Robert Gehrke: These University of Utah students show why the Supreme Court should protect Dreamers

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ciriac Alvarez leads a chant during a rally in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in West Valley City in support of Cecilia Figueroa on Friday Aug. 30, 2019.

Andrea Jiménez was five months old when her family left the poverty and instability of Mexico and settled in West Valley City.

“My parents always fostered the importance of education in me because obviously they came here to give me a better life and they sacrificed their entire lives for me to be able to have something that they didn't have,” Jiménez told me last week.

So she excelled in school, had a 4.0 grade point average and she got into UCLA and her dream pick, University of California at Berkeley, but she wasn’t able to attend because she couldn’t afford tuition and, being undocumented, couldn’t qualify for financial aid.

Likewise, she was offered a full-ride scholarship at the University of Utah, only to have it vanish because of her status.

She said, “Those were like a lot of heartbreaking moments that I had to accept.”

But because of the Deferred Access for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Barack Obama announced in 2012, Jiménez was able to turn the heartbreak into hope. With help and hard work, she found scholarships she was eligible to receive, worked full time and, after she graduates from the U., hopes to attend law school and become a civil rights lawyer.

Jiménez’s dreams — and those of nearly 700,000 young people like her, are in doubt after President Donald Trump terminated the DACA program in 2017.

Robert Gehrke

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments over whether Trump’s termination of the program — just one of his many cruel actions toward immigrants — was legal.

Several young Dreamers, as they are called, will be in Washington, D.C., adding their stories and their voices to the thousands who will gather from across the country demanding, even pleading, for the continuation of the program.

Ciriac Alvarez Valle will be there. Her parents came from Mexico when she was 5. The enactment of DACA opened new opportunities, enabling her to get a job and work her way through school. She graduated from the U. in 2017 with bachelor’s degrees in political science and sociology and has been working with Voices for Utah Children to help make sure children — including immigrant children — have access to health care.

She has been an outspoken advocate for DACA since Trump’s action, organizing and speaking at rallies and telling her story in the news media, even though she and others do so at considerable risk to themselves and their families.

There are others like her. Sinndy Rios was born in Guatemala but grew up in West Valley City.

“Since a young age [my parents] said higher ed would be a gateway to so many more opportunities,” she said. She is now in her third year at the U. and planning to go to law school after she graduates. She will be traveling to Washington.

Another U. student who asked that I not use his name came from the Philippines when he was 7, but didn’t even know he was undocumented until after his high school graduation, when his parents told him he couldn’t attend the colleges he’d been accepted to or accept their scholarships.

After DACA, he earned two bachelor’s degrees and is now in the master’s program.

These students have overcome enormous obstacles most of their classmates can’t comprehend and they credit their parents — who are often vilified for bringing them here — with instilling values, pushing them to study, working hard, making sacrifices to make them who they are.

“Our parents, most of them didn’t come here for themselves. They came here for us,” Jiménez said.

“There are so many people that have criminalized them and think they’re murderers and rapists who have no value, no humanity, but then they look at Dreamers and think we’re completely separate from them or these great individuals who are going to do great things,” she said. “In reality, we wouldn’t be here without our parents. We would be nothing without them. And they’re the reasons we’re going to do great things with our lives. They’re the reason why we’re trying to be good and contribute to society. It’s because of them.”

These nearly 700,000 young DACA recipients are a vibrant, essential part of the communities they are helping to build. A 2017 study found that 91% of those in the DACA program are working and nearly half are enrolled in school.

If Trump’s decision to revoke the program is allowed to stand, these young lives will be plunged back into chaos. They would lose the ability to work or go to school, but also would be in jeopardy of being “sent back” to a country they have never really known and likely have no roots in.

“I think it’s always funny when people ask me, like, ‘Oh, where do you see yourself in five years?’” one student, who was brought here from Peru when she was 3 and asked that I not use her name, told me. “Well, I can’t answer the question of where I see myself for next year, next month. It’s really exhausting and really takes a toll. … It’s just tiring having to live your life around an expiration date.”

Given the conservative makeup of the current U.S. Supreme Court, there is a good chance the justices will defer to the president and let his order go forward.

It is cruel and inhumane. And while it’s easy to blame Trump or the court if the program is rescinded, the real blame belongs to an inept, feckless Congress that has spent 20 years talking about the problem but moving us no closer to a solution.

Nationally, polls show that nearly nine out of 10 Americans support letting these young people stay in the country legally. A poll for The Salt Lake Tribune last year found 71% of Utahns supported letting the Dreamers stay in the country.

But, with the exception of Democratic Rep. Ben McAdams, Utah’s delegation isn’t helping.

McAdams co-sponsored a bill that passed the House in June to make DACA permanent. Reps. Chris Stewart, Rob Bishop and John Curtis voted against it. The legislation has been held up by Sen. Mitch McConnell and the Republican-controlled Senate.

Sen. Mitt Romney said he supports honoring our commitment and allowing the Dreamers to stay. Sen. Mike Lee has said a “balanced approach” is needed on the issue and has said he would support legislation that fixes the problem for Dreamers in exchange for funding for border security — essentially treating these young people’s lives as tokens to be traded to reach a political end.

Neither has sponsored or co-sponsored any legislation to address the issue.

It is way, way past time for Utah’s delegation to get off the sidelines, stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution. If this crop of politicians can’t figure it out, maybe the future leaders — like Andrea, Ciriac and Sinndy — can show us the way.