It was just another day in his sophomore year at Ashland High School, when suddenly the aunt of Jonathan Chavez Baez grabbed him out of class and explained that he and his brother must go into hiding, as his parents had been nabbed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
It was a hellish experience, the most dreaded one for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students, but Baez got through it, went to community college, graduated from Southern Oregon University and got his citizenship.
Now he devotes his efforts to protecting other Latinos raised and enculturated in the United States, as coordinator of the Minority Outreach Program at SOU, he explained during a panel discussion Sunday at the university. The university helped him financially and in other ways, including by being a sanctuary college and, he emphasized, the money for such students does not mean less money for non-DACA students — and that undocumented immigrants have “paid billions of dollars in taxes.”
Panel members are educating and taking actions to defeat Oregon Initiative Petition 22, which is seeking signatures to get on the November ballot. It would repeal the law that allows sanctuary cities. Petitioners are also encouraging Congress to renew DACA law protections, which expire in March. DACA was enacted in 2012 under the Obama administration but rescinded by the Trump administration last September, effective March 5. It protects an estimated 800,000 people.
The DACA stories were not easy to listen to. Baez said his mother was suddenly fired from her bank supervisor job in Mexico and, because of her age, mid-30s, couldn’t find another job. She brought her children here for a better life, but raised her kids by cleaning houses. He helped her by cleaning toilets.
“It breaks my heart,” he said, that a good friend is about to graduate from SOU’s nursing program, but is illegal and very afraid he could be deported at any time.
Victoria Bencomo, Graduation Specialist for the Migrant Education Program at Southern Oregon Education Service District, said DACA “gave so many students a sense of relief that they could come out of the shadows and and work jobs and fit in here … but now they are under attack by this administration and are viewed negatively in school and workplace. They’re terrified and feel unsafe. It’s a stigma to their friends if they know someone is undocumented. They are afraid to apply for scholarships (because their names get in databases).”
With increased enforcement and lack of Oregon driver’s licenses (voters in 2014 defeated the vital ID by 70 percent), she said, “A high percentage want to drop out of school. We see lack of access to health care. We have families that never complain because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves. There was hope but now it’s having a big impact on emotional health. Many don’t ever leave their houses. It’s shocking for them.”
It would help if people had better understanding of how immigrants are driven by the despair in Central America, she says, mainly from the physical danger, lack of career opportunity and the drying impact of climate change.
“They don’t know how bad it is over there. When NAFTA came in, a lot of people lost everything. I had family members who saw other family murdered in front of them.”
Kathy Keesee of Unete in Medford said 45 percent of Mexico lives in extreme poverty and “crops don’t grow because it’s dry from climate change. You can’t even grow food anymore. You can’t become a doctor or engineer, but here, you can. They simply can’t survive there.”
The line she hears most, says Keesee is, “I want my children to have a better life than me … But now, when you kiss your children goodbye in the morning, you don’t know if you’ll see them again.”
Campus organizer Devon Backstrom said, “When you can make the life of children better, you must. You have a third of the world’s population and two-thirds of the wealth. You have the American Dream.”
After walking through the labyrinth of immigration law, Medford immigration attorney John Almaguer said, “These are American families. Immigration is what has always made America great.”
He urged calling of legislators multiple times and taking small “actions,” such as educating friends, however “people with closed minds are not going to change them. When people say they want you to go through the steps their grandparents went through a century ago, remind them that in 1918, there were no restrictions at all.”
His wife, Alma Rosa Alvarez, an SOU English professor and moderator of the event, said, “DACA gave them an opening and made them unafraid. They’re going to have to feel quasi-safe to live under the Trump administration.”
SOU President Linda Schott, the keynote speaker, has repeatedly affirmed her support of DACA and preservation of the rights of all students, regardless of immigration status, to learn at the school.
—John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.