How this Utah Dreamer responds to the ongoing legal challenges to the immigration program

(Courtesy photo) Carlos Mejia is a graduate of Salt Lake Community College who is now pursuing a business degree from Utah Valley University.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

Carlos Mejia lived in Mexico until he was 6. That’s when his father saved enough money to move the family to the United States.

Mejia, a first-generation graduate of Salt Lake Community College, has lived here most of his life. He received an associate degree in psychology before transferring to Utah Valley University. He’s now pursuing a business degree.

“Being a first gen, my biggest dream is to walk down the stage,” Mejia said. He dedicated his associate degree to his parents “because they honestly sacrificed so much.”

However, this dream has been threatened more than once. Mejia has legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, established by the Obama administration in 2012 to protect thousands of young immigrants from deportation who were brought to the United States by their parents outside of the legal immigration system.

Former President Donald Trump sought to end the program.

“When I heard he wanted to take it away, I was going into spirals.” Mejia said. “Every day I lived with a fear that I was going to lose everything I had, and the idea of going back to Mexico and starting all over again honestly scared me.”

A Supreme Court ruling in 2020 has kept the program going, but it remains under threat. A federal judge in Texas on July 16 ruled that the program is illegal and ordered the Biden administration to stop granting new applications. That ruling is being appealed.

In response to the Texas decision, Salt Lake Community College President Denece Huftalin promised the college’s ongoing support for the young people known as Dreamers living in Utah.

“As Utah’s most diverse college, we want to reaffirm our ongoing support for all undocumented students,” Huftalin said.

SLCC’s Dream Center provides support for undocumented and mixed-status students. This support service specializes in individualized advising, outreach and scholarship aid for students. In the past academic year, the center aided more than 125 students and awarded more than $62,000 in scholarships.

Mejia works with Brenda Santoyo, the coordinator at the center. Santoyo is a Mexican American who stuck alongside her family when they faced deportation years ago.

“A lot of what I do now is for them, and because I couldn’t help them, I could help other people,” Santoyo said. “I feel like a lot of my background and a lot of what I do here is based off that one experience.”

(Courtesy photo) Brenda Santoyo is the coordinator of Salt Lake Community College's Dream Center, which helps students who are undocumented and with mixed legal status.

Santoyo believes Huftalin’s statement shows a pledge by the college to stand by its students.

The recent legal fight — along with the others over the past decade — have been upsetting to the Dream Center’s staff and to students like Mejia.

“I’m honestly tired of the constant battle, where every year something or someone thinks it’s unfair or someone has a problem, but no one is offering a solution,” Mejia said. “If we pay taxes, go to school, and we’re being kind citizens, I don’t see the point of not giving us citizenship or at least provide a little bit of protection where we feel better.”

Santoyo believes anti-immigration sentiment has increased in recent years, driven in part by Congress’ failure to modernize immigration laws. DACA is often talked about as part of a future immigration bill, but the House and Senate have done little.

“It was always a temporary solution, and there still hasn’t been a solution found,” Santoyo said. “I think all DACA has done is really increase access, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s a small population that it’s been able to help compared to the millions and millions of people who are undocumented.”

The Dream Center staff will continue to support “DACAmented” and undocumented students. The office is located on the first floor of the SLCC West Valley Center.

Juan Rios wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.