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Requiem for a Dream: Sonoma man in DACA limbo


Jesus Paez has lived in Sonoma for all but three of his 28 years.

He graduated from Sonoma Valley High School in 2007, studied computer science at Santa Rosa Junior College, and has worked at Sonoma Market for nearly nine years. His English is perfect, but his Spanish is rough: he never felt any real urgency to master the family’s native tongue.

They are from Guadalajara, Mexico, or were. Paez’s parents and four sisters live here now, and have since 1992. That year they crossed the desert from Mexico to the U.S., when Jesus was just 3 years old.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, was established by the Obama administration in 2012 with people like Jesus in mind.

Children, the thinking went, brought into the country illegally by their parents, shouldn’t be held to answer for laws they didn’t consciously violate. Undocumented children who’d been raised as Americans should not forcibly be repatriated in the same way as those who had deliberately broken the law.

Enrollment in DACA was available to so-called “dreamers,” people ages 15 to 30 who had been brought to the country without legal permission before the age of 16. The temporary protections of the program lasted for two years, and allowed enrollees legal permission to drive and work. Participation required registration of an applicant’s personal information with the federal government, and cost $465 every two years.

In 2012, when then-President Obama rolled out the program by executive order in response to a political impasse lasting more than a decade, nearly 800,000 “dreamers” signed on. Jesus Paez, who’d turned 23 that year, was among them.

But last month, on Sept. 5, every changed – President Trump rescinded the program, leaving DACA enrollees in a state of flux.

“If your DACA expires on March 5 or before, you have the chance to reapply by Oct. 5,” Paez explained. DACA enrollees from that particular cohort will be granted an additional two years of the program’s limited protections, but those falling outside of the timeline will receive none. “Mine doesn’t expire until next year – 2018 – and so I can’t renew it when it does expire,” Paez continued.

By holding paperwork timestamped for the wrong day, Jesus Paez is potentially looking down the business end of a deportation order in a few months. Despite the fact that he’s lived here his whole life, and has laid plans to move forward professionally. He’d like to become an X-ray technician, a skilled position paying as much as $120,000 per year.

“I’ve lived here pretty much my whole life. Since I was 3… I grew up here. If I do go back to Mexico, it’s a whole new world,” Paez said.

Paez returned to Mexico for the first time last year, using DACA’s “advanced parole” to legally re-enter the U.S. While there he felt like the foreigner that he in fact is: the people, the lifestyle, the machismo of the patriarchy seemed so different from the culture Paez was raised in that he felt ill at ease.

“Whenever I would walk on the streets I would get a vibe,” Paez said.

Immigration policy in the U.S. has been a political third rail for decades. In 2001, Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) co-sponsored the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or “DREAM Act,” a bill thick with exacting prerequisites that would have allowed undocumented children a path to permanent residency.

It went nowhere.

Iterations of that bill stalled in Congress in 2006, 2007 and 2009. In 2010 and 2011, similar bills again died on the vine, until 2012, when then-President Obama unilaterally created DACA with a stroke of his pen.

The same pen in President Trump’s hand has wrought different results, and Paez isn’t surprised.

“Since his campaign he’s always said he would end DACA. It took him a while, but we knew it was coming,” Paez said.

Paez believes DACA was always a stop-gap solution, a flawed, quick fix for a systemic problem. “DACA is a Band-Aid,” Paez said, because it ignores all the immigrants who aren’t designated “dreamers.”

“The term ‘dreamers’ kind of puts people into good and bad undocumented groups,” Paez said. “There are students who go to school and are perfect and compliant, but there are also good undocumented people who don’t keep going with their studies but actually do contribute to the community. They go to work and are good citizens, but don’t qualify as ‘dreamers.’”

And so what of those others? The ones who don’t qualify? Like Paez’s three older siblings, also brought to the U.S. as children but aged out of the 15 to 30 bracket by the time DACA arrived? Should those people be deported while the “dreamers” stay? “It would be pretty selfish to embrace a bill that’s exclusive,” Paez said.

On the heels of Trump’s suspension of DACA, Republican lawmakers introduced a new immigration bill in Congress this week. The SUCCEED Act –shorthand for “Solution for Undocumented Children through Careers Employment Education and Defending our nation” – proposes a 15-year path to citizenship for “dreamers” while preventing sponsorship of immigrants who fall outside its definition. The White House is expected to release immigration reform principles in the coming days.

Meanwhile, at La Luz Center – the local nonprofit which, among other initiatives, advocates for the Latino community – staff is in overdrive, staging an ambitious community awareness and support campaign.

“With enormous community support, we have reached the goal of raising $100,000 for the Crisis Campaign Fund,” La Luz executive director Juan Hernandez announced earlier this week. The fund will support Sonoma’s immigrant population with legal advice, facilitation of the citizenship process, and delivery of other new immigration services in the Valley.

So Jesus Paez waits and watches, his fate debated by politicians and partisans.

“It’s a hard way to live,” Paez admits. “Living in the shadows. Always that fear, always looking at your back… It’s hard to plan a life. You don’t know what your future holds.”

But, Paez says, he and others will keep fighting for immigrant rights and “not be fearful.”

“It gives you a warm feeling,” he says. “And more strength to keep on.”

Email Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.