Over the Border, On the Brink of Change

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April 27, 2017

Eusebio Echeveste’s world fell apart when he was twelve years old.

He had been doing well in his classes, and his counselor encouraged him to prepare for college. But when he tried to apply to a college prep program through the University of Utah, he ran into a problem: he didn’t have a social security number.

His father told him their family was in the country illegally, and Echeveste assumed his rights ended with his immigration status.

''It was as if my life was ending. I had no opportunities.'' -- Eusebio Echeveste

“I wanted to quit everything,” he said. “It was as if my life was ending. I had no opportunities.”

What he didn’t realize at the time was that he could still go to college through reform acts that had been passed years earlier. He was scared, and he decided not to tell his counselor for fear of being deported.

He, like thousands of other undocumented immigrants in Utah, remained confused for years about his rights and opportunities amid the changing opinions and laws about immigration to the United States. As immigration reform sputters through the federal government, Utah activists and lawmakers are working to bring change within Salt Lake City to reflect its diverse population and protect the rights of people who live here—legally or not.

This is the Place

Utah is home to an estimated 88,000 undocumented immigrants, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Although the state is also home to thousands of refugees, legal immigrants and naturalized citizens, there is only one immigrant who is a member of the state legislature.

State Senator Luz Escamilla, who moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 18, said while state government officials try to serve their constituents, immigrants and their needs are often forgotten.

“Many groups are in that situation,” she said. “Do we need to do more? Yeah.”

Local activists and nonprofit organizations have taken notice of the disparity, especially in Salt Lake City, between constituents and those who represent them. Rosey Hunter, director of the University of Utah’s University Neighborhood Partners, an organization that connects people living on the west side of Salt Lake with the university, said it’s hard for immigrants to integrate into formal systems like community councils and other decision-making groups.

“There are longstanding traditions and a narrow pathway to get representation through those organizations,” she said.

While she and her coworkers have seen some success in promoting civic engagement, change can be slow, even in a state that is relatively friendly toward immigrants.

Church and State

Through the help of another counselor, Echeveste was eventually able to go to college, enrolling in a program at Weber State University. He worked hard in his classes and was even able to receive in-state tuition despite being undocumented.

That’s because despite its red roots, Utah is one of the more accommodating states when it comes to undocumented immigrants. Since the early 2000s Utah has implemented laws that allow undocumented immigrants to receive in-state college tuition and apply for driving privilege cards.

Some of the more recent friendliness toward illegal immigrants can be attributed to the Utah Compact, a 2010 statement signed by prominent business owners, community leaders, and government officials that addresses immigration reform and stresses that families not be separated. According to a BYU study, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ endorsement of the compact helped sway more than a quarter of Utah residents to favor more liberal immigration policies.

''Those public statements of support are always very helpful to our community. But a statement said just once doesn’t necessarily make change.'' -- Luis Garza

While sentiment toward illegal immigrants may be warmer here than in other states, activists say that there is still a long way for lawmakers to go in protecting immigrant well-being.

“Those public statements of support are always very helpful to our community,” said Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas, a nonprofit that provides educational and health services to Salt Lake City’s Latino community. “But a statement said just once doesn’t necessarily make change.”

Garza, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 18, feels that he is doing his part in changing the political environment around him. His organization provides training on civic and community engagement and helps immigrants participate in organizations ranging from city councils to PTA groups.

Increasing civic engagement is only one aspect of the situation, however. Garza said the most important way to serve immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, is to give them information about their basic rights in the workplace and in communities.

Struggle for Reform

On a Saturday afternoon Echeveste cheerily helps customers at a local Sprint store, telling them the features of the newest phones and giving details about data plans. He has had the job for a few months, and he enjoys it for the most part. Since qualifying for the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals Program, or DACA, it is a lot easier for him to find and keep a job.

In the past, he has been fired at a moment’s notice when upper management found out he was being paid under the table. He’s glad for the extra security of the work permit, but he’s hoping that more people will be able to qualify for a work permit through President Obama’s November 2014 executive action. The action proposed expanding DACA and introducing the Deferred Action for Parents and Lawful Permanent Arrivals Program, or DAPA.

“My mother has a terrible job,” he said. “I just hope that DAPA goes through so that she can find a new one. I hate to see her hands when she comes home; they work her so hard.”

Under DAPA, his mother would qualify to work legally in the country, and, Echeveste hopes, find a better job. As it is, Echeveste says most illegal immigrants without a work permit are limited to working in restaurants and a few other places that don’t use E-Verify, an online system created by the federal government that checks a person’s eligibility to work in the United States.

Ella Mendoza, Peruvian Immigrant

DAPA was halted before it could be enforced because of a lawsuit filed by Utah and 25 other states to stop President Obama’s executive action.

The argument was that President Obama overstepped his constitutional authority, but according to Catholic Community Services immigration lawyer Alissa Williams, Obama acted in the way congress has appointed him to.

“Congress can’t decide on every aspect of executing laws, so they delegate their authority to the executive branch,” she said. “That’s the way it is, and if they want to change that then they should change the system they created.”

While the federal fight frustrates those whose fates will be determined by it, Garza is hopeful that from the dialogue that ensues, in the end immigrants will be able to receive the right to work in a country that they love.

“Even though the proposed changes are not permanent, they will allow people to work and climb up the ladder,” he said. “Good things are happening at the federal level, and I hope that that will translate into our state, and that our decision makers really see the value in investing in this community.”

A Brighter Future

Echeveste is still working out issues to be able to accomplish his goals while living in the United States. Because he was fired in the past, he was not able to support himself in school and so is taking some time off school to earn money for tuition.

The misunderstandings that set him back in the past are becoming more clear though, and he’s doing his part to inform others about their rights and opportunities. He’s involved with several nonprofit groups, and he’s active in civic dialogue.

“Sometimes at work people will recognize me from protests or something,” he laughed. “It can get awkward.”

Echeveste’s work is not in vain, however. While immigration reform is currently stalled, he and other local leaders and activists are seeing progress and are hopeful that change will come.

“Our community as a whole is diverse,” says Hunter, who as the director of University Neighborhood Partners sees much of the change that is currenty happening. “We are as Utah growing as a more diverse community than we ever have on our history, and I think a lot of people see that as a wonderful opportunity to learn, and a lot of people are excited. I do see things changing now, but would I like to see more? Absolutely.”

Angela Marler is a recent graduate of Brigham Young University. She writes about social issues and will begin working toward a Master’s of Public Administration this year. 

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