Borderland DREAMer fights on for rights of immigrants to stay as March deadline looms

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As a Communication student at UTEP, I had the opportunity this year to do an internship at the non-profit Columban Mission Center in El Paso. During my four months there, I had countless opportunities to interview pastors, refugees, travelers, and students from other universities, publish an article on the organization’s web site, and the chance to work alongside members of our branch in Washington D.C. The purpose of the Columban Mission Center is to help urge Congress to pass the Dream Act before the end of the year.

Although I enjoyed the work and accompanying tasks, what inspired me most was the chance to interview DACA recipient Claudia Yoli and capture in words her compelling story.  Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, is a program approved by former President Barak Obama in 2012, and allows young eligible immigrants to obtain a work permit and grants them protection from deportation.

The program expires March 5 of next year and current President Donald Trump, who does not support the program, has left it to Congress to let the program expire or pass legislative protections for the recipients. Aside from the Columban Mission Center urging legislators to pass a “clean Dream Act,” Democratic state attorneys general are also pushing Congress to approve a concrete plan to regularize the status of DACA recipients before the end of the year.  As of September, 690,000 immigrants had received protection under DACA, a majority of them from California and Texas.  In Texas alone, 124,300 individuals have been approved under DACA.

Yoli, who I interviewed during the internship, was born in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela.  She entered the United States at eight years of age with her single mother.  She attended public schools in the U.S., graduated from Coronado High School in El Paso and studied at the University of Texas El Paso.

She was an intern in the Washington, DC office of U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX16) during the government shutdown in 2013, and also worked on former Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis’ campaign for Texas governor in 2014.  

Yoli now works as the Director for Community Affairs for El Paso State Sen. Jose Rodriguez. In addition, she launched an online fundraiser to cover expenses of DREAMers to travel to Washington D.C.  She says she is committed to continuing her advocacy on behalf of DREAMer by helping organize events and debates about the issue in various locations. 

She came to my attention through my internship director Robert Mosher, who encouraged me to interview her because of her background and strong advocacy on behalf of immigrants.

My first attempt to reach her was via email with no luck. I sent several more emails and she finally responded to my fourth and agreed to be interviewed over the phone, but not for two weeks. She’s a busy woman.  Luckily, my deadline was still two weeks away.  During our 20-minute interview I eased into the conversation with general, noncontroversial questions that would not make her uncomfortable. As the interview progressed I moved on to more personal questions about her background and immigration status.  Although I was sympathetic and moved by her story, I avoided including my opinion in the final product.  

When my article was published by the Columban Mission Center I was proud.

To be able to tell the story of courageous and outspoken immigrants like Yoli, who normally don’t have a voice in our society, gave me added drive and kindled my passion to become a journalist, and continue to tell the stories of those in similar situations.  

This, my first journalistic interview, was hard but worth it.

Q & A with Claudia Yoli, DACA recipient

Me: Of course you’re aware of President Donald Trump’s desire to terminate DACA, correct? When the announcement was made or when you had heard of it, where were you at the time and what were your first thoughts?

Yoli: Yes, I was actually doing a live interview as (U.S. Attorney General) Jeff Sessions was making the announcement to end the DACA program. When I was asked about my original thoughts, I answered ––it wasn’t surprising but it was still devastating.

What are your thoughts now?

Yoli: My thoughts right now are to organize. It’s imperative that Congress pass comprehensive legislation that would protect all immigrants from deportation and provide us with a pathway to citizenship.

What about these challenging claims and narratives of DACA recipients being criminals, does it make you feel targeted in a way? How would you like to see natural-born citizens support/stand in solidarity with DACA recipients?

Yoli: I think there is a lot of misconception in this country about what immigrants and border communities looks like. There is a lot of hateful rhetoric being spit out at us by this current administration. They conflate crime and paint all immigrants under a broad brush. Immigrants, documented or not, are vital members of the communities we live in and provide tremendous benefits to the economy. I won’t allow others to criminalize my mother for making the difficult decision to move to this country.  Most of the parents of the current DACA recipients were the original DREAMers. They dreamed of better opportunities, and provided us with a better life. We should acknowledge their accomplishments and contributions not criminalize their act of love.

What was your life like before DACA and what opportunities did it allow you to pursue?

Yoli: I had applied for a green card in 2011, but it was denied. This was three months prior to my high school graduation, and also the same day that I had received an acceptance letter from my dream university in Boston. A few weeks after the decision, I received a deportation letter in the mail. I was under removal proceedings when the DACA program was established the year after. DACA protected me from deportation and allowed me to legally work in the United States. I’ve been a taxpayer ever since. The DACA program empowered me to continue my education, establish a career, and become active in my community. 

Have you given thought to what your life would look like after March 5, the date that brings DACA to a close?

Yoli:  I have the privilege of being part of a mixed status family, as my two older brothers are U.S. citizens. I’m privileged to witness first-hand the countless benefits that immigrants can offer when they are provided with a pathway to citizenship. I also have a lot of my family in Venezuela, a country where I haven’t been since I was 8 years old. Every immigrant is at risk under this racist administration.   I often stress and worry because I know the possibilities of deportation are high. We’ve already seen cases of DACA recipients being detained, at checkpoints or at airports, and some even being deported. There is always the thought at the back of my mind that if I were deported, I would be sent back to a foreign country that is unstable ––a country that has the worst economy in the world, where people are literally eating food off the streets and dying just to make ends meet. My life is here in El Paso, a community with values that I have adopted as my own.

Have you all taken any action on behalf of passage of the Dream Act such as involvement in marches or meetings?

Yoli:  I’m a member of the Border DREAMers Alliance, a coalition of DREAMers representing Southern New Mexico, West Texas, and the Rio Grande Valley. Just a few weeks ago, we traveled to Washington D.C. where we met with members of Congress and asked for their support on the DREAM Act. Together we sent a strong message––we deserve a pathway to citizenship, but our dreams don’t come attached with the price tag of border militarization, stricter immigration policies that break our families apart and, or funding for a senseless wall.

I’m also a founding member of Education Not Deportation, a coalition of students and community groups that are actively organizing to transform local educational institutions into sanctuary campuses; and a member of Soñando Juntos, the El Paso affiliate of United We Dream.

Any last thoughts?

As DREAMers living on the Borderland we know that our narrative and experiences are very different, unique and important as we partake in a national conversation about immigration policy.

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