CHEYENNE – Jessica Gutierrez-Gaytan woke up Tuesday morning in her Laramie apartment with one thing on her mind.
It was her day off from classes at the University of Wyoming. She made her way to the kitchen to make a bagel with cream cheese and a Keurig caramel latté while she read a string of text messages from family and friends, telling her everything would be OK.
Even as she was still wiping the sleep out of her eyes, Gutierrez-Gaytan felt a sense of tension when she turned on the TV. She was watching the news for an anticipated announcement from the administration of President Donald Trump regarding the status of people living in the U.S. who were brought here illegally by their parents as children. It held an immense weight for the 19-year-old student because she is among that demographic of U.S. residents without legal documentation.
When Attorney General Jeff Sessions took the podium, he announced legal protections for those with undocumented status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, immigration policy would be phased out. As a DACA recipient, her heart sank and tears filled her eyes while uncertainty flooded her world.
“All my roommates were in class, and I’m the only one in my friends group that has that status, so all of a sudden, I felt very alone,” Gutierrez-Gaytan said. “I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to finish school. I just broke down into tears and didn’t really know what my reaction should be. Should I be positive, and look forward to the future? Or should I freak out and become an activist? What do I do? With all this going through my head, all I could do was stare at the TV – I was frozen for a second. There was nothing in my power I could do to change anything.”
ALL FOR NOTHING?
Tuesday’s announcement stood in stark contrast to another news announcement from 2012 that brought tears to eyes.
In June 2012, then-President Barack Obama announced that in light of a bitterly partisan Congress’ unwillingness to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act, he would implement DACA through executive order.
“I remember seeing it on the news, and my mom crying next to me, because before DACA, it was a world of uncertainty,” Gutierrez-Gaytan said.
When she was a 15-year-old in 2013, living with her mother in Loveland, Colorado, the only place she knows to call home, Gutierrez-Gaytan obtained legal protections against her undocumented status through DACA.
Gutierrez-Gaytan first came to the U.S. just before her fourth birthday. She was born in Mexico, where her mother had a degree in accounting, but her mom wanted to come to stay with her siblings in Colorado for one year while she saved money to make a better life for her only child.
“It was just very difficult for us to make a living,” Gutierrez-Gaytan said. “She said, ‘We might as well try it out for one year, and then we’ll definitely come back.’ She couldn’t imagine a life in the U.S. Well, we’re here, and one year turns to 17.”
The self-described extrovert continued into the Colorado public school system, even bringing home the English she learned to help the 12 cousins she lived with – who she said are essentially her brothers and sisters – to learn the language. Gutierrez-Gaytan easily made friends with her American classmates, seemingly oblivious to some fundamental differences between herself and them.
But one day in fifth grade, as she dreamed of what she could make of her life, Gutierrez-Gaytan told her friends she had an ambitious goal – she wanted to be president of the United States. That announcement led her to a realization that she said would change her life forever.
“They just laughed at me, and I was like, ‘What’s wrong?’ And they were like, ‘You know where you stand. That’s not possible.’ So I went home crying to my mom,” Gutierrez-Gaytan said. “She was like, ‘From now on, there are things that are limited to you. But you can still dream. You can still achieve you goals. I’m here with you.’ I took that as mind-opening. I’m very limited for what I can do.”
Even understanding she faced limitations, Gutierrez-Gaytan and her mother wouldn’t let her dreams die. Each time they went to nearby Fort Collins, Colorado, she said her mother would point to Colorado State University to remind her daughter that’s what she’s working toward.
“My mother would tell me, ‘That’s your goal. You’re going to college,’” Gutierrez-Gaytan said.
Gutierrez-Gaytan became close with a social worker at her school, inspiring a goal of pursuing a degree in the field. She became involved in a variety of extracurricular activities, at one point participating in nine clubs, serving as president of three.
“They called me a faculty member because I was everywhere,” Gutierrez-Gaytan said with a laugh.
In order to go to college, Gutierrez-Gaytan realized she would need immense financial support. Her mother couldn’t afford to pay for it, and she wasn’t eligible for federal funding, even with her DACA status.
She decided to apply to the cheapest school in the region – UW. After receiving two relatively meager scholarships, Gutierrez-Gaytan’s dream was opened to her when she received a full ride at what seemed like the last minute, she said.
“It was because of my community involvement, giving back to the community and school,” she said of her scholarship. “That was, just – it broke me down because it was such a blessing.”
Today, Gutierrez-Gaytan is in the social work program at UW with a minor in Spanish. Her legal status won’t expire until July 2019, so Gutierrez-Gaytan said she plans to finish school. But what happens from there is hard to say.
Congress or the president could act to protect her legal status, but she could also end up back in Mexico. For someone who worked so hard to do the right things, it’s not where she wanted to be.
“I’ve had multiple conversations with my mom about this, and I’m planning for both scenarios,” she said. “But it’s been heartbreaking, because all this hard work may all go into the trash. I may be back with nothing. It’s hard to realize everything we built here is maybe gone in two years.”
A VOICE FOR THE VOICELESS
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS, office in Denver, which serves Wyoming, doesn’t track the number of DACA recipients living in the Cowboy State, said Debbie Cannon, public affairs officer. The best figure available comes from the numbers of applicants and accepted applicants who applied in Wyoming.
In Wyoming, 1,141 people applied for DACA protections and were approved. Of that number, as of fiscal year 2017, 621 applied and were approved for the first time, and 520 reapplied for the two-year renewal and were approved. An additional 1,257 applied. USCIS indicated it will not accept any more initial applications as of Wednesday, and the two-year renewal applications must be received by Oct. 5. Protected statuses will remain in place until they expire, but anyone whose status expires before March 5 loses all protections under DACA.
Trump punted the issue to Congress, to which he instructed “do your job” on Twitter. The president has also tweeted reassurances to DACA recipients, telling them he “will revisit the issue” should Congress fail to act and they “have nothing to worry about.”
Cheyenne native and South High graduate Jicell Gracia-Ortiz, 18, is now going to Central Wyoming College in Riverton. She is protected under DACA, but her status expires in the fall.
Gracia-Ortiz said Trump’s reassurances provide little comfort. On the campaign trail in 2016, then-candidate Trump promised to outright end DACA on his first day in office. Now, the more sympathetic President Trump causes Gracia-Ortiz to feel mixed emotions, she said.
“Whenever he said he wanted to end it, it was heartbreaking because I didn’t feel like he had a lot of sympathy, and he didn’t show a lot of emotion for how it would impact us,” she said. “So for him to say we don’t have anything to worry about, I don’t know. It brings mixed emotions because I’m not sure if he does mean that or not.”
In response to Tuesday’s announcement, Gracia-Ortiz composed a Facebook post expressing her feelings and clearing up some misconceptions she picked up on. She explained it wasn’t her choice to come here, and while she paid taxes working as a server in Cheyenne during her last years of high school, she was still ineligible for federal financial aid for college, Medicaid and other social safety nets. Now, with her DACA status expiring while she works toward her nursing degree, she asked people to stand with her.
“I am not an American on paper, but I am at heart,” she wrote.
As of noon Thursday, Gracia-Ortiz’s post had been shared 1,657 times, with 2,500 reactions and 235 comments. She was not expecting that level of reaction, but said she feels impressed. Not all the comments were positive, asking why she hadn’t applied for citizenship (Gracia-Ortiz said she has applied for citizenship but is still waiting for a response).
Whatever the reaction on social media, she said she’s happy her statement has been so far-reaching.
“I feel accomplished it reached so many people,” she said.
Gracia-Ortiz said she was nervous about posting the status. But she was overcome with a sense of needing to speak for those who are too afraid to do it for themselves.
“I kind of made it for people who are afraid to speak out,” Gracia-Ortiz said.
With Congress back in session, there is a short window for senators and representatives in Washington, D.C., to act. With a heavy agenda, pressure to act on immigration reform could play a critical role in where Congress goes. After the U.S. Senate failed to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act this summer, it’s also unclear whether the bodies will be able to function in a cohesive way on a traditionally divisive issue like immigration.
UW political science professor Jim King said the odds are stacked against Congress doing so.
“Comprehensive immigration reform legislation has been before Congress for a decade or more without action, because of the complexity of the issue and strong opinions on both sides,” King wrote in an email. “Furthermore, Congress already has a full plate of issues with health-care reform, tax reform and the budget on its immediate agenda. Thus, the likely scenario is that Congress will not pass comprehensive immigration reform in six months and that President Trump will alter immigration policy by rescinding DACA, or parts of the program.”
All three of Wyoming’s congressional delegates said they supported Trump’s move to rescind DACA, citing overstep of presidential authority on Obama’s part.
U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., is hopeful Congress can pass immigration reform, with a goal of developing policy that is “compassionate, especially to children, but also fair to American citizens,” said Coy Knobel, the senator’s communications director.
“There is a lot on Congress’ plate, but the senator isn’t going to make any predictions or set any timelines,” Knobel wrote in an email.
Though he did not respond to a question on whether he would support legal protections for undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children, U.S. Sen. John
Barrasso, R-Wyo., also said “we are a nation of compassionate people” and expects congressional action on immigration.
“I am confident we will use this time to reach a consensus on legislative options,” he wrote in an email.
U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., said “it is now the responsibility of Congress to enact legislation addressing the status of children whose parents brought them here illegally.” But she also did not respond to how she would vote on such a measure.
With her life now up in the air, Gutierrez-Gaytan asked only for Wyoming’s congressional delegation and the American people to consider what it would be like to walk a day in her family’s shoes.
“What would they do to have a better future for their families?” she asked. “How far would your parents go to give you a better life? It’s easy to judge from the outside, but what if you have to draw a line between having a not very good future and having to struggle to have an opportunity to go to college? I think they’d choose what our parents did.”