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Throughout Santa Fe, advocates stand up for immigrant rights

March 10, 2017 GMT

“I’m afraid that every time … I say goodbye to my parents, that I will come back and I won’t see them again because they will be deported,” said Santa Fe High teacher Clara Liliana Carvajal, talking about an essay a student wrote for one of her classes.

Carvajal teaches English Language Development and Advanced Placement Spanish language at Santa Fe High, working with students who confront these same fears everyday. “I get teary,” she said, “It’s very scary for them.”

Carvajal is talking about students who are Dreamers and the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States today — over 11 million, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report — who, because of recent U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enforcement raids and other executive orders such as the Muslim ban, are worried they can no longer live in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Since President Donald Trump took office less than two months ago, immigrants and their supporters have watched as some of his new policies have led to roundups of immigrants in America — many of whom, Trump says, have committed criminal acts. Justified or not, these new policies are throwing those in and around the immigrant community off balance.


Dolma Rabgay, a local high school junior, is one of those people. “The actions made by our new government as of late have definitely created a sense of fear for migrants regardless of where they originally come from and whether or not they are legal,” Rabgay said. “Bans, deportations and the raids have only aggravated the already horrifying xenophobia and hatred that is plaguing our country.

“And we, either the children of immigrants or the immigrants themselves, feel that. We see it on TV, where reports of people of color are being attacked because of the amount of melanin they were born with. We see it in our schools, where the harsh words of other students tell us to go back to where we came from. It’s hard to watch and especially hard to accept the irony of it all, for America is a country founded by immigrants.”

Ragbay’s parents are from Tibet. Her dad escaped that country’s invasion by Chinese forces back in 1959, and he moved to the United States some 20 years later. Her mother came from India in the early 1990s. Their experience speaks to the stories that family members of immigrants like Ragbay can tell and relate to. Carvajal, for example, first came to the United States in 2006 from her home country of Colombia.

They, like other immigrants, contribute immensely to the fabric of the nation, said Hector Aveldano, lead organizer for New Mexico Dreamers in Action — an organization led by undocumented immigrant youth who advocate for other young immigrants and their families. Aveldano, who moved to the United States from Mexico at 8 years old, said he sees immigrants throughout his community, from small-business owners to doctors and lawyers, whose work benefits all of Santa Fe.


As the new immigration policies add a sense of uncertainty to the terms “Dreamers” and “sanctuary city,” proponents are countering that America was built on a foundation of immigration and that it is important to remember that immigrants can enrich any community. Emma O’Sullivan, a staff attorney at the Santa Fe Dreamers Project — a local nonprofit that provides free legal representation for immigrant youth and their families — said immigrants “help us live in a bigger world, and having people who can bring their experiences from their home countries … is just invaluable to have that different perspective.”

And economically, she said, “Immigrants can contribute just a crazy amount to our country. Most, even undocumented immigrants, pay tons of taxes into programs that they are statutorily precluded from benefiting from.”

From her perspective, most of the undocumented immigrants she deals with are taking hits from the government, the media and “everyone who makes them out to be villains.” They accept it, she said, because they, like their forefathers before them, want to give their children a shot at a better life.

A mission of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project is to help Dreamers in New Mexico access their potential to make the community a better place. The project offers free legal services with weekly walk-in or mobile clinic programs and provide weekly office hours in the local public schools. In Santa Fe, the average clinic sees about 15 to 30 people per day.

According to O’Sullivan, a main focus is the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a federal immigration policy that began in 2012 under the Obama administration that protects eligible immigrant youth from deportation. In 2016, the Dreamers Project filed 320 applications for DACA. Despite such protective measures, O’Sullivan said advocates are “just waiting for the hammer to come down. So at this time, we’re still filing renewal applications for DACA, we’re not sending initial applications, just because I think there’s just a lot of risk sending someone’s personal information to the government, basically saying like, ‘Hey, I’m here undocumented.’ ”

Santa Fe Public Schools doesn’t keep track of how many of its 13,000 students are undocumented immigrants or the children of undocumented immigrants. Late last year, district Superintendent Veronica García reassured students and their families that the district leadership would do everything it could to protect their safety and rights. Shortly thereafter, both the board of education of the district and the governing board of the Santa Fe Community College voted to formally declare their districts and campuses “sanctuaries” for immigrant students fearful of deportation.

Many of those Dreamers might be safe in America, but that doesn’t stop O’Sullivan and others from worrying about deportations, the loss of work applications and a general loss of peace of mind. “I think that’s going to affect all of us,” she said.

But these advocates are also realists, well aware that many of these problems have actually been around long before Donald Trump took office. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the total number of deportations of illegal immigrants from the United States actually reached its high in 2012, with over 400,000 removals. Although that number has decreased over the last couple of years, to about 240,000 in 2016, fear is being revived, especially with the president’s vow to strengthen the nation’s borders.

Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it is complex and complicated enough that Carvajal believes that only education can make a difference. In the meantime, she and other educators are doing their best to ease fears. “We try to get our students away from the feeling of fear … we want to guide them to the feeling of empowerment,” Carvajal said.

O’Sullivan said immigrants have to learn and know what their rights are. “What feels really important to me right now is that everybody tells the truth and learns the truth,” she said. “I think that the dismissive attitude is just really not helpful. I think we need to be honest with what the risks are.”

In addition to informing the community, O’Sullivan stressed the importance of community members serving as allies to immigrants by showing up at public events and forums, and contacting state lawmakers to advocate for immigrant rights. Aveldano said that seems to be happening more and more these days.

Carvajal agreed. “I’ll sound a little contradictory here,” she said, “but I think that because of this new president, people have joined forces. They have really shown their humanity, and shown that united we can really stand up and … get that legal status that they have dreamed for.”

Wyatte Grantham-Philips is a junior at Santa Fe High School. Contact her at