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Petaluma ‘dreamers’ fear end of DACA


It was the first time in 25 years that Zahyra Garcia felt like she could breathe.

The sense of relief came after the Petaluma resident applied for and received benefits from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) after the Obama-era program was instated in 2012.

It allowed Garcia, whose parents illegally spirited her to America from Acapulco, Mexico when she was 1, the opportunity to obtain temporary protected status, safeguarding her from deportation while paving the way for her to get a driver’s license, a Social Security numberer and legal work status.

That protection for young people brought to the country illegally by their parents was temporary and required renewal every two years, but it did not grant lawful status.

Last year, Garcia, who lives in Petaluma with her wife and their child, quickly pursued and was granted permanent residency after she first heard that Donald Trump was running for president. In the wake of a campaign filled with anti-immigration rhetoric, President Trump Sept. 5 made good on a promise to end DACA, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the lives of many in Sonoma County. The program will be phased out over six months, leaving the fate of so-called “dreamers” in the hands of Congress.

“It’s not just (ending) a program, it’s basically disrupting your whole life,” Garcia, 29, said. “The other day we found out, and I can’t imagine – it’s just the anticipation of what’s my life going to be when your life just depends on politics and this program. This is what protects you.”

Working with her activist group Together We Will Stand Indivisible, Petaluma, she organized a Defend DACA rally that drew nearly 300 attendees on Sunday. A second, separate vigil was held in Petaluma the previous day.

“One of the messages we wanted to convey is that they’re in our community and they are us,” said Paul Guerrero, a co-organizer. “We were there to let them know … that we are an army of people standing between the White House and them.”

Activism serves as a balm of sorts for Garcia as she attempts to navigate the tumultuous waters of the Trump administration, with policies that also threaten her father, who remains undocumented.

It’s the same thing that helps DACA recipient Hector Jiminez, a Santa Rosa Junior College student who was long involved in the Dream Center at the Petaluma campus, continue to function as his entire life hangs in the balance of the policies set by decision makers.

Jiminez, who plans to transfer to a four-year university next fall to work toward becoming an immigration lawyer, is not eligible to renew his DACA benefits. Only those whose DACA is set to expire by March 5, 2018 will be given until Oct. 5 to reapply for a final two-year renewal.

Unless a replacement program is enacted, his temporary shield will be taken away, calling into question the future of his education, his current job at the college’s Dream Center, and his plans for a life in America. In his post at the center, where he helps with DACA and other immigration issues, he’s processed an influx of new applications, and has been involved in workshops and other educational forums.

“For me personally, it’s very difficult – just everything I’ve worked up to until this point and where I’m at now would be ripped away from me if I were deported. I would have to go to a country I have not lived in,” said Jiminez, whose parents brought him across the U.S. boarder from Oaxaca when he was 1.

Among other concerns, he worries about what might happen to his two younger brothers, both American citizens who suffer from complex heart issues that require constant and rigorous medical care, if he or his undocumented parents were to be deported.

He is not alone in his struggle. Of the roughly 800,000 current DACA recipients in the nation, one-quarter of them are in California, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In Sonoma County, there were an estimated 6,000 youth eligible for DACA in 2016, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Steve Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education, said there are an estimated 2,500 undocumented students enrolled in K-12 in Sonoma County. At Santa Rosa Junior College, the majority of the 1,514 undocumented students are thought to be DACA recipients, according to Pedro Avila, the vice president of student services.

Jordan Panana Carbajal, who came to Petaluma from Lima, Peru, at age 4, said that while the uprising in the wake of the DACA repeal is reassuring, the national and local conversation should focus more on immigration as a larger issue.

“Immigration isn’t a Latino issue,” he said. “It’s a human rights issue.”

He helped form the SRJC’s Undocumented Student Union and the Dream Center at both the Santa Rosa and Petaluma campuses and this month returned from an internship at Rep. Mike Thompson’s office, where he kept a finger to the pulse of the immigration discussion.

His father was deported when he was 6 and didn’t return for two years, but Carbajal wasn’t aware that he was undocumented until his parents broke the news when he tried to apply for his first job.

His fate was uncertain and he was trepidatious as he attended Petaluma schools. He sought and was granted permanent residency rather than seek DACA benefits, he said.

“You’re not accepted here, and you’re not accepted to some degree in your home country,” he said. “It’s a constant back and forth … It’s living a life in limbo.”

Abraham Solar, a Latino community advocate and the director of Hispanic ministry for St. Vincent de Paul church, said he’s hearing similar concerns. Solar and Jiminez said they’ve both heard or experienced an increase in hate speech recently.

“Here in Petaluma we have a very large portion of our community that’s very caring,” he said. “We tell the folks that we need to stick together as a community and that’s how were going to stand up against this wrong decision that breaks down hopes and dreams and stand together and work together as a community no matter what culture, ethnicity or minority you are.”

(Contact Hannah Beausang at hannah.beausang@arguscourier.com. The Press Democrat contributed to this report.)