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(Paul Fraughton | Tribune file photo) University of Utah student Silvia Salguero wipes away tears as she talks about her personal experience and debate over the Dream Act in this file photo from last year.
Trailblazing Utah DREAMers hope to finish immigration fight

Undocumented immigrants who inspired Dream Act author Hatch go to D.C. as Senate tackles thorny issue.

First Published Jun 09 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated Dec 07 2013 11:33 pm

Zoning in on the stars from his Chihuahua, Mexico, rooftop, Jesus Loya dreamed of graduating from a U.S. university to become an engineer.

Cooking and caring for her six younger siblings in Michoacan, Mexico, Silvia Salguero dreamed of a nonviolent future for her family, a proper education and starting a business in the States.

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As undocumented immigrants navigating a curious culture, their paths would cross as outsiders inside the promise-filled corridors of Park City High School. Both teenagers trekked to the resort town in the mid-’90s — with no money and no English skills — lured by certain work in the surging economy.

Distinguished students upon graduation in 2000, Loya and Salguero soon emerged as trailblazing figures in a national debate that became the Dream Act.

Today — their friendship cemented by a crusading Spanish teacher, rejection by the Marines, and lobbying Sen. Orrin Hatch — they represent both ends of immigration’s portent. One is an MBA working in venture capital — the other, struggling in the hotel service industry as a part-time student with three children.

On Monday — as the Senate tackles its Gang of Eight immigration bill in earnest — Loya and Salguero will be in Washington, D.C., to put a homegrown face on the broadest immigration-reform decision in more than a generation. They also hope to finish their fight.

Foreign dream » Salguero arrived in Utah on Christmas Day 1995 during a brutally cold winter. The family had no warm clothes or beds but found "tenement" housing near the top of Park City’s Main Street. While her dad found sporadic work as a handyman, her mother cooked in restaurants, scarring her arms with boiling oil. Salguero cooked meals and cleaned alongside her four younger sisters and two younger brothers, none of whom spoke English.

"She became sort of a mother in the family — and in the middle of it, she had to do her homework," recalls Gerry Esplin, then a Park City High Spanish teacher, who became a mentor and close family friend. "She was very shy but she wanted to do the right stuff."

Terrified by the language barrier at 14 when he joined relatives living in Park City, Loya hated school and thought about moving back to Mexico after a month.

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"Something else inside me told me to stay," he says.

Loya worked two jobs, advanced quickly after mastering the language, and graduated at 16. School suited him, but he had another goal: Loya wanted to join the Marines. Despite earning high marks, Loya was rejected because of his invalid Social Security number.

As a result, Loya, alongside his close friend Salguero, turned their focus to college.

Political will » Both Loya and Salguero notched strong grades in high school and Salguero earned multiple scholarships to the University of Utah. But when she went to pay her tuition — determined to become a nurse — Salguero was turned away: Undocumented and ineligible.

"I was horrified. I literally came unglued," says Esplin, who morphed overnight from high school teacher to political champion for Park City’s undocumented Latino community.

"She said, ‘Are you OK if we go for it? You might get deported,’" Salguero recounts. "I said, ‘let’s do it.’"

Advised by Fred Esplin, the U. vice president she later married, Esplin was initially told "this is going to take an act of Congress." Instead, she started locally, lobbying then-Summit County Rep. David Ure and Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. The result: HB144, which made Utah just the fourth state at the time to allow undocumented students to enroll in state colleges — paying in-state tuition — as in-state residents.

Stephenson was won over during a visit to Park City High. On the Senate floor, he likened the plight of Latino students to Rosa Parks as a bus load of undocumented teens from Park City looked on from the gallery.

"They were blown away," Esplin says, remembering the hugs following the vote. "They saw what the American system can do, and what it means if it’s done right."

Salguero, noting out-of-state tuition is out of reach for most immigrants, says the legislation "changed a lot of lives — it was great."

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