You could say Ana Maldonado goes out of her way to get to Portland Community College’s new DREAM Center.
First she walks, then takes light rail, then a bus. That brings her to the PCC campus closest to her house. There she meets another student, Ignacio Garcia, and they carpool to another PCC campus one more hour away.
Why does Maldonado — an immigrant recipient of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — go to all this trouble?
“To learn how to use my voice,” she explained. “I’ve never felt so much support before as I do this year because of the DREAM Center.”
The DREAM Center appears to be the first of its kind at any institution of higher education in Oregon. When it opened Jan. 22, it arrived on a wave of support in the Pacific Northwest but amid roiling waters nationally over the Obama administration program that shielded young immigrants from deportation.
PCC President Mark Mitsui said the center reflected the wishes and philosophy of the PCC Board of Directors, which in December 2016 declared the school a “sanctuary” institution.
“It certainly is consistent with our values, our mission as an institution, and you can even argue that it is embedded within the historic mission of community colleges,” Mitsui said.
The center is simple — the sparsely decorated Room 101 of Building 2 of the PCC Rock Creek campus. It features cubicles, a school clock and a bank of computers underneath a large banner, “DREAMers Resource Center,” festooned with two monarch butterflies.
The beautiful insects have been a symbol of immigrants for decades due to their ability to migrate across the U.S.-Mexico border, and they have often been adopted by “Dreamers.” It’s not lost on some that the monarchs are being reviewed for addition to the list of federally protected endangered species.
One recent day at the center, Maldonado joined fellow DACA recipients Garcia and Keidy Caballero and talked about the challenges they face. DACA’s fate is uncertain. President Trump moved to end its protections by March 5, but a federal judge has stayed that move. Efforts to protect Dreamers legislatively have stalled in Congress.
As Maldonado, Garcia and Caballero spoke, their words were often weighted with an emotion that contrasted with peals of laughter and lively discussions coming from several students working with mentors. There was obvious camaraderie, and language see-sawed between guttural English and mellifluous Spanish.
Garcia said his sense of having to struggle harder than other students started on his first day at the college, during new student orientation.
Garcia said he was brusquely told to “just fill out your FAFSA,” a financial aid form.
“But I’m not able to submit my FAFSA,” he said. “They didn’t know what DACA was. I had to explain it to them.”
Led by coordinator Jhoana Monroy and Multicultural Center coordinator Liliana Luna, the center offers legal services, assists with DACA paperwork and provides a host of services, including career and academic counseling.
Portland has sometimes been called America’s whitest big city, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t broad support for Dreamers here.
In the Pacific Northwest, the center is a dot on a timeline of “sanctuary” declarations that have pushed back against the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies. With 90,000 students and four campuses, PCC is the largest institution of higher education in Oregon.
Many polls show that overwhelming majorities of Americans support Dreamers staying put. That’s a clear mandate, says PCC President Mitsui.
Still, the continuing political limbo has Luna, who calls herself “DACA-mented,” feeling a weariness that surpasses even droopy-eyelid college standards.
“I cannot explain to you how exhausted I feel,” she said. “Physically, mentally, emotionally.”
While Maldonado hopes to someday be a teacher, Garcia a computer scientist and Caballero a nurse, Luna is in a master’s program to become a therapist helping Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Brought by her parents on a plane at age 15 to the U.S. to escape cartels in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Luna cried “the whole way here,” she said. She still wonders what happened to her beloved box of Barbie dolls since she heard the home was taken over by a cartel.
She’s finely tuned then to what she calls “a constant battle, a constant attack” that DACA recipients struggle with.
“I was having a conversation with students [at the center] about how a lot of us might go through depression or anxiety without knowing about it,” Luna said.
Asked about the possibility of immigration agents raiding the center, which also serves DACA recipients’ families, Luna shared a thought that invokes her violence-filled past in Mexico — “I remember seeing a lot of my friends dying” — and her adopted country’s horrific pattern of school shootings.
“What I am more concerned about is racist people that are going to come and shoot us,” Luna said. DACA recipients are “very visible,” she said. “I do feel that we’re targets to a lot of people.”
She’s already been a target for ridicule. After she appeared in a local news story about the center, Luna received a stream of offensive, racist threats and was reported to immigration authorities even though she’s a legal resident, thanks to DACA.
Luna shared screenshots that included racist caricatures showing Trump holding up a puppet with stereotypically Mexican features. She received messages like this one: “Ms. Luna. You know it’s illegal to be here. You have to apply. Also you know Muslims follow a cause to take over and kill. Right?”
Such violent thoughts seem far away from the suburban Rock Creek campus. It’s a peaceful place, a stone’s throw from farm fields and nurseries, in which the region’s history of migrant farmworkers is echoed in many students’ chestnut brown hair and the campus center’s “Farm Cafe.”
College officials say they have no statistics on how many students are in DACA. Luna estimates the group numbers 300 to 400 among the college’s 90,000 students and “maybe 200” at the Rock Creek campus.
There are about 689,000 DACA recipients nationwide. The Migration Policy Institute, an independent think tank, estimates that about 10,000 Oregon residents are in the program.
DACA recipients overwhelmingly hail from Mexico and Central America, a group that includes Garcia, Caballero and Maldonado.
All three say they cherish their roots in Mesoamerica, but feel some sense of distance. Caballero hasn’t been back to her native Honduras since she was brought here 12 years ago. Maldonado hasn’t been back to Mexico since she was brought here nine years ago. Garcia went back to Mexico just once, he said, to visit a sick grandmother.
That trip to Oaxaca, his first in 17 years, showed just how American the bespectacled computer science student has become — culturally if not legally. Occasionally, he said, he couldn’t understand his grandmother’s indigenous Zapotec, or family members’ speedy, slang-filled Spanish.
Now, the new center, Garcia said, offers “like, kind of a family.” Another way to understand it: Consider the “R” in the DREAM acronym (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), first coined for the original bipartisan congressional bill in 2001: relief.
“It was just nice to see people that looked like me,” Garcia said of his first visit after the center’s opening. “I didn’t have to explain what DACA was. I didn’t have to explain my struggle, because they already knew, because they’ve gone through it. And that was like the [first] moment when I felt like I belonged to PCC, like I mattered.”
This story was first published in the Los Angeles Times.