Column: Don’t deport me, a Michiganian

Vanessa Gutierrez

I just bought a five-bedroom split-level house in Holland with my husband. My part of West Michigan is the kind of area where a neighbor will just shovel your driveway while shoveling his own. These days, almost every house is decorated with Christmas lights. We feel so fortunate, and so much a part of this community.

Our neighbors would be shocked to learn that we stand to lose our jobs and our home, and we could even be deported. We have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and meet certain conditions to get temporary permission to work and live in the U.S. We followed all the rules, and renewed our DACA twice.

But a few months ago, President Trump announced he is ending the DACA program. Now all our hopes rest on the Dream Act, a bill that would give people like us a path to citizenship. If the Dream Act isn’t passed, we will lose everything. Rep. Bill Huizenga and Rep. Fred Upton can make sure that doesn’t happen.

DACA made my life today possible. I was born in Monterrey, Mexico, in a bare cinderblock home, without heating or air conditioning, or much inside. My family arrived in West Michigan when I was 3, with only a bag of clothes.

Growing up, I didn’t have a clear idea that I was different from the other kids in school. But when I wanted to take driver’s ed while at West Ottawa High School, my parents said I couldn’t because I didn’t have a Social Security number — I was undocumented. I was devastated. My parents said my uncle had long ago applied to sponsor them and adjust their status, but due to a backlog, that application stalled for my entire childhood. I wondered if I would have to live my whole life in hiding.

Before DACA, routine activities felt shameful. I felt ashamed filling out any piece of paper asking my name, address and Social Security number. I’d put off going to the doctor, even when I was sick with a chronic health problem, to avoid that sense of shame. For major purchases, I had to ask a huge favor of a trusted friend or relative who would put it in their name.

I remember the day in June 2012 that DACA was created — I found out while in a classroom, and I tried to contain my tears of happiness. I was about to get married, and just starting to dream about the future — and here was finally a way to participate fully in this society.

People I’d known all my life came out of the woodwork to help me apply. One friend who was a notary volunteered to fill out the paperwork. People at church offered their prayers and support. It was such a new thing to be public about my status. I felt embraced.

When my husband and I applied for DACA together a month before our wedding, our future looked different — we would have the stability to make a true commitment to each other, and be able to legally work, buy health insurance, and maybe someday finance a house — all of which we’ve done.

After I got DACA, I became more outspoken. Because of my status, it had been difficult for me to get scholarships and I never completed my college degree. So I got a job at a nonprofit organization where I worked on a program helping low-income families get scholarships for preschool. Recently I joined a committee for the Community Foundation of Holland to help select scholarships for high school and college-age students.

The West Coast Chamber of Commerce sponsored me in a leadership program, and I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’m going to use my talents to steward resources in our community. My dream is to someday establish a scholarship for young Latinas to attend college, even if life circumstances keep them from attending school on the standard timeline.

My DACA expires in 2019. I’m one of 6,400 in Michigan, and hundreds of thousands nationwide — a generation of immigrants that got a chance to contribute to this country and stands to lose everything.

Congress, please pass the Dream Act before the end of the year. You have the power to keep me here in Holland, contributing to this town. You have the power to protect the community we are all building together.

Vanessa Gutierrez has lived in Michigan for 24 years.