully,

Nancy Landa

Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

In response, she received this letter from the president.

Dear Nancy:

Thank you for writing. I have heard from many Americans concerned about immigration and I appreciate your perspective.

Americans are rightly frustrated with our Nation’s broken immigration system, and I share that frustration. We need an immigration system that meets America’s 21st-century economic and security needs. We can achieve such a system only by putting aside politics and coming together to develop a comprehensive solution that continues to secure our borders, holds businesses responsible for who they hire, strengthens our economic competitiveness, and requires undocumented immigrants to get right with the law. That is how we can reaffirm our heritage as a Nation of immigrants and a Nation of laws.

My Administration has invested an unprecedented amount of resources, technology, and manpower to secure our borders, and our efforts are producing real results. Today, our Southern border is more secure than ever, with more law enforcement personnel than at any time in American history—and there are fewer illegal crossings now than at any time in the past 40 years. Crime rates along the border are down, and we have seized more illegal guns, cash, and drugs than in years past. In addition to doing what is necessary to secure our borders, my Administration is implementing a smart, effective immigration enforcement policy which includes taking action against employers who knowingly exploit people and break the law, as well as against criminal immigrants who pose a threat to safety of American communities.

Stopping illegal immigration also depends upon reforming our outdated system of legal immigration. My Administration is working to strengthen and streamline the legal immigration system through administrative reforms, making it easier for employers, immigrants, and families to navigate the system. For example, we have reduced barriers to citizenship by keeping application fees constant and providing and creating tools to help applicants through the naturalization process. Through the innovative “Entrepreneurs in Residence” initiative, we are streamlining existing pathways for foreign-born entrepreneurs to come and create businesses and jobs in our country. Finally, we are working to support families by addressing a serious barrier in the law which requires Americans to risk years of separation from their loved ones, particularly spouses and children, in order to process a family visa petition. By proposing a waiver before these families separate, we are advancing legal immigration and the reunification of families—both fundamental principles under the law.

I remain deeply committed to working in a bipartisan way to enact immigration reform that restores accountability and responsibility to our broken immigration system. The Federal Government has the responsibility to continue to secure our borders. Those immigrants who are here illegally have a responsibility to pay taxes, pay a fi ne, learn English, and undergo background checks before they can get on a path to earn legal status. At the same time, we need to provide businesses a legal way to hire the workers they rely on, and a path for those workers to earn legal status.

The law should also stop punishing young people who were brought to this country as children by giving them a chance to stay and earn a legal status if they pursue higher education or serve in our military. In the absence of any action on immigration from Congress, my Administration will continue to focus our enforcement resources on high-priority individuals, including those who present national security or public safety concerns and those who have recently entered our country. As another step in this process, on June 15, 2012, the Department of Homeland Security announced it will allow eligible young people who do not present a risk to our national security or public safety to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization. This is not a path to citizenship, and it is not a permanent fix—only Congress can provide that. This is only a temporary measure to allow us to focus our resources wisely while giving a degree of relief and hope to talented, driven, and patriotic young people.

By creating a 21st-century immigration system that is true to our principles, our Nation will remain a land of opportunity, prosperity, and freedom for all. To learn more about my Administration’s efforts regarding immigration, or to read our Blueprint for Immigration Reform, please visit www.WhiteHouse.gov/Issues/Immigration. For additional information and resources on current immigration and enforcement efforts, I encourage you to visit www.DHS.gov or call 1–800–375–5283.

Thank you, again, for writing.


Barack Obama

“There was a Vietnamese restaurant in Silver Lake, that was my favorite,” Nancy tells me, nostalgic, when I ask her what she misses about the United States. “I miss that food; you can’t find it here. There is Chinese food all over the place, but if I’m in the mood for Greek, Cuban, or Korean food, that’s not easy to find in Tijuana. But I have had the best Mexican food of my whole life here.”

The wave of nostalgia disappears when we start talking about the letter she sent to President Obama and his response. Her expression hardens, portraying a mix of disbelief and controlled rage.

“I’m still really angry,” she says. “It’s my country, but they threw me out; that still hurts a lot. It hurts knowing that the Deferred Action program came too late for me and knowing that, even after announcing it, they keep on deporting young people that do meet the program’s requirements. That’s why I decided to write to him, to tell him about my experience. I didn’t do it for myself; I did it for the people around me, for all the stories I hear every day. I’m happy for everybody that will benefit from the program, but what about the ex-Dreamers? How are we doing outside of the country? Does anybody remember us, or think about the obstacles we have to overcome just to survive, or how we’re going to manage?

“So I sent off that letter, and two months later I got that reply. A typical politician’s response: a form letter. In one part at the end he says they are focusing on high-priority cases that pose a threat to national security, and deportations are based on that. So I’m a high-priority criminal and that’s why I got deported?! He sends that to me as a response? He sends a form letter? They didn’t even read my letter. They just sent me this reply they had all prepared. The really ironic thing is they send it to me, somebody who has actually been deported. That says a lot about his administration.”

The time comes to say good-bye, and Nancy stands up. She seems taller, confident, in control. She has a charisma about her. As we walk out, she seems to radiate a special strength, reflecting her ability to get the most out of even the smallest resources she has to draw from. But she also looks tired. Once more, our conversation turns to Tijuana.

“I have come to love this city, because it’s not what I thought it would be,” she says. “I think my life is less stressful now. It has to do with the different pace things move at here compared with the United States, and my priorities have changed. Before, my career was what mattered most to me, to keep on moving up. Then you get to this point where you lose everything, you have to start over from the very beginning, and you decide you just want to enjoy life and not necessarily land some super amazing job. I know I have to keep fighting, especially since I see there is potential here in Mexico, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t have the quality of life that we deserve.”


About the Author

Eileen TruaxOriginally from Mexico, Eileen Truax is a journalist and immigrant currently living in Los Angeles. She contributes regularly to Hoy Los Angeles and Unidos and writes for Latin American publications including Proceso, El Universal, and Gatopardo. Truax often speaks at colleges and universities about the Dreamer movement and immigration. Follow her on Twitter at @EileenTruax.