JAIME GUZMAN, 25, and Christian Gonzalez, 21, are stuck. Raised, but not born, in the United States, and lacking Social Security numbers and legal paperwork, they're among the growing number of immigrant youth who are coming out about their status and agitating for reform. Their group, the Northwest Immigrant Youth Alliance, has staged rallies around the region and is meeting with US Representative Earl Blumenauer this week.
It's a scary time to come out: Deportations have increased under the Obama administration by nearly 10 percent, with 393,000 people deported last year. All Oregon counties are now part of Secure Communities, a federal program that's supposed to target high-level criminals by checking the immigration status of everyone booked in county jails (in Multnomah County, however, only 29 percent of the immigrants deported under Secure Communities were convicted of serious crimes).
Gonzalez was snared by Secure Communities last winter after being charged with a crime that was then dismissed, and faces deportation. He hopes President Obama's announcement in August that deportations will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis means he can stay with his family. Guzman and Gonzalez spoke with the Mercury about fear, friends, and bad tortillas at a Portland State University café last week.
MERCURY: What do you remember about coming to the US? What did you think of Portland when you got here?
CHRISTIAN GONZALEZ: I was born in Mexico in 1991. I honestly don't remember how I got here. We had family problems in Mexico. It was basically, you know, my dad. Domestic violence. My mom was tired, I was being abused. That's the reason we fled. It was hard for my mom to get a job, to find our own apartment. When I got here, I didn't know the language and actually didn't go to school for three years because we didn't know anything about the system. By my house in Beaverton, there was a Mexican store. They had kids, so I'd hang out with them all day. Finally, a friend of my mom's told her I could go to public school, so I started at McKay. They have a really good ESL program that really helped me.
JAIME GUZMAN: I came from Mexico City the first time when I was six, then we went back and came again when I was 12. It was so hard at first. I hated it! The food tastes different, everything smells so different. The first time I tried tortillas here, they were so sour. It was just nasty! My parents were working a lot. Our parents want to give us a better life, but you gotta give up something. And that was time with us.
When I wanted to go out and play in my neighborhood, it was totally different than my home country. I was in Northeast Portland and I remember there were times when I would just kick a soccer ball by myself, kick it as far as I could, then run and get it, then kick it again, all by myself.
You both graduated from local high schools. Have you been able to go to college?
GONZALEZ: Since I'm not from here, I have to pay out-of-state tuition. And I can't apply for federal financial aid. I wanted to take a nursing program at Portland Community College [PCC] It was eight months, and I would have to pay $15,000. I can't afford that, it's frustrating. So I've just been trying to work, to take care of my brother. There are so many doors, but when you try to open them, they're locked. It's really hard to find a job. We could get fake papers, but I don't think it would be a good idea.
GUZMAN: I heard about this teacher program at PCC that was looking for bilingual people who are passionate. I went to the counselors and I told them my situation. The answer was: We can't help you. The program is federally funded, so you need a Social. You know, I went to high school here, I pay taxes here, I had the skills and the requirements, but I just didn't have this piece of paper. After that, I fell into a depression. You question: What am I worth? You feel lonely and scared, because you feel like there's nothing you can do, you don't have the power to make any changes.
Are you scared about coming out about your status?
GUZMAN: If they wanted to find us, they want to find undocumented people, they can do it on the spot. They have the power, they have the technology. The US can send people to the moon, but you're saying they can't find undocumented people? Being undocumented is not something that's going to prevent us from doing what we want to do. Politicians need to stop playing the game of hot potato. We have a voice and I'm not going to wait for an ally or someone to speak for me, we have the power.
GONZALEZ: They control us by fear. They use that as a weapon to keep us there. I'm scared of getting deported, honestly. If I get deported, it's not only affecting the undocumented people like myself, it's affecting citizens like my little brother. When I was in county jail, I was on the phone with my family and my mother put him on the line and he started crying, "When are you coming home?"
Christian, can you talk about the process of going through deportation?
GONZALEZ: I was charged with a crime that I had nothing to do with. A month into it, I was in county jail, the charges were dropped because they found out I had nothing to do with the crime. They told me, "Oh, Gonzalez, you're leaving," I was like, "Yes! I'm getting out of here!" And then when they told me, "They're waiting for you." The next thing I saw was a guy with the ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] hat, and I'm like, "Why am I being detained? The charges were dropped." But it doesn't matter. From there I was transferred to Tacoma. An immigration lawyer helped me get out on bond and fight my case from the outside. If you fight your case from the inside, you could be in the facility for six months, eight months. We paid the bond for $7,500. It was a lot of money, you know. I never asked my mom how she did it. Right now, we're waiting to be given another court date. I don't know how long it will be until my case comes up, maybe a year.
Are you guys hopeful the Dream Act will pass soon, giving you a path to citizenship? Or do you think it's never going to happen?
GUZMAN: Right now, we're talking about how to make the Dream Act more inclusive. The Dream Act gives us a chance, but you still don't qualify for federal financial aid or in-state tuition for college. And to qualify, you have to either go to college or join the military, so what about those undocumented youth who are disabled, either physically or with mental illness? They can't join the military; they can't go to higher education. What about them?
GONZALEZ: Obviously, the Dream Act is beneficial for this country. To be honest with you, there's always hope. But the reality is that, yeah, there's hope, I know it's going to happen someday. But with this political climate, no. Is it going to happen eventually? Yes. But Obama needs to walk that talk.