By Matt Watson
Late Friday, a federal judge reversed Trump administration rules limiting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and instructed the Department of Homeland Security to begin accepting new applications starting today.
Joel Rivera’s application is ready.
The 19-year-old Metropolitan State University of Denver student decided against applying for DACA during the Trump presidency because he was afraid his information would be used to deport his family. That decision was made even more difficult by the fact that his sister Ruth, 22, was granted status during the Obama administration by the program providing work authorization and deportation protections for close to 700,000 people brought to the U.S. as children.
Receiving DACA status would jump-start Joel Rivera’s dream of serving the only country he’s ever known, he said.
“My whole life, I’ve wanted to serve. Because of my legal status, I was denied enlistment at a Marine Corps recruitment office,” he said. “After that, I tried the Police Department, and they said the same thing.”
Instead, Rivera set his sights on becoming a firefighter and enrolled this fall in the Fire and Emergency Response Administration Program at MSU Denver, an institution that has long supported immigrants and educates more undocumented students than any other college or university in the state.
With this latest legal victory and President-elect Joe Biden’s promises to immediately reinstate DACA, the Rivera siblings are cautiously optimistic that Dreamer-friendly policies are on the horizon. But they also want protections for their parents and other immigrants who don’t meet DACA qualifications.
“Obviously, we’d be very happy to have a legal status for me, my brother and other students like us, but it’s also important that our families are recognized,” Ruth Rivera said. “We’re not here on our own. Our community and our families need security too. They are valuable to us and to society.”
Joel Rivera followed his big sister to MSU Denver, where she is studying modern languages and human services. She wants to use her degree to bridge the gap between Spanish-speaking communities and mental-health professionals. One day, she might even work as a counselor.
The Riveras’ parents brought their children to America when Ruth was 4 and Joel was 1. Growing up in Westminster, Ruth said, she felt invisible. When it came time to choose a college, she chose the school that is a visible advocate for immigrants like her.
This fall, close to 400 undocumented students enrolled at MSU Denver, a federally designated Hispanic-Serving Institution and Colorado’s only modified open-access university. In September, the University launched UndocuHub, a centralized bilingual phone and digital resource where Colorado’s immigrant and undocumented populations can access legal, health care, housing, financial, education and employment information. MSU Denver established a special tuition rate for undocumented students even before DACA was created.
The Trump administration’s immigration policies left Ruth Rivera wondering whether her DACA protections would be taken away. She continued her studies with support from the University’s Immigrant Services Program and the fellowship she found through TheDream.Us, a national college-access scholarship program for Dreamers.
“It adds another layer of anxiety to college work and the stress of finals to have that thought in your mind, thinking all this effort could be for nothing,” she said.
Serving DACA students is grounded in MSU Denver’s mission and identity to provide educational access to and serve Colorado’s most vulnerable populations, said Michael Benitez, Ph.D., vice president for Diversity and Inclusion. Since opening its doors in 1965, MSU Denver has been a driving force in assuring that people from underrepresented backgrounds and marginalized identities have a shot at attaining an accessible, high-value and affordable education.
“MSU Denver has always made efforts to account for students’ diverse backgrounds and experiences while acting boldly – challenging injustice and creating access to new opportunities for the most vulnerable communities,” Benitez said.
Ultimately, Ruth Rivera chose MSU Denver because “I just felt like I would be supported and could connect with other people like me.”
As she prepares to graduate in May, she is determined to stand up for her family and Colorado’s immigrant community. In doing so, she follows in a long line of University leadership and alumni.
President Janine Davidson, Ph.D., has long been an outspoken advocate for DACA students and their families, signing on to a letter from state higher-education leaders to Colorado’s U.S. senators and representatives, urging them to enact permanent legislative protections for Dreamers. Trustee Marissa Molina is the first DACA recipient appointed to a state board and is a director for bipartisan immigration-reform organization FWD.us. Alumna and Dreamer Patricia Ordaz, 26, is a legislative aide in the U.S. Senate office of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and also serves on the board of the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association.
Now, Ruth Rivera is ready be the next Dreamer stepping forward to advocate for those in her family and community who cannot yet step into the light themselves.
“There is a little bit of fear, giving our names and photos (for publication),” she said. “But when I was undocumented, I felt very invisible. Like I didn’t matter. Like I was worthless. Now that I am a DACA recipient, I feel like this is what I have to do. I have to be visible for those who can’t necessarily be visible right now.”
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As for Joel, he’s excited that DACA applications are again open. Becoming DACAmented, as some in the immigrant community refer to it, would provide him the confidence to earn his college degree and step forward to serve his country.
Without DACA, he said, “I sometimes feel that I’m different from (other Americans). Sometimes it feels like we’re below them. We don’t have the same advantages.”
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