SALT LAKE CITY — Standing in front of the Utah State Capitol, facing a crowd of hundreds of people, many of them holding colorful signs, Alan Ledesma told his story. He is a student at Utah Valley University, the institution from which his sister graduated this past spring. He works as a waiter to pay for his tuition, and sees his sister and himself as fulfilling the dream of an education and a better life that their father had for them.
Ironically, their father died in 2012, the year that the federal program that allowed Ledesma and his sister to work and attend college was enacted.
“Thanks to DACA, my sister and I have been able to not just get jobs but most importantly to use our income to be able to attend and get a college education,” Ledesma said at the Sept. 16 rally in Salt Lake City in support of the recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The federal administration has announced the DACA program will end in six months unless Congress enacts other legislation.
DACA recipients were young people who were brought to the United States as children. If they met the qualifications for the program, they were allowed to remain in the United States without fear of deportation and to apply for work permits. Recipients were required to renew their status every two years.
The story Ledesma told is similar to that of the other 10,000 DACA recipients in Utah and the 800,000 throughout the nation. His family emigrated from Mexico, where his father had been an English professor, but dreamed his children would one day receive a college education. In 2002 the family sold all their possessions before coming to the United States, a land Ledesma described as being filled with hope and opportunity, where every person has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, a land built by immigrants.
“DACA has helped my sister and I get an inch closer to reaching the American dream and the possibility of one day becoming citizens of this great country, a country that I love even though it doesn’t always love me back, the only home we have ever known since we were little kids,” Ledesma said. “It hasn’t always been easy. We have met with adversity and a few bumps in the road.”
The federal government’s recent decision to revoke DACA is cruel, unfair and unjust, Ledesma said, “but it is just another bump in the road.”
Speaking to other DACA recipients, Ledesma urged them not to give up. “I know my parents did not sacrifice everything for me to come to this country for me to give up when the going got tough. I will not go back into the shadows, I will not live in fear,” he said, and implored those at the march to contact their legislators and ask them to create bill for a path to citizenship for those in the DACA program.
The need for legislators to enact comprehensive immigration reform was a common one from the speakers at the march, who included Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, state representatives Mark Wheatley and Angela Romero, and Adan Batar, Immigration and Refugee Resettlement Director for Catholic Community Services of Utah.
When the announcement to end the DACA program was made two years ago, many other legislators from both major political parties as well as civic and religious leaders – including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – voiced concern about the action and urged legislative action to protect those in the program.
“DACA was always temporary; we knew that it could go away,” said Ciriac Alvarez, another DACA recipient who came to Utah when she was 5, in an interview before the march began.
A University of Utah graduate with a bachelor’s degree in political science and sociology, Alvarez said things are difficult “but yet we move forward in our lives despite our lack of documentation.”
For those who oppose reinstating DACA or enacting similar legislation, Alvarez urged them to “see that we are humans worthy of dignity and respect.”
Among those marching in support of DACA recipients was Larry Fagot of St. Lawrence Parish.
“St. Lawrence is a caring community,” he said. “We care about the least and those who need help – refugees, immigrants. I wanted to represent our community here at this rally because we support justice for immigrants.”
About a dozen people from Catholic Community Services of Utah also were present, many of them carrying placards with messages such as “We Are All DREAMers.”
“We want to show support for the DACA program because we want to … advocate on behalf of all the undocumented residents,” Batar said.