Arizona DREAMers

DREAMers work to thrive without threat of deportation

By Alexis Macklin
December 1, 2015

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Daniel Rodriguez (center, in the blue robe) and other immigration activists protest in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Rodriguez)

Crossing the barren desert at 15 years old, Karina Ruiz entered a land where she thought she would find work.
“When I got to the border and I realized that we were not going with a visa or through the legal means, it was shocking,” Ruiz said. “Luckily we got detained because otherwise I think we could have died on the border. I thank God those border patrol people were there. I remember crossing and all you could see is desert in front of you.”

Ruiz never considered herself a criminal, and as a child, she left Mexico with her family to find opportunity in Arizona where she only expected to stay for a year. One year turned to many and over a decade later she now has an American education and American children.

There are over one million immigrants like Ruiz who entered the United States as children and qualify for deferred action, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Deferred action acts as a temporary relief to deportation. But the law, created by an executive order from President Obama, is just a Band-Aid, according to Ruiz and others like her, for an extensive list of issues that these immigrants face.

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Karina Ruiz is currently the president of Arizona Dream Act Coalition and is an activist for immigration reform. (Photo Courtesy of Karina Ruiz)

Deferred action allows these previously undocumented immigrants to safely work and live in the United States for two years. Every two years they must apply again and there is a chance they can be denied a renewal. If their application is denied, they would be at risk to be deported to a country that they do not call home.

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Lorenzo Santillan started his own catering business after not being able to get a job because he didn’t have a Social Security number. (Photo by Alexis Macklin)

“Even thinking about me being separated from my children gives me the chills,” Ruiz said, of the possibility of being deported. “That feeling of not being able to tuck my children in at night is like, despair.”
Before applying for deferred action, Lorenzo Santillan opened his catering business, Dragonfly Catering, following his dream of being a chef. He couldn’t find work through any other means because of his status so he created his business out of his own home.
“I’ve always wanted to cook,” he said. “I didn’t wait for a Social Security (number) to have a job. You have to do what you have to do to get by.”
Even with the support of Obama, the immigration reform efforts fall short without a long-term change in policy from Congress, Arizona State Senator Martin Quezada said. The Phoenix Democrat said he believes there needs to be an easier path toward legal immigration and citizenship at both the state and federal level.
“We are asking for some sort of comprehensive immigration reform to be enacted at the federal level,” he said. “Any other efforts to address this issue is not truly addressing the issue. Everything else will be fixing a small part of it or trying to slow down the effects of it or just delaying the inevitable.”
Due to their status, immigrants with deferred action are unable to vote, which is frustrating to the community as they watch laws and proposals that affect them be passed, Quezada said.
“We need to see something that is going to legitimize the people that have spent the majority of their lives here in the United States,” he said. They are “people who are here in our country now and who call this country their home.”
Immigrants who arrived as children without legal documentation are referred to as DREAMers after the failed DREAM Act, federal legislation that would have provided a legal framework to make these immigrants residents.
The experience of being a DREAMer has influenced how Daniel Rodriguez practices law. Rodriquez currently works as a family and immigration attorney in Phoenix.
“It has given me insights so that I can understand how the law impacts real people,” Rodriguez said. “Unfortunately, I felt it was something missing in a lot of my peers in law school. Some of them, even though they were good people, didn’t really understand the stories of people that create the need for laws and create the needs for policies that work.”
Before he made it to law school, Rodriguez had to overcome academic advisors telling him that his dream of being an attorney was not possible. His high school advisors told him that he should focus on just getting a job, but he didn’t give up. He worked to fill his resume with volunteering and leading his school activists groups such as MEChA and the Black Student Union.

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Daniel Rodriguez graduated from Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law and currently practices in Arizona. (Photo Courtesy of Daniel Rodriguez)

“I almost dropped out of high school because I felt it was another ‘no’ in my life,” he said. “Thankfully another counselor helped me out a lot, but it was during that time that I realized what it meant and how I was going to be affected by not having papers.”
DREAMer German Cadenas said he applied three times to Arizona State University before he was admitted. To attend school he had to pay out-of-state tuition, even though he went to public school in the state since he was 15.
Cadenas encountered more challenges as he pursued his career as a psychologist. He successfully applied for one of six spots in the doctorate program but encountered issues that halted his education process.
“Usually when you are admitted to a Ph.D. program they offer you assistantships or offer you fellowships to be able to pay for school, but I couldn’t take any of that because of Prop 300 and the restriction of undocumented students,” he said. Proposition 300 is a referendum approved by Arizona voters in 2006 that bars Arizona students without citizenship or legal residency from receiving in-state tuition and financial aid.

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German Cadenas speaks in support of in-state tuition for DREAMers. (Photo courtesy of German Cadenas)

Cadenas started fundraising to pay for his doctorate. He created a blog documenting his experiences as an activist and his dream of becoming a psychologist. After three months of blogging, he raised enough money to fund his tuition. He would not be able to afford to go to school without fundraising because he emptied his savings to attend both undergraduate and graduate school and could not apply for grants or financial aid.
“I hear often from DREAMers who are struggling to get a higher educations because of the high cost involved,” Quezada said. “Once they acquire their degrees, they are having problems finding work because of their documentation status. It’s really one obstacle after another these kids are facing.”
This is a problem that Ruiz is currently navigating. After obtaining a degree in science, she cannot find any work due to her status, she said. She is reconsidering teaching science at the high school level.
“There is still a lot of things that I can do and I am trying to work the best with what I have, but I know that there is still a battle that we have to fight for,” Ruiz said.


Alexis is a senior at the Cronkite School. She previously worked as a marketing intern at Arizona Science Center and a photography intern at The Arizona Republic. She also previously worked as the photo editor at both the Downtown Devil and The State Press.