EAGLE COUNTY -- Colorado’s Dreamers -- immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children -- are following closely as a 17-member congressional conference committee tries to come up with a border-wall funding deal that could include protections for them and possibly avoid another partial government shutdown on Feb. 15.
A three-year extension for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was part of a failed Senate bill last week that also included $5.7 billion for President Donald Trump’s promised wall along the border with Mexico.
Instead, Congress and Trump settled on reopening the government for a few weeks without agreement on a border wall.
The DACA program, begun under the Obama administration, helped some Dreamers to temporarily stay and work in the U.S. The Trump administration and its Republican allies have challenged the program since taking office.
Unlike the DREAM Act, which has been introduced in Congress several times but has never been adopted, the DACA program does not lead to citizenship for its beneficiaries.
“I don't care, give him the wall; just give me papers,” said 23-year-old DACA participant Rita Gutierrez, who was brought to Eagle County from Mexico when she was six months old and now lives and works legally with a work permit at a Vail restaurant.
“We’ve paid taxes. I wouldn't mind if my tax money went to the wall; just give me a green card," she said.
Gutierrez, who said she’s scared about the prospect of being deported to a country she’s never returned to and doesn’t consider home, contends the wall won’t stop illegal immigration.
“When we crossed the border when I was six months old, we crossed in the back of a semi. We didn't have to cross any wall or anything like that,” Gutierrez said. “We've crossed it. I know other people who have crossed it. It doesn't do anything. It’s just money wasted.”
DACA beneficiary Alex Trujillo, who like Gutierrez graduated from both Battle Mountain High School in Edwards and Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, has a little different take on whether wall funding should be part of a deal for DACA.
“There's always going to be people immigrating from Honduras to Guatemala to Mexico to the U.S.,” said Trujillo, 22. “Everybody is looking to better themselves and get a little piece of the American dream, right? Speaking for all the Dreamers, [we’d like to] just have our card and not build the wall.”
Trujillo, who was on Battle Mountain’s state championship soccer team in 2012 and now works legally for a sports performance training facility in Denver, was brought to Eagle County from Mexico illegally when he was 5.
Like Gutierrez, he says he's done everything required of him by DACA, including rigorous background checks, fingerprinting, continuous work and school.
Also like Gutierrez, Trujillo has tried at every turn to give back to the only community he’s ever known, graduating from the SOS Outreach program and mentoring at-risk youth.
Until last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision against expediting a ruling on the legal challenge to DACA, Trujillo said he was dealing with quite a bit of uncertainty about his professional path.
“I want to go back to school [for a master’s degree], but if I do, there’s a chance that I'm not going to be able to work legally, so I'm going to have to be working under the table or do some other stuff to get revenue,” Trujillo said of the possibility of DACA being scrapped and its temporary reprieve. “Now maybe it's time for me to go back to school. … I go to bed sleeping a little bit better, and I feel secure with my DACA card.”
The Supreme Court is unlikely to hear legal challenges to the program in this year's session, essentially leaving the law in place for the time being. There are an estimated 700,000 DACA recipients in the country, with about 17,000 of them living in Colorado.
The congressional conference committee trying to craft a shutdown and border compromise began meeting Wednesday.
Whether or not a DACA deal is part of the government shutdown showdown in Congress by Feb. 15, Gutierrez wonders how Dreamers can trust Trump after he alternately promised to show them “great heart” and then derailed a deal that would have protected DACA while providing $25 billion in wall funding just last year.
“How would that make me feel any better about him promising he'll take care of us -- like we'll get the DREAM Act eventually?” Gutierrez said. “I just feel like they’re empty promises at this point -- that he's willing to shut down the government for a wall that he knows damn well people are still going to cross anyway.”
Trujillo points out that Trump has benefited from immigrant labor, much of it illegal, at his golf courses and hotels for years.
“I'm sure he's aware of who works in his hotels and restaurants, who does the maintenance, cleaning, and it's mostly Hispanic people,” Trujillo said. “It’s a little bit hypocritical that he knows back behind the scenes of everything and he's still doing what he's doing [on immigration].”
Both Gutierrez and Trujillo would like to see passage of a clean version of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act like the bipartisan version co-sponsored by Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner in 2017 or the 2018 version sponsored by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin.
DACA recipient Marissa Molina, 26, who grew up in Glenwood Springs after being brought to Colorado from Mexico when was nine, now works in Denver for the tech industry lobbying group FWD.us, where she’s the newly named Colorado state immigration manager.
“DACA is still at risk of being terminated, and from what we know of the current efforts of the administration, they're going to continue to aggressively attack the program so that they're able to terminate it,” Molina said. “So it is key that Congress and the president end this crisis for folks like myself and make decisions that would get permanent protection to folks.”