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‘Dreamers’: At risk for an American nightmare

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Ruiz, a recent college graduate, hopes to someday become a university professor. She is pictured at her parish, St. Malachy Church in Los Angeles. (photo/Alexandra Cooper)

Paulina Ruiz was born in Chihuahua, Mexico. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy shortly after birth, by the tender age of 6, Ruiz required urgent surgery on her legs. Luckily, she and her family were granted medical visas to visit the United States.

One surgery led to many more necessary surgical procedures, treatments and therapies over the ensuing several years. Wanting the best possible medical care for their firstborn child — and better overall opportunities for all four of their beloved children — her parents opted to remain in the U.S. and start a new life.

“Unfortunately, the people with disabilities where I’m from don’t go out in society or partake in any therapies,” noted Ruiz. By contrast, being in the U.S. gave her access to needed medical care and a significantly better quality of life.

For more than 25 years, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has celebrated National Migration Week as an opportunity to reflect on the circumstances facing migrants in this country, including immigrants, refugees, children and human trafficking victims. The theme for 2017 — “Creating a Culture of Encounter,” Jan. 8-14 — reminds Catholics to look beyond their needs to the needs of those around them, as encouraged by Pope Francis during his first Pentecost homily as pope.

“Migration is, more than anything, an act of great hope,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, USCCB vice president, in a joint statement.

“Our brothers and sisters who are forced to migrate suffer devastating family separation and most often face dire economic conditions,” the statement continued. “Refugees flee their countries due to war and persecution, which inspires them to risk everything for an opportunity to live in peace.

“As Catholics in the U.S., most of us can find stories in our own families of parents, grandparents or great-grandparents leaving the old country for the promise of America. … Let us remind ourselves of those moments when our loved ones were forced to seek the mercy of others in a new land.”

But for Ruiz and others like her, “mercy” may soon become a closed door.

During the summer of 2012, President Barack Obama implemented an executive order — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — calling for temporary deportation relief and work permits for certain undocumented young people who arrived in the U.S. as children. To date, more than 725,000 young immigrants — often referred to as “Dreamers” — have been DACA program recipients across all 50 states, according to the Center for American Progress.

But the election of President-elect Donald Trump has left the future of Dreamers and other undocumented residents up in the air. During his presidential campaign, Trump routinely pledged to get rid of DACA and vowed there would be “no amnesty” for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

By contrast, last month Trump told Time magazine that “we’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy,” without divulging any specific plan details. But in the event Trump opts to phase out DACA as promised, there are reports that a bipartisan bill is being drafted to help protect Dreamers.

Ultimately, the future remains uncertain and only time will tell, according to Patricia Ortiz, attorney and program director for Catholic Charities’ Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles, a not-for-profit legal organization that defends, educates and advocates on behalf of immigrants.

“Unfortunately, right now we just don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Ortiz. “Democratic Congress people are trying to find ways to protect [Dreamers], and similarly [President Barack] Obama is trying to find a way to appeal to Trump.

“For the past few years [this population] has finally been able to come out of the shadows and really, truly be more productive,” she continued. “A lot of them at this point [are college graduates] and have advanced degrees. They’re the kind of people that you want to stay here to really benefit the United States.”

One of those Dreamers is Carlos Mendez, 26, who graduated from California State University Long Beach last year with a bachelor’s degree in film and television production. Born in Mexico, his parents brought him to the U.S. at the age of 3.

Raised in South Los Angeles, Mendez took odd jobs as a student to help make ends meet — from peddling soft drinks to selling televisions and other electronics. He eventually saved up enough money to open his own small business: a party supplies store, which helped him pay his university tuition fees and class materials, and has allowed him to help his family financially as well.

Mendez also devotes time to his passion: developing his talents as a filmmaker. He has created numerous short films — including “The Human Wall,” which he released on YouTube pre-election and imagined possible consequences of a Trump presidency — and he has won several short-film competitions.

“I decided to major in this career in film and television to express a lot of voices [and stories] of people who live in the shadows, those people who can’t stand up for themselves,” Mendez told Angelus News. “This was an opportunity for me also to express my own thoughts about how I feel about certain situations.”

But when his concerns and worries get the best of him, he turns to God.

“I talk to him — he’s always present, he’s always there … and he hears me out,” said Mendez, who attends Mother of Sorrows Church in Los Angeles.

Ruiz, also a DACA recipient, is anxiously facing an unclear fate as well.

“It’s very uncertain when it comes to my future,” explained Ruiz, 25, who graduated in 2016 with a B.A. in Spanish literature from UCLA. “I want to continue my education. My focus this year was to enroll in a master’s program, because I want to ultimately pursue a Ph.D. But because … the future is so uncertain, I had to push my goal a year [forward], because I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the Dreamers — if Trump is going to help us or not.”

Despite the myriad difficulties and challenges she has endured throughout her life, Ruiz said she has always tried to maintain “a positive outlook on life.”

“I don’t think I see myself as having a disability, and that has helped me kind of achieve my goals and try to adapt to the so-called ‘normal’ world,” she said, adding that her mother has always told her that her “only defense against a world that didn’t really give me an opportunity from birth was through education.”

“It’s going to be disappointing if [DACA is] taken away,” Mendez lamented, noting he would basically have to “start from scratch” if he loses the precious few, though helpful, DACA benefits, such as having a work permit — which allows him to work the overnight shift at a big-box store to help supplement his unsteady small business income. Mendez, it seems, is always working, always creating.

“I see [the possible loss of DACA] as a shutdown of our voices,” he said. But, no matter what the future holds, “they can’t deport my imagination, they can’t deport my ability to create and write and express [myself],” added Mendez.

“This country has given me the greatest opportunities … so I want to contribute back,” stressed Ruiz, who aspires to someday become a university professor. “I do not want to depend on the government. I am not here to steal jobs.

“I think,” she continued, “that I [am] here to help better society.”

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