Newall: Dreamers fight for their futures in Trump's America

Maria Sotomayor, 24, Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition’s organizer and civic engagement coordinator, who also leads PICC's youth organizing project, in the Philadelphia offices on Arch St.

On election night, as the unthinkable became reality, waves of disbelief, anger, and anxiety washed over Maria Sotomayor. Her hands went numb from fear.

But she didn't have time to be scared. She picked up the phone.

She called Brexy Pena Mencia, a 20-year-old bioengineering student at Temple who works two jobs to pay tuition: a campus desk gig and an overnight shift at United Parcel Service.

Juan Hurtado, a 21-year-old scholarship student at Temple's Tyler School of Art who is pursuing a career in design and wants to someday use his art as a tool for advocacy.

Julius Wibisono, who is 18 and studying finance at Lehigh University and wants to be a financial analyst at a top accounting firm.

And so many more.

They, like Maria, are Dreamers: The young people President Obama shielded from deportation and allowed to pursue their dreams. Brought here illegally as children, this is the country they know - the place where they are building their futures. Now they are among those who have the most to lose in a Trump presidency.

Along with his other hateful immigration pledges, President-elect Trump has vowed to "terminate" the initiative protecting the Dreamers - as the recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) are known - as soon as he takes office.

And because DACA was enacted by executive action, Trump can undo it with just a few pen strokes. If he does, he will rip apart the lives of 700,000 young people across the country - and more than 5,000 in Pennsylvania. Young people of promise with no place in a Trump America. Instead of forging their futures, Maria and her friends would once again be hiding in the shadows. Depriving them of their dreams would be shameful. Un-American.

Maria, who is 24, is doing all she can do. She was not just calling her friends to check on them, to ask whether the tears had dried. She was calling to assure them that people were working hard to protect them.

Maria is the youth organizer for the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. Since before the election, she and the staff at PICC and other city immigrant advocacy groups have been working hard to educate the Dreamers and other young people of their rights in a Trump America - of the protections that Philadelphia can offer as a Sanctuary City. She is helping lead student efforts to persuade local universities to become sanctuaries.

"You can't let fear motivate you," she tells the young people she works on behalf of. "You can't let fear take over your whole body and life. You can't live that way."

Maria knows this because she has faced fear. When she was 9, her parents moved the family from Ecuador to Upper Darby in the hope of a better education and a brighter future. Tears come easy when Maria recalls how she and her mother were turned away from one local school because of their immigration status. And how she considered dropping out of Marple Newtown High School, despairing over her future, when she was too scared to ask visiting college reps if they "took people like her."

At Neumann University, a private school that looked past her status, she studied psychology and communications. She advocated on campus for immigration issues. She decided she wanted to work with children, children like her who suffered trauma from their immigrant experience. She is planning now, if she still can, to begin work on a master's in social work.

Hope came the day Obama announced the Dreamers initiative.

"It felt like there was actually a future for us," she said.

Now, that future is threatened. And she is doing all she can to protect it.

That election night, she resolved to be strong.

"What do we do when our communities are under attack?" she said. "We stand up and we fight back."

Shame on us if we don't stand with Maria and her friends.

mnewall@phillynews.com215-854-2759

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