Rodrigo Dorador remembers the night he almost had a panic attack in Arizona. A sheriff’s car was trailing behind the van he rode in with his mother. They’d been at a football game — despite his undocumented status, Dorador attended one of the most prestigious Jesuit schools in the state, Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.
His mother looked at him as the car trailed, inching closer and closer behind. Dorador returned her nervous glance. Wouldn’t it be ironic, they both thought, if this is how we ended up getting deported?
They waited for the car’s siren to blare and its lights to come on. But instead the sheriff’s car just pulled up next to them. The deputy motioned for Dorador to roll down his window.
“You go to Brophy?” asked the deputy.
Dorador nodded, remembering the Brophy College Prep sticker on the van.
“Great job at the game!” the deputy said, and drove off.
It’s been several years since Dorador’s heart-stopping night in Arizona. Now he works out of San Francisco as an outreach coordinator for an immigrant rights group called Educators for Fair Consideration.
Dorador left Mexico to join his family in the United States when he was nine years old. After that, he only remembers his family leaving their Phoenix home three times because the risk of deportation was so high: once to see the snow in Flagstaff, once to go to Sedona and check out the rocks, and once when Dorador received a scholarship to attend Santa Clara University. “I literally felt like we lived in a cage,” Dorador says of his childhood.
After college, Dorador, who is still undocumented, decided he wanted to go back and help children in similar situations. On a recent Saturday, this meant leading a workshop on access to education at the Contra Costa County DREAM Conference.
It’s a festive scene at the CCC campus in San Pablo. A DJ spins hits by Mexican-Americans like Carlos Santana, who attended Mission High School in San Francisco, and salsa tunes prominent on Spanish-language radio stations.
A lot has changed since Dorador’s close call with the Phoenix Sheriff’s Department. Today, the students at the DREAM Conference say undocumented kids are “coming out” more and more, in part because it’s safer to do so now — President Obama signed the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals memo last summer, which guarantees eligible youth two years of work permission and a legal presence (but not a legal status). But “coming out” about one’s status is also part of a political strategy to build support around passing the DREAM Act, which would create a path to citizenship for undocumented kids.
“Now I can go out there, I can say that I’m undocumented,” says Azucena Rodriguez, a young woman wearing a large “volunteer” sticker across her black “Dare to DREAM” T-shirt. “Now it’s like a normal thing.”
Still, DACA is a new policy and parents find themselves confused in the rapidly changing immigration landscape, which is one of the reasons why organizers hold the DREAM Conference. To qualify for DACA, applicants must be enrolled in some kind of educational program. Many of the students here today are investigating college as a serious option, and Dorador’s job is to make financial aid and admissions understandable to students and their families.
“Each parent wants their child to get the best education they can,” he says, passing out thick packets, in English and in Spanish, that detail financial aid, in-state tuition and how to apply to private colleges.
While Rodriguez said she now feels more comfortable announcing her immigration status, she still hasn’t applied for DACA. The complex legal application costs $465, and if it’s denied, she could be placed in deportation proceedings. If deported, Rodriguez would be put on a plane to Jalisco, Mexico, where she hasn’t lived since she was five.
Because immigration is more than just a legal and educational issue, the DREAM Conference includes presentations that go beyond legal whys and wherefores. There are drama workshops to help kids more fully inhabit their bodies and overcome the trauma that comes from living in fear of deportation or seeing a family member deported. There are training sessions on how to advocate for oneself, personally and politically.
And while Rodriguez sees the DREAM Act as a means to “give back to the country that gave me so much,” the conference has also brought together presenters critical of the United States and what they say is its role in mass migrations north from Latin America and other countries.
“Our undocumented community is what’s moving us forward,” says a presenter who goes by Xago. For him, the DREAM Act is a chance for kids to overcome what he describes as the shame and poor self-esteem that come from growing up in a contentious political climate.
Augustin Palacios, who teaches La Raza studies at Contra Costa College and is one of the event’s organizers, says he feels the conference is a success. He’s especially interested in the cultural offerings available: the drama workshops, the video lessons and poetry readings. “It’s part of that necessity to tell the stories that aren’t being told, stories that empower students, that allow them to take action that teach them something about their own worth, their own dignity,” he says.
But despite all of the celebration, and the happy sense that the time to “come out” about being undocumented is now, Palacios says he worries about DACA. “It’s only two years,” he says. “What’s going to come after that?”
At the end of the event, Rodrigo Dorador hands out the last of his financial aid explainer packets. He starts to take down the table where he and others have been counseling undocumented families. Dorador reflects on his own close call, the night when a police officer pulled up next to his mom’s car in Arizona and they worried they’d be deported.
“That bumper sticker saved our lives,” he says.