Metro Detroit-Based Dreamers Have Messages for Congress
Neighbors share their dreams and concerns about the president’s DACA decision
Photograph Courtesy of Jose Franco // One Michigan
Last week, President Donald Trump announced his decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program developed by the Obama administration to protect undocumented youth from deportation. The decision leaves the nearly 7,000 young people (aka “Dreamers”) who benefit from the program in Michigan uncertain about their futures in this country — for many, the only country they’ve ever known. We spoke with three of those Dreamers about the significance of the decision.
Originally from Jalisco, Mexico, Jose Franco, 29, relocated to Southwest Detroit at just 2 years old. “Honestly, I don’t have any memories of Mexico,” says Franco. “My mom and cousin shared stories, but other than that, I don’t remember much of anything.”
Like many Michigan youth, Franco was educated in the public school system and eventually enrolled in classes at Henry Ford College. It was during his college experience when Franco recognized a need to serve undocumented immigrant students like himself. As a curious millennial, he took to the Internet seeking answers for navigating life as a young adult, yet he quickly found that life as an undocumented youth came with added roadblocks.
“Every time I would try to find a solution to a problem I had, I was left with no way to resolve it” he says. “I found undocumented students talking about navigating going to college and getting jobs and it was the first time I realized I was not alone. That motivated me to get more involved.”
Franco committed his time to developing a support system for fellow undocumented immigrants, which would later become One Michigan. “My proudest accomplishment since being in this country has been working at One Michigan,” he says. Over the past eight years, Franco says the organization has advocated on behalf of immigrants including lobbying in Washington D.C. to pass the DREAM Act, a bill which helps place undocumented students on a path to legalization.
Today, Franco is prepared to take the same steps to protect the people he and One Michigan have a mission to serve — including himself. “Right now, my [personal and professional] goals are intertwined. If congress doesn’t act in the next six months, ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] has taken a strong stance that anyone that is undocumented is going to be deported no matter what. That’s why we’re going to fight.”
Franco’s fight will include phone banking, petitioning, targeting Michigan representatives, and potentially, taking his voice to D.C. In the meantime, he encourages existing Dreamers to renew their DACAs. “The deadline to renew work permits that expire before March 5, would be Oct. 5 — that’s in [less than] a month. So, we’re really trying to spread the word for them to submit their application on time.”
His message to congress: “Think with your heart. Do not put more politics into this issue. Vote on the merits of everyone that has DACA without throwing anyone else under the bus.”
Endy Lopez, 21, is not just a part-time student at Oakland Community College in Auburn Hills. The Zacatecas, Mexico native is also an advocate at Volkswagen. One of three children, Lopez immigrated to Pontiac at 3 years old. His father, an academic in Zacatecas, saw a better future for Lopez and his siblings in the U.S.
“My mom and dad both went to college, but there are different opportunities available here,” says Lopez, adding that drug trafficking and extortion may have contributed to the concerns that his father had for raising a family in Mexico. “He didn’t want me to live through that.”
Though Lopez’s memories of Zacatecas are faint, he recalls transitioning from a place that was “covered in dirt,” to a modern American city. “It was completely different.”
Lopez’s father traded a comfortable career as a teacher in his native country for a job as a brick-layer here in Michigan, with the sole purpose of affording his children a better life. As he explores core classes at OCC, Lopez anticipates embarking on a career in business — a dream that is now at stake given the current status of DACA.
“Ultimately, my goal is to become a citizen of the United States. That’s been a dream of mine since I’ve known my status,” he says. “I just want to be able to contribute here and open my own business in the future.”
As a Michigan Dreamer, DACA has afforded Lopez the opportunity to travel across the nation, a privilege that he’s become especially grateful for. “I really love to travel. I’ve spent time with friends of all different races and all different ethnicities. [Ending DACA] could affect me greatly in terms of traveling and achieving my goals.”
As we talked over the phone during his regular morning commute to work, Lopez made an obvious, yet poignant, observation: “The reason I’m driving to work right now is because of the program. If DACA were to be taken away, I would have to lose my driver’s license and eventually, my job.”
His message to congress: “I feel like any ordinary American. This is the only country I’ve ever known. I don’t even know how money works in Mexico. We should be looked at as Americans because of the time we’ve spent here.”
When Juan Carlos Perez arrived in Detroit in the winter of 1999, the snow was the least of the culture shock that he’d experience after leaving his Guadalajara home. “I remember being nervous about leaving the little bit of stability that I knew,” says Perez, now 27. “Having to adapt to a new place was a challenge. People would bully me about being from somewhere else, especially because I didn’t know the language.”
Although today he can consider himself a Michigan Dreamer, Perez went through his most formative years in the U.S. without having the benefits of DACA. “Though DACA created an environment that offered some security, between 1999 and 2013, I had to learn a lot. There’s a resilience that you have to learn being undocumented. One of the biggest misconceptions that I’ve come across is that people think that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes — my own experience is that I was paying about three times more in taxes than I am now. DACA didn’t’ determine my dreams, but rather how I could achieve them.”
Over the years, Perez established dreams to help others and swiftly chased them, assuming leadership roles that help shape today’s youth. He’s taught children guitar, art, drawing, photography, and more. “Because of the circumstances of my life, I learned that it’s important to be the change that I want to see in the world. Not to determine whether you can be a change, but to realize that you have to be a change to make a difference.”
Perez eventually went on to found Featherstone Moments, a marketing firm that creates revenue for minority business owners majorly in Detroit through social and digital media, content creation, and other resources. Most recently, Featherstone helped Burundian restaurant Baobab Fare win the 2017 Comerica Hatch Detroit $50,000 grant. Among such highly publicized wins for Perez and Featherstone Moments are other heartfelt projects that are executed with equal enthusiasm. “I’ve helped people from Detroit connect with the right people who can guide them on the right path in their lives — I’ve even just been a shoulder to cry on.”
Perez’s motives for helping others comes from his early days in this country. “Before having DACA, I knew what it felt like to be persecuted. But just because we’ve been persecuted, doesn’t mean we’re going to disappear, it just means we’ll have to live in the shadows. That’s how I’m going to live if DACA disappears and there’s nothing similar to replace it. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop living.”
His message to congress: “This country is not American without other people in it. The indigenous were the first people here — the country itself doesn’t belong to the people here today. Looking at the country honestly and respectfully might help determine what could be successful in the future.”