STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

She was a teen when she learned her immigration status. Now she's working to build a future.

courtesy Vanessa Gutierrez

Vanessa Gutierrez doesn't remember Mexico.

It's there in her baby pictures, in family albums. She's seen what it looks like, and she knows she was born there, but she doesn't remember it.

Her parents brought her to the U.S. when she was three. They worked hard, she says, they paid their taxes and went to church and gave her a great childhood.

Then Gutierrez got to high school, and started thinking about her future.

Gutierrez says it was right around the time her friends started signing up for driver’s ed.

"And I remember talking to my parents about it," she says. "And number one was the cost. They couldn’t afford it, for me to take that course. And, number two, when I started asking other questions, such as 'can I enroll in college?' that’s when I started to find out those answers."

The answers on her status as an immigrant. Though she had no memory of a life before the United States, she was not, officially, allowed to be here.

"It was tough," she says, "because I had no idea what was going to happen."

Credit courtesy Vanessa Gutierrez
Vanessa Gutierrez doesn't remember a life before her family lived in the United States. All she has are the photos.

For several years, she just tried to do the best she could. She couldn’t get financial aid for college, so she cobbled together the money to pay for a few courses on her own.

Then, in 2012, the President announced a new program that changed everything for Gutierrez.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program allowed Gutierrez to, essentially, turn herself in, in exchange for an agreement that she wouldn’t be deported.

DACA recipients don’t become citizens, but they do get a permit that allows them to work legally in the United States.

Gutierrez qualified, and now she has a job and a legal status in the only country she’s ever called home.

And she wants to help more people with families like hers.

So, a few weeks ago, she signed up for a class to learn more about immigration law.

"I wouldn’t become an attorney," she says, "but I would be able to give legal advice."

When she completes the course, she can apply to be an accredited representative at the federal government’s Board of Immigration Appeals.

"It’s actually very interesting," says Susan Reed, managing attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. "It allows non-attorneys to practice the law, essentially.”

Reed is one of the instructors in Gutierrez's class, which is offered by the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, along with Michigan United. It’s a six-week class. Reed says a little over 40 people have signed up for it.

And, there’s a reason immigrant rights groups are trying to get more accredited representatives right now. They’re trying to get ready for the possibility of an expanded DACA program, and the proposal to include parents in the next round.

The Supreme Court will decide this summer whether those proposals can move forward.

"It would be the biggest thing that's ever happened in the time that I've worked on this issue."

And Reed, who has worked on immigration issues for going on 15 years, says everyone in the field wants to be ready if things move forward.

She knows not everyone supports these programs.

"But," Reed says, "having spent so much time with so many families living in just daily fear and anxiety, to be able to deliver some relief if people choose to move forward and apply with the program, it would be the biggest thing that’s ever happened in the time that I’ve worked on this issue."

Gutierrez says the immigrants she knows, in her community, never wanted to live as outlaws. They were trying to do the best for their families.

"And my parents decided what was best for our family," she says. "They were chasing the American Dream, as people call it, not knowing that it was going to be really difficult for them."  

Gutierrez says as she’s learned more about immigration laws, she’s become more active. She follows the news closely, including the presidential campaigns.

A lot around immigration is up in the air right now, but Gutierrez and others are getting ready for a change.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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