Reyna-Montoya-DACA-Activism
Image via Reyna Montoya

The founder of Arizona-based immigrant-support organization Aliento reflects on how to transform trauma into hope and action.

ARIZONA — My body remembers and carries the trauma we [the Dreamers] hold inside throughout the years. Our bodies hold the unsolved experiences as immigrants that we have not been able to heal or are still working so hard to heal.

For the past 29 years, feelings of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty have been the main characters in the story of my life. I remember being a terrified 10-year-old. At the time, I couldn’t understand why my heartbeat would often rise, and feelings of persecution and lack of safety were so present.

Years later, at the age of 21, I learned that my instincts and gut were right. Those feelings of unsafeness were not a part of my imagination, but the memories I carried in my body. My body remembered. Instead of celebrating such a huge milestone of coming of age, I had to learn that my dad had been kidnapped and been a victim of state violence back in Mexico, which pushed us to flee and migrate to the U.S.

At 21, I had to fight the Obama Administration not only to find a solution for Dreamers like me but to not deport my father to his death sentence in Mexico. My dad eventually got released after 9 months of not spending birthdays, Christmas, and important celebrations. I thought I had endured so much. Yet in 2016 my body remembered. My body remembered the trauma, the fear of not seeing my family, the fear of being sent back to a country that could be my death sentence. In 2017, one of my worst nightmares became true. The Trump Administration announced the termination of the DACA program.  

On September 5, 2017, the day Trump announced they would be ending the DACA program, my body remembered and took me back to June 15, 2012. It took me back to the day Dreamers — like me — nationwide, waited anxiously for an announcement by President Obama that could potentially change our lives. On that day, President Obama announced a new immigration policy that would allow thousands of Dreamers “remain lawfully present” in the United States. Our deportation was now deferred, and we had the ability to work lawfully. 

Image via Reyna Montoya

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Throughout the years, undocumented people and Dreamers have been forced to endure so much trauma. That is why I decided to found Aliento, a nonprofit leadership development organization led by youth, DACA-recipients, and undocumented immigrants. We are directly impacted people — and allies — who are invested in the well-being, emotional healing, and leadership development of those impacted by the inequalities of lacking an immigration status. We transform trauma into hope and action through the arts, leadership development, and advocacy.  

Now, eight years later, I woke up at 5 AM to monitor the Supreme Court release of the decision on DACA last week. Once again, along with thousands of Dreamers across the nation, I was anxiously awaiting. The Supreme Court decided to keep the DACA program. A 5-4 decision; a one-digit number that allowed me to catch my breath again. I couldn’t help it, my hands were shaking and sweating, my heart was beating so fast and tears were coming down my face. A temporary victory, once again, a bittersweet celebration.

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Yes, 650,000 DACA recipients like me are temporarily protected, yet the Trump administration can decide to follow the “right” procedures to end the program. I started thinking of the faces of Aliento Fellows like Saul, Deya, and Angelica, who will be able to renew their DACA and live in temporary relief. I started thinking of Aliento fellows like Darian, Maria, and Angel, undocumented students, and Dreamers who were too young to apply for the DACA program. I thought of DACA moms like Blanca, who works as a social worker at our hospitals and has two children who are U.S. citizens. I thought about my mom, who is still undocumented. I thought about my life partner, a DACA recipient, and our fragile future. 

Amid a global pandemic and an economic recession, DACA recipients and the mixed-status families we serve at Aliento have played a vital role in contributing to the American economy and bolstering the healthcare system. We are artists, innovators, teachers, and part of America. Poll after poll has shown that an overwhelming majority, nearly 9 in 10 of U.S. voters support a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. The House of Representatives has acted and the Senate has remained silent.

Now, more than ever, Dreamers like me, Angel, and Blanca need certainty and permanency. We need a legislative solution that will grant a pathway to citizenship to the 2.1 million Dreamers as the first step in solving the decades-long overdue immigration reform. We can’t continue waiting for political calculations and elections; we need a permanent solution now.

I am hopeful that, one day, people like Saul, my mom, and the 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S. will no longer have to feel anxious, fearful, or defeated for lacking an immigration status. As I celebrate today, my body knows — and remembers — that it can catch a breath, but tomorrow we must remain vigilant and advocate for permanency. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize. 

Reyna Montoya