Beyond Dreaming

Local DACA recipients take the push for immigration reform into their own hands.

click to enlarge YES organizers Sandra Onate and José Cabrera at a Nov. 12 rally. - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
YES organizers Sandra Onate and José Cabrera at a Nov. 12 rally.

On Sept. 5, President Donald Trump signed an executive order rescinding a five-year-old Obama administration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

It was a harsh moment for immigrants in the U.S. Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security to find an “efficient and orderly” way to end the program, part of the 2012 DREAM Act, and gave Congress six months to figure out how to handle the 788,000 DACA recipients nationwide who came to the United States before the age of 16 without documentation.

As time ticks down to a March deadline with little progress from Congress on a new DREAM Act, local DACA recipients wait in limbo to see whether they’ll be allowed to stay in the United States and be offered a path to eventual citizenship. But they’re not doing so sitting down.

Among the most vocal advocates for immigration reform locally is a group called Youth Educating Society (YES), a two-year-old organization comprised of high school and college-age DREAMers looking to push local members of Congress to action by sharing their stories, organizing rallies, conducting social media campaigns and other advocacy methods.

Mauricio Vivar Poncé is a member of YES. His parents brought him to the United States at the age of four in 2000 from the Mexican city of Puebla to find better economic and educational opportunities. They loaded Poncé and his 1-year-old brother into a van that drove them across the border, then walked across themselves from Tijuana into California. The family spent 10 years in a Los Angeles suburb before making their way to Cincinnati.

Poncé has hustled for work since he was old enough to shovel snow and help his father, who is a butcher. These days, he’s a cashier but hopes to rise up through the ranks of the company he works for into a corporate position. He says his employer has his back — and he wants his congressmen to be the same way.

“DACA was a lifeline for me, even though it was just conditionally for two years,” he says. “It will make it harder to find a job after my permit expires. But I’m going to keep going forward with my life. It’s just an obstacle that I’ll have to overcome — one of the many I have overcome. A lot of people are behind us, and it’s not such a closed world as I thought it would be. Once people know who you are, they have more compassion.”

The idea that immigrants’ stories can change hearts and minds drives YES, says Xavier University Entrepreneurship student José Cabrera, who helped found the group. YES is a branch of the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center based in Over-the-Rhine.

“It’s important because you allow yourself to become more human,” Cabrera says about speaking in public and sharing highly personal details of life without permanent documentation. “You’re making a connection with someone who possibly isn’t sure where they stood or has never met a human being who is an immigrant. A lot of times, people are surprised, but then it makes it easier for them to understand you. It makes it harder to be anti-immigration.”

For Cabrera, immigration advocacy is something of a family tradition. Like Poncé, his parents brought him to the United States when he was 4 years old. They left from Veracruz, Mexico, where they were “dirt poor on a dirt floor,” he says, to seek a better life.

A year after arriving in the U.S., Cabrera’s father got a job helping build Paul Brown Stadium and brought the family to Cincinnati. But when Cabrera was 8, his father left, leaving Cabrera’s mother to take care of her children alone.

It was during this tumultuous time that she met a retired immigration attorney named Don Sherman. Sherman, a founder of the Interfaith Worker Center in Over-the-Rhine, encouraged her to speak at rallies and other events raising awareness about the plight of immigrants.

“I remember every weekend we were going to rallies and marches. I would listen to my mom’s story,” Cabrera says. At one of those rallies, when he was 13, Sherman encouraged him to speak as well. “After that, I haven’t stopped.”

Now, Cabrera is the one doing the encouraging, helping to organize the 50 or so members of YES to push for better treatment of immigrants by the U.S. government.

"I started to get more involved with immigration rallies and sharing my story” after meeting Cabrera, Poncé says. “Which was pretty nerve-wracking. But José was like, ‘Go ahead and do it.’ ”

The young activists’ work has taken on more urgency after Trump’s September executive order.

Cabrera points out that many DACA recipients went into the military or have finished school and started careers and families. That makes pushing for the ability to stay in the U.S. all the more important, he says.

YES, along with IJPC, organized a rally that drew more than 250 people outside U.S. Sen. Rob Portman’s Cincinnati office the day the decision came down.

Another rally Nov. 12 crammed just about as many people chanting “education, not deportation” and the names of local congressmen followed by “escucha estamos en la lucha” (“Listen, we are here for the fight”) onto the corner of Third and Walnut streets across from Portman’s office.

YES issued a report card grading local elected leaders’ actions and statements on the DREAM Act. Portman scored a C-. Other local members of Congress fared worse — Kentucky’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell got an F, Cincinnati’s U.S. Reps. Steve Chabot and Brad Wenstrup both got a D- and even generally progressive Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown scored just a C, meaning YES thinks his position is vague on immigration reform.

Democrats in the Senate introduced a new version of the DREAM Act in July that extended a pathway to citizenship and a promise not to deport DREAMers. Even some Republicans signed on to that bill.

“These young people have lived in America since they were children and built their lives here,” Senate lead sponsor Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, said when it was introduced. “There is support across the country for allowing Dreamers  — who have records of achievement  —  to stay, work, and reach their full potential.”

Republicans introduced a more conservative version in the U.S. House without a pathway to citizenship. That bill also allowed the government to deport undocumented people with DACA-like status if they stopped working or going to school.

Neither bill passed, and with March looming, little progress has been evident of late.

“Members of Congress have failed to support the DREAM Act,” YES campaign manager Sandra Onate, a student at NKU, told the crowd at the Nov. 12 rally. “This is a call to action. Call them, call them, never stop calling them. Leave them voicemails. That’s the way we can pressure them.”

Cabrera and other YES organizers say such efforts are about more than just DACA — they’re about comprehensive reform of the U.S. immigration system in a way that allows people like his mother a path to a safe, productive life here.

“Even if the DREAM Act passes, we’re still going to have families separated," Cabrera says. “That’s not what my mom fought for when she was in this movement. It’s not what I was raised to fight for. The DREAM Act is just a stepping stone.”

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