Mercury News October 15, 2017
SAN JOSE — Working as an aide to a county supervisor, Mario Lopez launched an internship program for undocumented youth. Jose Salazar Mendoza as an intern for San José’s city manager organized a first-of-its-kind support group at San José State. And Lucila Ortiz, as a San José City Council aide, began a citizenship drive for City Hall employees and their families.
All three were brought to this country illegally as children but found temporary deportation protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. And Lopez, Ortiz and Mendoza all answered the call to public service and have worked in various sectors of local government.
Now the fate of the Obama-era program hangs in the balance with President Donald Trump’s decision to rescind the protections and give Congress six months to find a legislative solution.
But amid the uncertainty over their future, the trio of “Dreamers” — as DACA recipients are often called — said they chose to work in government to give back to their communities and influence positive change.
“I identify as a Californian and, by extension, an American,” said Lopez, 30. “I feel like I have to get a message across to people who are in my situation.”
Maricela Gutiérrez, executive director of SIREN, an immigrant rights nonprofit, said she isn’t surprised so many DACA recipients work in local government.
“These are intelligent young people doing amazing things,” she said. “Many are community leaders who are politically active and have aspirations of running for office.”
Some Republicans have expressed concerns that DACA recipients are “taking” American jobs. But a local GOP leader says he’s more concerned that former President Barack Obama implemented the program without going through Congress.
“The president didn’t have the authority to implement the program on his own, though he did,” said Shane Patrick Connolly, treasurer of the Santa Clara County Republican Party. “I agree with putting it back in Congress’ court. Nobody thinks folks who were brought here through no fault of their own should be punished for the actions of their parents. But we have to enforce immigration laws and make sure it doesn’t keep happening.”
Lopez was brought to the United States from Mexico when he was just 5 years old. Today he works as a leading policy aide for Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Dave Cortese, advising the lawmaker on immigration, senior issues and the juvenile justice system.
While undocumented immigrants often live in the shadows, Lopez said, many dream of working in politics where influential policy decisions are made. That’s why Lopez in 2015 founded the New Americans Fellowship Program, which allows undocumented youth to receive paid internships in county government.
The first class of nine participants just finished the 10-week program.
“Often times, undocumented residents are marginalized and we don’t have those social connections to get internships to advance our careers,” Lopez said.
Lopez recalled his mother telling him on his first day of kindergarten, “If anyone asks where you were born, you say the United States or don’t answer.” He had no idea what that meant then, but realized his citizenship status was a hindrance when he was 17 and applying for college: He couldn’t get federal financial aid, a driver’s license or a job.
That frustration led Lopez down a path of fighting for immigrant rights, including a push for legislation protecting undocumented youth — all before he began working for Cortese. He also helped register voters, though he couldn’t vote himself.
“I view him as one of the most highly valued employees that I’ve ever had being in office for 25 years,” Cortese said. “He’s an American, and he’s an absolutely key person in our government operations in Santa Clara County.”
Ortiz, 29, who worked as a legislative analyst for San José Councilman Raul Peralez for more than a year, also couldn’t get federal student financial support — it requires a Social Security number — and worried that her dream of graduating college could fade away.
“I remember one day just standing in the counselor’s room crying in the corner to myself because there was nothing I could do about it,” said Ortiz, who was brought here from Mexico when she was 11. “I felt like a second-class citizen.”
Ortiz paid her way through college, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree from San Jose State. She taught Spanish at De Anza College for two years.
But it was her job at San José City Hall that made a lasting impact. While working for Councilman Peralez, Ortiz came up with an idea to host citizenship drives for city employees and their families. It was a first in San José.
Peralez said Ortiz connected with people in a similar situation who could relate to her.
“Some might say you should only employ U.S. citizens, but I disagree,” Peralez said. “Not only did I have a hard-working, qualified individual, I had an additional asset — someone people could relate to in our community who had a similar status. We miss having her on the team.”
Today Ortiz works as an organizer for Working Partnerships USA, a labor think tank. She married last year and now has permanent residency. But Ortiz’s two younger siblings are still under DACA and she fears they won’t have the same protections she had.
“All I ever wanted was to be just like my peers — to be able to fully contribute to a country that’s my home, a country that I love,” Ortiz said. “Knowing that we’re taking back those rights feels really inhumane.”
Mendoza, 24, dreams of becoming a U.S. senator. He was brought to this country from Mexico when he was 1-year-old — barely remembering anything about his hometown.
Mendoza, who worked as an intern, made a splash at San José State, where he graduates this December with a sociology degree. He serves in a leadership role on the school’s support group for undocumented students and is now creating a campus resource center. He hopes to make the university a safe place for undocumented students — like himself.
Mendoza, whose internship for San José City Manager Norberto Dueñas ended in August, hopes to land a permanent job at San José City Hall after graduation, but fears his goals could be derailed: His DACA protections expire in September 2018.
But Mendoza isn’t giving up. He hopes to eventually rise through political office and says support from now-retired city manager Dueñas helps him keep the hope alive.
“I want to have a seat at the table where decisions are made,” Mendoza said.
San José and the county have both filed lawsuits challenging Trump’s decision to end DACA. The county’s suit is the first to name employees as plaintiffs, giving a judge the ability to stop deportations until the lawsuit is sorted out.
Lopez, Ortiz and Mendoza all say they’ve occasionally encountered racism from the public while working in local government.
But all three said it didn’t stop them from doing their public jobs.
“You still help them with fixing their streetlight when it’s out because that’s what public service is,” Lopez said.