Jimmy Jimmy
X Logo

Tonight, Luis is sharing his story. 

At Morley Library in Painesville, he’s seated at a table as part of a panel discussion on immigration hosted by Ideastream’s Sound of Ideas

Luis is a young man with a thin mustache and scruffy beard. He wears khaki pants and an olive sweater over a white shirt. He’s asked for his last name not to be used. As a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program instituted by former President Barack Obama, he speaks to a largely white, middle-aged crowd of nearly 200 that sits in a makeshift auditorium between the stacks.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty out there,” says Luis, his eyes scanning the crowd. “The laws could change — ”

He snaps his fingers.

“Like that.”

The snap is sudden but prompts little reaction. In many ways, it epitomizes the situations young men and women face as DACA recipients. Their legal status could be upended with one Supreme Court ruling. Yet the nation, caught up in daily political drama, seems unable to keep up with their plight.

Set up by executive order in 2012, DACA provided renewable two-year protections for anyone illegally brought by their parents to the U.S. as children, or whose legal immigration status expired before the program was announced in 2012. It was meant as a temporary solution that gave opportunity to a unique group of individuals. Those eligible for DACA needed to be younger than 31 when the program was created, had to prove they had lived in the U.S. continuously since June 15, 2007, and had to be younger than 16 when they arrived. Other requirements include no felony convictions, being enrolled in or graduated from high school or college or serving in the military.

Luis’ parents brought him to this country when he was 3. He is now one of an estimated 669,000 DACA recipients nationwide, nearly 4,000 of whom are in Ohio, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Though specific breakdowns for Northeast Ohio are not available, the Institute estimates that approximately 500 DACA recipients are in the Cleveland area.

The risk of what may happen if DACA is rescinded makes many DACA recipients unwilling to share their stories, but for this panel, Luis is willing to represent those who came to the U.S. as children and who, for all practical reality, grew up as U.S. citizens. He understands the climate regarding immigration. His aunt was deported after a traffic stop. His uncle had a legal green card and is on a path to citizenship, but his wife is now on a several-year waiting period before she can return to the United States. Their five children, all U.S. citizens, went to Mexico to be with their mother.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Luis.

He speaks directly into the microphone, but not forcefully, and without anger. He describes life before DACA, when he knew he couldn’t go to college or get a job because he was living in the country illegally. As a result, there was little incentive in high school. With DACA, he can work and further his education. The program provides immigrants with a social security number, a work permit and the ability to go to school. 

“Without DACA,” he says, “I honestly do not know what I would be doing right now.”

As he talks, he fields questions on criticism of immigrants and the rule of law. In September 2017, President Donald Trump rescinded the DACA program, stating, like
many Congressional Republicans, that Obama’s action was unconstitutional executive overreach. Trump delayed his action by six months to give Congress time to act, but the courts stepped in, ruling Trump had to accept DACA renewals, but not new applications. Trump’s administration has appealed, and the case has gone to the Supreme Court, which plans to hear arguments in October. That means the court could make a decision by early next spring.

Though the land of the free and home of the brave has not completely shut its doors to immigrants on the southern border, a clear path toward U.S. citizenship and refugee status for immigrants has become far more difficult under Trump’s administration. Trump has talked extensively about building a wall between Mexico and the United States — at times offering to trade wall funding for DACA protections.

According to The New York Times, deportations with the help of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have increased by 13%. During the 2018 fiscal year, the Trump administration deported 256,085 people.

When Luis is asked what he thinks of the tensions surrounding DACA and the criminalization of immigrants who brought their children to the U.S., he doesn’t argue, even when he’s told some people believe his parents should be deported.

“I understand where they’re coming from,” he says. “But at the same time when you’re living in a poor country and you can’t provide for your family, you do whatever it takes to provide for your family and lead them to safety. My parents are not criminals in my eyes, even though in the eyes of American law, they are criminals because they crossed the border illegally. They’re my saviors.”

Luis has two younger siblings who were born in the U.S. who are legal citizens, but his legal status and that of his older sister are dependent on DACA’s survival. It is one of the cruel ironies of the immigration debate. Children too young to remember being brought to this country face the possibility of being separated from their citizen brothers and sisters who were born in the U.S.

In June, the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019 — which grants DACA recipients and other young immigrants without documentation a path to permanent residency and citizenship — passed out of the Democratic-led House of Representatives. Hopes that a Republican-controlled Senate will even consider the bill are not high. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said publicly he will “probably not” allow the bill to come to a vote. The Trump administration has also stated they would veto the bill. Until Congress agrees on and passes an immigration bill, or the Supreme Court rules on DACA’s constitutionality, DACA recipients are left in an eerie state of limbo, wondering about the future as they ponder a past most of them never knew. 

To hear the stories of Cleveland-area DACA recipients is to understand why they were brought to the U.S. It is to know what they’ve done since they arrived. And it is to tangibly feel the uncertainty that, in some cases, keeps them up at night in fear of what might happen to their families and their future.

“I believe that there [are] better things we can do in order to improve our immigration laws and our border security,” says Luis. “But let’s not toy with people’s lives here.”

Susana Chavez-Gonzalez is a wisp of a woman whose size belies an inner confidence and self-assurance. Sitting beside her best friend in a booth at Panera Bread, the 21-year-old rattles off achievements and goals as if she’s checking off items on a shopping list.

She was part of the only Lake County robotics team that went to the world championship in 2017. She had a part-time job three days a week with a CPA as a translator. She volunteered for HOLA Ohio — a grassroots organization focusing on Latino outreach, advocacy and community organizing — and made annual trips to Washington, D.C., to talk to elected representatives about immigration. She even volunteered at a preschool twice a week. And she did all of this as a high school student. In 2017, Chavez-Gonzalez graduated summa cum laude from Perry High School.

She seems to represent the go-getter elements of her generation, somehow juggling several responsibilities to get more done in a day than most do in a week. She describes her many past successes with the same sense of confidence she brings to future goals, which include earning her MBA after she earns her degree in accounting from Lake Erie College.

“If I didn’t have DACA I probably wouldn’t have been able to think about college,” she says. 

Her demeanor is focused, her actions pointed and they seem to flow from the efforts she had to make from the very first day she stepped into an Ohio grade school. She didn’t know a single word of English, and there wasn’t an aide or administrator at the school who could assist.

“I don’t even know how I learned English,” says Chavez-Gonzalez.

Her parents only spoke Spanish, so she guesses she learned the language simply by doing it.

“It was scary,” she says. “When I went to elementary school, I cried the first day because I walked in the classroom and I didn’t see any familiar faces. I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know what people were saying to me.”

The family had lived in Leon, a city of 1.2 million people in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. Chavez-Gonzalez says her father’s business had been struggling, but a friend who relocated to Painesville told him he could help him find a job. So her father came to Ohio in 1999.

“When he came here, his friend wasn’t there because he had gone back to Mexico,” she says. “So my dad had nowhere to go. At one point he was staying at St. Mary’s Church, sleeping there for a couple weeks so he could find a job.”

When Chavez-Gonzalez was 1, she and her mother joined her father in Painesville before relocating to Perry when she was 4.

Her father now owns a landscaping business. Chavez-Gonzalez works about 30 hours a week for Zappitelli Financial and attends Lake Erie College full time while still volunteering with HOLA Ohio. To help her family, and because DACA students aren’t eligible for federal financial aid, she pays her entire tuition on her own with the help of Lake Erie College scholarships. The only life she has known has been in Painesville and Perry, but if DACA is rescinded, she would face complete uncertainty. Her grandmother in Leon is ill with cancer — helped by a nurse her father helps pay for — and Chavez-Gonzalez has seen people she has known her entire life advocating for a wall on the southern border.

Still, the idea of permanent citizenship makes her immediately sit up and beam.

“That would be a dream come true,” she says.

Stefano Sanchez* spends most of his 12-hour days at work poring over blueprints, computer models and purchasing forms. As a field engineer for a local construction company, he’s been directly involved with major downtown projects, the construction of university buildings and the renovations of local clinics and hospitals.

Sanchez does not tell his story eagerly, but when he starts talking he goes into great detail. Interwoven with memories of success and the work done to build a life for his younger brother and his wife — whom he met at a Halloween party when he was dressed as a werewolf — are tales of struggle and loss.

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Sanchez moved with his Peruvian parents to Peru when he was 6. Soon after, his father came to the United States to try to get visas for the family, but he was let down by an unscrupulous attorney. A few years later, without any other leads and wanting a better future for his children, Sanchez’s father decided to try something different.

Sanchez’s parents told the family they were traveling to visit friends in Mexico, but it soon became evident there was another purpose. What Sanchez remembers was “a crazy experience” that involved crossing the border illegally. His father sought help from human traffickers to make the trip. He said he’d pay whatever it took to keep the family together on the safest route. So they began crossing a tiny river in south Texas. As they were making their way across, they were caught.

“A lot of people got spread out, but we were able to stay together, and you can imagine all the cops with guns telling people to go back to Mexico,” he says. “People were swimming back and they caught us.”

Border security officers laughed when they heard the family came more than 3,000 miles from Peru, then placed them in a cell.

“At that time I was about 10 years old, my brother was 5,” he says. “We were just crying and telling my father, ‘Why did you bring us here to begin with? You promised us all these dreams and Toy Story and all these things that we had seen.’ ”

Soon, a Border Patrol guard gave the family what Sanchez calls “a golden ticket”: he let them go, ordering them to find relatives or friends and legally work their way toward citizenship.

“He had some heart,” says Sanchez.

The family settled in New Jersey, where his father worked as a welder in the shipyards. When Sanchez was in middle school, his father again tried to go through the system to get legal status, but another lawyer let them down.

Desperate, they attended a hearing without an attorney or a translator, and unknowingly signed a self-deportation order.

“My dad didn’t know,” says Sanchez. “My mom didn’t know. We just signed the

The order called for them to leave in 2006, but Sanchez’s family stayed.

“It was tough living under the shadows,” Sanchez says. “I didn’t have an ID or anything. I was just stuck. But I went through it acknowledging what my parents went through and realizing I was there for a reason — to get an education so they could be proud of me.”

The family moved to Northeast Ohio in 2012. Shortly after, authorities found them and told them they had to report to ICE annually. Since they lacked any criminal history, they were allowed to stay in Ohio under renewable work permits. But last September, following an increase in deportations for any immigrants without documentation regardless of criminal history, Sanchez’s parents were deported with an order that prohibits their return for the next 10 years.

Sanchez has a hard time even discussing the day he had to say goodbye to his parents.

“It was awful,” he says. “It was … really awful.”

Sanchez and his wife now also support his brother. In January, Sanchez’s DACA renewal was delayed by the government shutdown until the day before his scheduled deportation. The fear was visceral.

“This is something I don’t wish for anyone to have,” he says. “I was brought to this country not knowing, underage, telling me I needed a good future.”


Nationwide injunctions have been issued to block DACA’s rescindment, ensuring the program could continue to operate with renewals, albeit temporarily. Earlier in June, the Supreme Court declined a Trump administration request to expedite the appeals case concerning Trump’s decision to phase out DACA. But days later, Congress took its most significant step toward protecting DACA recipients when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019.

The vote fell on party lines, with all Democrats — including Cleveland-area reps Marcia Fudge and Marcy Kaptur — voting in favor. Only seven Republicans voted in favor. Rep. David Joyce, whose Painesville district includes a growing Mexican immigrant community, voted against. Joyce says he believes in DACA protections, but also believes in increased border security. It’s now up to the Senate to decide if the bill moves forward.

The legislation would grant conditional U.S. residency for 10 years to DACA recipients and other young immigrants with temporary protected status due to natural disasters or violence. Immigrants eligible include those who have lived in the U.S. for at least four years, were under the age of 18 when they arrived, have a high school diploma or GED and have no criminal background.

Those seeking permanent residency after that 10-year period would also be provided a pathway to citizenship by completing a two-year degree program from a university or technical school, completing two years of military service or maintaining employment in the U.S. for more than three years.

According to Kaptur, there are more than 16,000 DACA and TPS recipients in Ohio who are eligible for protection under the American Dream and Promise Act, but without those protections, their families and their local economic contributions are at risk.

“They are our friends, our neighbors, our colleagues, our teachers, our first responders and entrepreneurs,” says Kaptur. “They strengthen our communities from the factory floor to the boardroom.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown agrees. He’s been here before. In 2013, he voted for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate with 68 votes. That bipartisan bill aimed to increase border security and give DACA participants a path to citizenship — but it never made it to a vote in the House.

“ ‘Dreamers’ are American in every sense but the paperwork,” says Brown. “They pay taxes, they go to school, serve in the military and contribute to their communities. They were brought to this country as children, through no fault of their own, and it is despicable for President Trump and congressional Republicans to use them as political pawns.”

Sen. Rob Portman wants DACA protections codified in U.S. law, and has co-sponsored a separate bill with Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran that would protect DACA recipients and strengthen border security.

“I believe we can and should respect the rule of law while also dealing with this issue in a humane and compassionate way,” Portman wrote in a statement provided by his office. “That’s the approach I believe the administration and members of both parties in Congress should take as we look at legislative solutions on this issue.”

As DACA recipients wait for Congress to come to terms on common ground, the fight to assist individuals at the local level continues. But one local activist believes that with so much going on, DACA may be falling through the cracks.

“Unfortunately, I think DACA work is down, because it’s not getting the press lately,” says Alan Fortnoff, a founding member of the Immigration Working Group Cleveland and the Akron Interfaith Immigration Advocates. “We need to find more people who will work exclusively on DACA from the immigration standpoint because we have moved so much into the general immigration field.”

Deb Kline, director of Cleveland Jobs With Justice, a coalition of local labor, faith and community groups advocating for immigrant rights and DACA participants, says the emphasis locally has to be on passing a law that addresses DACA.

“We just basically have to keep putting pressure on our congressional representatives, the Senate and the House, to pass the Dream and Promise Act,” she says.

For Kline, this seems the clearest path forward when all else is uncertain. 

"We can put our arms around them all we want and say 'It's going to be OK,' but what kind of an assurance is that?" she says. "We're talking about their lives."

*Cleveland Magazine has agreed to change his name to protect his identity.

Jimmy Rodriguez remembers the precise moment.

“June 5, 2018, at 7:07 a.m.,” he says.

Rodriguez and his father Eliseo were working at Corso’s Flower and Garden Center in Castalia. Rodriguez worked part time, his father full time, and the pair, who had worked until 2 a.m. the previous night, talked soccer as they made the 30-minute drive to work from their home in Willard. He clocked in at 6:43 a.m.

Twenty-four minutes into his shift, helicopters started circling the grounds overhead. Law enforcement officers in military fatigues swarmed the property.

“Every officer had an assault rifle,” he says. “ICE was there. And the FBI.”

He, like his father, was handcuffed and forced to kneel.

“I was under DACA, but they didn’t believe me,” he says. “We were on our knees on the gravel. They were laughing at us, mocking us — ‘OK he’s legal, he’s definitely not legal, he’s illegal.’ ”

All were brought handcuffed to a building at the work site and detained for three hours, says Rodriguez. U.S. workers were seated in chairs and those with immigration status in question were forced to kneel. Only when he gave his Social Security number — acquired through DACA — were agents able to confirm his status and let him leave.

His father was among 114 individuals arrested at Corso’s sites in Castalia and Sandusky. Rodriguez watched as his father was taken in handcuffs to a detention facility 190 miles north in St. Clair County, Michigan.

“The last thing my father said [was] to stay calm and work,” he says.

His father was soon moved to a facility near Youngstown, where he spent the next two months. When Rodriguez visited, the two were separated by a pane of hard plastic.

“That was the first time in my life I wasn’t able to hug my father, face-to-face, person-to-person,” he says.

His mother could not make the trip because she was too distraught and his younger brothers, ages 11 and 8, were confused and upset.

“They were like, ‘My dad’s not a criminal,’ ” says Rodriguez. “That was the first time my mom and dad were separated in 18 years of marriage.”

As he recounts the tale, he briefly makes an aside, recounting how he recently went to see Avengers: Endgame. The message he took away from Tony Stark’s character arc: Every family should be together; it should never be separated.

“Which is true,” he says.

Rodriguez is a thin 149 pounds with short hair. He arrived in the United States with his parents when he was 18 months old, after a journey that took three nights and four days. He remembers nothing of his home in Tapachula, Mexico, and says he has never visited, nor have his parents returned. He’s only seen pictures of the land where he was born.

“Here, it’s really colorful,” he says. “There it’s all like dull, sad.”

He says he feels so much like an American his peers in school rarely considered his background. He knew nothing about his heritage until second grade, when his mother told him he was born in Mexico. His two younger brothers are citizens, born in the United States after the family arrived.

Rodriguez speaks with an awareness and responsibility beyond his 18 years, but seems to struggle with where he is in life and why. His mother had a sixth-grade education in Mexico, and his dad graduated high school but saw his plans for college derailed by illness. His parents worked 12- and 17-hour days to support the family in the U.S., but finances and circumstance mean Rodriguez has never once been able to even see a doctor.

“Their dream was for me to have a better education and go to college,” he says. “They’ve done everything for me.”

While his father was detained, Rodriguez became the breadwinner for his family by working at various jobs that included Corso’s, construction and, until he was laid off, working at MTD Products in Willard. He’s back working at Corso’s as an assistant grower.

He loves soccer and plans to play for Lorain County Community College when he returns to school in the fall. Prior to the raid some Division I colleges had shown interest in him, but he had to put those plans on hold so he could support his family while his father sought a work permit. Even then, the family’s attorneys say the permit would only be valid for two years, which the family hopes to extend. He hopes to one day become a mechanical engineer.

“[My father] always told me never to have rage,” Rodriguez says. “Never have anger against anyone. If someone had hatred to you, if someone said a slur to you, you just had to be calm and not say anything back.”

He says his faith tells him dark stories end in light, but his father’s arrest still leaves him laying awake at night. Any time he hears a car going over gravel his head snaps around.

“I remember the sound [from the raid],” he says. “It’s still just ringing in my head.”

A path to citizenship would mean “everything,” he says, lingering on the key word to stress its importance.

“Mexicans are the same as an American,” he says. “They want to see the best for their family. They want to see the best for their children. And that’s exactly what my parents do.”  

X Logo