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Out From the Shadows: Living Undocumented

woman speaks in front of crowd
Courtesy of Sarahi Nieves
Sturgis resident Sarahi Nieves speaks at a rally for immigration reform in Kalamazoo, MI.

The following is a transcript of the State of Opportunity documentary Out From the Shadows: Living Undocumented, which you can hear at 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. today.

Sarahi Nieves’ parents brought her to the U.S. when she was 7. She didn’t have papers, but she grew up here. Then she had a son, a U.S. citizen. And she had to explain what it means to be undocumented in America.

“How can you tell a four-year-old, if we don’t do this, if we don’t go through this, we might be taken apart?” she said.

Behind the headlines, the talking points and the campaign rhetoric, what is life really like for a family living without papers in this heated moment in America?

“If we don’t move fast, things could get worse,” Nieves said. “So, wipe the tears off, get back up and start thinking of what are the next steps we should do.”


“There was this person that they were looking for,” Nieves said. “They came in a regular car, a normal car."

Sarahi Nieves was at her home, outside with her family: her parents, her two brothers and her 4-year-old son.

“And when they turned their backs to us, that’s when we saw the words ‘ICE,’ ” Nieves said.

ICE. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE is who shows up to arrest and deport immigrants living in the U.S. without approval. And on that day, four years ago, Sarahi Nieves was one of those immigrants without approval. And right there in front of her were four people who could take her away from her son forever. Or take her parents away.

“At that moment is was like if they had thrown a bucket of ice on your back,” she said. “It was like you froze. You didn’t know if to run or just stay still. It was right in front of us all of this was happening. And we didn’t know if they were going to come towards us, if they were going to ask us questions.

“But, we started to take a few steps back towards the door, and then we noticed that they went to the neighbor’s house and they started to surround the house. And so we, as quickly as we could without making a lot of noticeable movement, we went inside, turned off the lights and just stood in the darkness.”

Just stood there. Nieves says it was one of the scariest moments of her life. Her son was 4 years old at the time.

“My child, he’s a U.S. citizen,” Nieves said. “And even though that they have papers, they have to go through that. And I don’t think that’s fair. My son, the first time that happened, I didn’t know how to explain to him what’s going on. All I said was, ‘We just have to stay quiet. We have to turn off the lights and just make sure that there’s no noise.’ He was crying because he didn’t understand what was going on. How can you tell a four year old, if we don’t do this, if we don’t go through this, we might be taken apart. You might not see me, I might not see you. I just can’t.”


Sarahi Nieves has been living in fear most her life. The fear that someone would find out her secret. She didn’t spend much time outside as a kid. She never told anyone her family came to the United States without their papers. She was too afraid to speak up.

Millions of people live with this fear in America. 11 million, if the experts are correct. That’s about one of out every 30 people in the entire country.

In this piece, we’re going to hear what it’s like to be one of those people right now, at this moment in America, when so much is up in the air for undocumented immigrants, when so much is at stake.


“Good afternoon everybody,” President Barack Obama said on June 15, 2012, as he began a press conference on immigration. “This morning, Secretary Napolitano announced new actions my administration will take to mend our nation’s immigration policy, to make it more fair, more efficient and more just, specifically for certain young people sometimes called Dreamers.”

In the rose garden at the White House, President Obama spoke on a new policy that would change Sarahi Nieves’ life. It was a policy that the president had previously said he couldn’t do. He -- a former constitutional law professor -- said as president he didn’t have the power to do the very thing he was now announcing he would do.

And what he would do was to allow a certain group of undocumented immigrants, young people brought here as children, to come forward and get a guarantee they wouldn’t be deported for a few years. It wasn’t forgiveness or amnesty. It was a deferral.

The backlash against this policy started even before the president could get the words out of his mouth.

“It is the right thing to do,” President Obama said, before being interrupted by a reporter. “Excuse me, it’s not time for questions … not while I’m speaking.”

Five hundred miles away, in Sturgis, Michigan, Sarahi Nieves heard about this new program that could bring her out of the shadows, that promised she wouldn’t have to hide anymore from immigration police, that she wouldn’t have to explain to her son what might happen if she was arrested.

She heard about it, and she was nervous.

“I was scared,” she said. “I did not file right away. I did not know if this was something real, something – I feel like it was a dreaming at the time. But I was also scared. Because we’ve been always in the shadow, we’ve been always trained to stay hidden.”

The promise of this new program – called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA – was that Sarahi wouldn’t have to hide anymore. But that was also the downside. She had to turn over her information, submit to a background check and submit biometric data to the very government she’d been hiding from her whole life. The Obama administration said it would protect immigrants like Sarahi from deportation. But this wasn’t law. The administration could change its mind. A new president could come in and deport everyone on the DACA rolls.

Sarahi waited. Her brother signed up first.

“And after I saw that it was okay, it was safe, there was nothing that would put me in danger,” she said, “I went ahead and applied in October, and I received my documents in February.”

This, it turned out, was a huge change, for Sarahi and more than 700,000 other young immigrants who’ve signed up so far. She got her work permit. She became less worried about everything. About being out in public. About driving and about speaking out in public, at political rallies, to tell the truth about her family’s situation.

She had a deferral. But her parents were still at risk.

Then, in 2014, came another announcement from the president.            

“That night, I remember it very well, it was snowing,” she said.

It was November, 2014. Sarahi went to Kalamazoo for an event to watch the president’s speech.

“And so I got there and there was all these other families waiting,” she said. “And there was music, there was so much excitement. And at the same time, you could feel like there was tension about what was going to be announced, what’s the next step. There was a lot of reporters, cameras. And then that moment came when they turned on the overhead, the screen projector.”

“My fellow Americans,” the president began. “Tonight I’d like to talk with you about immigration.

“If you’ve been in America for more than five years,” he continued, “if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents, if you register, pass a criminal background check and you’re willing to pay your fair share of taxes, you’ll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.”

He was talking about people like Sarahi’s parents. They fit the requirements. This new policy would bring the whole family out of the shadows, take away the fear of deportation they’d been living with for almost two decades in the U.S.

“It was tears, it was joy, it was excitement,” Nieves said. “I called my parents and I told them.”

Immediately, the family started preparing, gathering papers, getting documents in order to apply.

Then came the news that President Obama’s executive action was facing a legal challenge in a federal court, a day before the law was to go into effect.

“It was as if they … it’s kind of like when they give you a gift and then they take it back,” Nieves said. “And until this point, we’re still waiting.”   

Nieves spoke with Michigan Radio in early June. At that point, the order blocking the president’s immigration plan was still in effect. Somewhere between 4 and 5 million people like Sarahi’s parents were waiting.

The Supreme Court decision was expected soon. It could come any week. Sarahi’s family, and millions of others just needed five people, five votes on the Supreme Court. A majority opinion.  

“I think there’s still hope,” Nieves said at the time. “And I don’t want to give up on that hope.”

We didn’t know when the decision would come. It turned out, it was on a Thursday, June 23. I was in Grand Rapids when the news hit, and called Sarahi to discuss the Supreme Court’s split decision: a 4-4 tie.

A tie meant the program for Sarahi’s parents would stay frozen. She, and the more than 700,000 young immigrants signed up for DACA still have their deferral. But for her parents, there would be no work permit. No driver’s license. No deferral from deportation. Same old fear.


Rosario Nieves has welcomed me into her home to tell her story. We sit at the dining room table. Her daughter Sarahi is there, to help interpret.

“It was very difficult,” her interpreter relayed. “What she remembers is fear. She says it’s a fear that’s so scary that she doesn’t want to remember it. And as she was saying the story, she said that she could feel that fear again.”

Heat. Hunger. Walking morning and night, Rosario Nieves says. A painful journey. A journey filled with fear.

I’m sitting there, hearing this story, at a nice dining room table, in a house the Nieves family has remodeled, everyone pitched in. New tile, new walls, fresh paint, new appliance in the kitchen, a dream home.

And I’m thinking about the sacrifices Rosario and her husband made to get their family to this place.

I’m a parent. What we always say is, we’d do anything for our kids. ANYTHING.

Sarahi’s parents meant it.

But Sarahi says they never talk about this story, in part because it’s painful. But also because it could get them into trouble. This sacrifice. This huge sacrifice they made for their kids, for their family, it did not have the blessing of the state. It was, according to federal authorities, illegal.

And so I’m also thinking as we talk about why it was illegal, how it came to be illegal. And that story starts long, long before Rosario Nieves ever thought of taking her kids on a journey through the desert.


For more than half the history of the United States, there was no limit on immigration. There was barely inspection. Ellis Island didn’t open until 1892. And when ships arrived in New York from Europe, first and second class passengers were waved right on through. Only third class even had to stop at Ellis Island.

The southern border of the U.S. was little more than a line on a map. Most of the Western United States actually was Mexico until 1848. And even after that, there was no formal border enforcement.  

World War I changed things. European immigration to the United States reached its peak during the war years, and after the war was done, U.S. leaders feared being overrun by refugees from Europe’s devastated cities.

In 1920, Warren G. Harding argued against joining the League of Nations, and instead preached "America first."

“To safeguard America first,” he said. “To stabilize America first. To prosper America first. To think of America first. To exalt America first.”

The next year in 1921, Congress, for the first time put a limit on how many immigrants would be allowed into the United States. It set up a quota system for each foreign country.

In 1924, Congress created the Border Patrol.

And let’s be clear: the laws on immigration back then were explicitly racist. America’s first immigration law, the Naturalization Act of 1790, said right in the text that only free white people could apply for citizenship. That language didn’t even disappear from federal immigration law until 1952.

There were also quotas on how many immigrants could enter from each foreign nation. Those quotas implicitly excluded certain racial and ethnic groups.

But throughout this time, Congress didn’t place any numerical limit on immigration from Latin America. There was already a long history of people coming across the southern border to work temporarily in the United States, then return home.

But that didn’t mean immigrants were exactly welcome.

“Our greatest primary task is to put people to work,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said during his first inauguration, in 1933.

During the Depression, many cities and states across America encouraged immigrants, particularly Mexican immigrants, to “repatriate.” It was deportation through coercion, sometimes violence. But it wasn’t official policy. It’s estimated a million people returned to Mexico during that time.

Many of them were actually U.S.citizens.

But attitudes in the U.S. about immigrants crossing the southern border would continue to change like the tides all through the 20th century.

After World War II broke out in the 1940s, the U.S. faced another labor shortage. Roosevelt’s administration reached a deal with Mexico to send workers north to work again on U.S. farms, to ensure the food supply for a nation at war. It was called the Bracero Program.

[Archival audio] “Yes, with the domestic supply of farm labor being inadequate, Braceros are a must. Farm wages have gone up steadily for many years, but we still don’t have enough seasonal domestic labor to do this kind of work.”

The Bracero Program lasted for decades. That language comes from a video produced by the Council of California Growers, produced sometime around 1959. Even as that was happening, there would be moments in which the U.S. government would turn against immigrants.

In 1954, the federal government initiated a deportation program and named it with a word that today is a racial slur. It was called, officially, Operation Wetback.

The next big tide change in U.S. immigration policy came in 1965.

“The days of unlimited immigration are past,” said President Lyndon B. Johnson. “But those that do come will come because of what they are and not because of the land from which they sprung.”

President Johnson stood at Liberty Island, in front of the Statue of Liberty, to sign the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. This new law did away with the quota system, so that immigrants could be admitted from any nation. But, they would now be admitted based on family connections already in the United States, or based on their skills.

A wave of new immigrants arrived after the signing of this bill. And while the law did not restrict how many people could come from each nation, it said that no nation could account for more than 7 percent of all immigrants granted green cards in a given year.

This created a backlog of applications from certain countries: China, the Philippines and Mexico.

But because businesses kept hiring workers, because the United States couldn’t actually check every mile of its border, every seat on every airplane or bus, millions of people still came to the U.S. to work without getting official approval.

The number of people who came illegally kept adding up. Until:

“I’m very pleased that you could all be here today,” said President Ronald Reagan in 1986, as he signed yet another law meant to reform immigration in the U.S. “Our objective is only to establish a reasonable, fair, orderly and secure system of immigration into this country, and not to discriminate in any way against particular nations or people.”

President Ronald Reagan signing a bill at a desk
Credit Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library
President Ronald Reagan signs the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act.

As he signed this law, President Reagan created a new federal policy toward illegal immigration. The policy of amnesty. Nearly 3 million immigrants came forward to sign up. The law forgave them, and allowed them a way to become citizens here.

The law also called for more enforcement and sanctions against businesses that gave jobs to undocumented immigrants. And it called for more enforcement at the border. Those two parts of the law faded over time. So more immigrants came, papers or not.

The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would triple over the next 20 years.

The Nieves family arrived right in the middle of that, around 1998.

My brother had a small business where we would make shoes,” said Sarahi Nieves’ father, with Sarahi interpreting. “So, it all started when Mexico kind of went into a recession with NAFTA , all of that started affecting us because we live in a small town.”

Business dried up. Sarahi’s father worried whether his family would make it. But he had an uncle in the United States. His brother went to check it out. Later he went too. After that, his wife, Rosario Nieves followed, with the kids.

“I did know that there was a passport that was needed,” Sarahi’s mother said, also with Sarahi interpreting. “But at that time, I looked at the need of my children, because there wasn’t jobs, there wasn’t much that we could do from the town that we were from.”

Then, after a pause, Sarahi added this:

“And, I know a lot of you are always thinking, 'Well, why can’t they wait, why can’t they wait in line, or how hard is it to wait,'” she said. “And I ask you this question: If you see your child in hunger, how much are you going to wait?”

Lots of people in the United States say they’re fine with immigrants, as long as immigrants arrive “the right way.” How many of us know what it takes to do that?

Right now, there’s a waiting list for anyone from Mexico who wants to get a green card in the United States. That waiting list, depending on your exact circumstance, can be close to two decades long.

The Nieves family was hurting in 1998. They weren’t sure they’d have the money to buy food for their kids. And in the years they would have had to wait for their visa, the drug trade got worse in Mexico. In the state where they lived, a drug cartel, the Templarios, now control many areas, and kill people seemingly at random.

So the Nieves family didn’t wait around to watch that happen. They came north, and broke the law. They broke the law to save their children.

And now they hide, because even after 18 years of following every other law in the United States, it was that first unlawful act that still defines them in this country. They’re forced to hide.

“What I want,” Rosario Nieves said,” is if anyone can hear these words, help us. Help us and the other families that are in this situation.  


I’m standing outside St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Grand Rapids on a sunny Sunday. Today is Father’s Day, and the English language mass is about to get out and the Spanish language mass is starting soon. And the organizers from Michigan United have set up a booth to remember the fathers who aren’t here today, the fathers who have been deported, fathers whose families are members of this parish.

“It was four years ago, and it seems as if it was just yesterday,” said Isabel Pablo-Cabrera, who lives in Grand Rapids. She was an adult when her parents were deported. She says they were arrested on a Sunday.

“It was just a random day,” Pablo-Cabrera said. “We got out of circle prayer from church. And they went to pray with this lady that was in need of spiritual help. So they went to her house. And that day, they came knocking on her door looking for someone else that were not her parents. But my parents, since they did not know how to communicate very well in English, this fear overcame – at that moment, they just did not do nothing. And they got arrested.”

Isabel found out later that night. Because she was undocumented at the time, she couldn’t visit them in jail. So she didn’t get to see them again before they were deported.

 Maria Ordonez and Francisco Pablo
Credit Courtesy of Isabel Cabrera
Maria Ordonez and Francisco Pablo were deported to Guatemala in 2012. Their daughter Isabel Cabrera resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“They didn’t have any criminal history,” she said. “They were just people. They were serving to the community, serving to the church community, hard workers. They were great grandparents. They were always there for us. They were not criminals. They were not doing anything wrong.”

It’s been four years since Isabel Pablo-Cabrera has seen her parents, gotten to hug them, or hold their hand in prayer. She now has deferred action from deportation. But she can’t travel outside the United States. In Grand Rapids, she has a husband, a job, children who are American citizens. So they have no plans to move.

She misses her parents, though.

“It really hurts me,” she said. “It really hurts me because we grew up together. We celebrated Christmas together. We had dinner together, we watched our favorite shows together, went to the park, went to the beach during summer. Now those moments, they can’t come back again. They can’t. They were torn apart from me. And I really, really miss them a ton. I really do. And I wish that I could be granted one day the wish to go see them.”

She doesn’t know if that day will ever come.


I reached out to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which most people just call ICE. That’s the agency that carries out deportation orders in the United States. It has an office in Detroit. A spokesperson there declined a recorded interview with Michigan Radio. We got an emailed statement instead. The full statement reads:

“ICE is committed to focusing on smart, effective immigration enforcement and makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, prioritizing serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a risk to national security or public safety.

“ICE's role in the immigration enforcement system is focused on two primary missions: (1) the identification and apprehension of criminal aliens and other removable individuals located in the United States; and (2) the detention and removal of those individuals apprehended in the interior of the U.S., as well as those apprehended by CBP officers and agents patrolling our nation's borders.”

ICE is a federal agency. It carries out laws set and prioritized at the federal level. The rules come from Washington D.C.

But Sarahi Nieves in her family live in a small town, in a rural area. A conservative place that’s seen an influx of immigrants in the past 20 years. How have locals reacted to these immigrants?

The little town of Sturgis, Michigan, is where we’re headed next on Out From the Shadows, from State of Opportunity on MR.


After 18 years living in the United States without papers, Sarahi Nieves had allowed herself to hope. She signed up for a program that protects her from deportation - at least for a few years. It’s called DACA. Then another program came along from the Obama administration that could do the same for her parents - DAPA. It would allow her whole family to have work permits, driver’s licenses, and live without the constant fear of being pulled over, asked for documentation and deported.

They’d been living 18 years with that fear, 18 years of working hard, buying a house, spending money in their community, giving back. Earning a good clean living without breaking any laws.

Except for the one law that defines this whole family’s life in this country. The one law that says they should never have come here to begin with, no matter how much they’ve contributed since they arrived.

That one law. Sarahi Nieves had allowed herself to believe that law might someday relinquish its power over her family, and they could live in peace, without fear.

DAPA could have done that. But then a judge in Texas froze the program. And Sarahi waited, along with millions of other families to find out if the Supreme Court would allow DAPA to remain frozen. She had hope.

Until the day the ruling came down.

Sarahi says she was watching TV, alone. Her mom was in another room, resting.

“And she came out and she saw that I was crying,” Sarahi said. “And she’s like, ‘What’s wrong, what’s going on?’ And so I told her they didn’t allow it. They didn’t unfreeze it. And so then we both started crying.”

Around that time, Sarahi got a phone call. From me. We talked for just a bit. But she wasn’t up for an interview that day.

“That day, it was kind of like a gray day for me,” she said. “It was a very sad, devastated kind of feeling. I didn’t know where to go from there. I thought we were kind of like lost. And I didn’t want to talk at that moment. But as the day went on, I thought about, this is not going to get us anywhere. And if we don’t move fast, things can get worse. So, wipe the tears off and get back up and start thinking of what are the next steps we should do.”

So she and I meet on a Sunday, at her church.

She says, one thing she wanted to do: take me on a tour of her community, to show me and prove what immigrants have contributed to her town.  

She lives in Sturgis, Michigan. It’s a little town of about 11 thousand people, south of Kalamazoo, right on the border with Indiana. It’s surrounded by fields of corn, with a strip of low brick buildings downtown and an old movie theater that’s still kicking.

And Sturgis, little, rural Sturgis, has a thriving, growing Hispanic community. According to the census, the town is now almost a quarter Hispanic. Some people told me they thought the real number is actually higher.

We leave the church, and the first place we go is her old elementary school.

Rain starts falling on the window shield of Nieves’ Ford Explorer. Through the drops, I see the two-story red brick building, the playground. This is where Sarahi came when she was 7 years old, first arriving in the United States. She didn’t speak English. She says, on her first day, couldn’t understand a word in class. She wanted to leave.

But she made it through, became one of the best students.

“I remember that, when third grade was here, I loved math, to this day,” Nieves said. “And multiplication was one of the things we were memorizing. And then when I got to fourth grade, I was the top person when we competed with each other, to see who knew their times tables the fastest.”

She was a good student all the way through high school. She thought she’d go to college. She even visited a campus in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Then she found out the school required a social security number to get in. She didn’t have one.

a young boy with his back to camera and a shirt that reads "Familas Unidas, Sturgis, Michigan"
Credit Courtesy of Sarahi Nieves
Sarahi Nieves's son, at an event to rally for immigrant's rights.

She was crushed, and at that time in 2010, she felt like she had no other options. She felt like all her hard work until that point was for nothing.

The next stop on Sarahi’s tour of Sturgis is a local business, named El Taco Loco. We speak to the owner. Sarahi helps me interpret.

“His name is Daniel Lopez,” Nieves said. “And, along with his wife, in these past three years, they’ve been able to open two locations now. And they’re originally from Michoacan. And they said that thanks to God, they are where they are.”

Lopez was born in the United States, but raised in the Mexican state of Michoacan. He came to Sturgis for a job at a mushroom farm. Then he worked in construction for 10 years. Then, with the help of his family, he opened his first business.

And at noon on a Sunday, in the middle of a rainstorm, his place is plenty busy. Families are there, both Hispanic and white. One person tells me his family drives up from Indiana -- this is the best Mexican food around.

I ask Lopez if he’s noticed any change in his community in the past year, while the rhetoric about immigration has heated up everywhere else. I ask him as a business owner, a job creator and someone from an immigrant background, what he thinks of a certain controversial presidential candidate, last name Trump. 

“Look,” he starts off. “I respect his point of thinking. But we know that what he’s saying is not true. And I’d rather invite him over to have some tacos.”

This isn’t what I expected, honestly. I guess expected more tension, more animosity.

Next in our tour, Sarahi takes me to a small, yellow building along the main road in Sturgis, Carniceria Michoacan. Inside, we’re greeted by the smell of slow-cooked meats at the taco counter. A TV overhead plays a soccer game. And this man stands behind the counter.            

“So his name is Gustavo Garcia,” Nieves translated. “They opened up their business since 2006, and he says thanks to the community, they’ve been able to keep going, and they hope to keep moving on.”

Garcia was born in Mexico, and he arrived in Sturgis in 1992, one of the earliest Mexican immigrants to this town.  

“He says he used to live in Chicago,” Nieves translated. “And they moved from Chicago to Sturgis. And the reason they moved is because over there, life was faster, harder. And when they moved to Sturgis, he really liked how it felt more freedom, more relaxed.”

He told me, at first, he felt a little out of place. People would question him when he spoke Spanish in public. But it wasn’t exactly racism. And as more Hispanics arrived to the town, things got better. His business is doing well, growing.

I kept wondering, where was the conflict? Everywhere else, I hear such heated conversations. Talk of immigrants taking over, stealing jobs. Talk of discrimination, anger.

So, I spent some time on my own, asking other people from Sturgis about this.

The first is actually the person who introduced me to Sarahi Nieves. Her name is Allison Colberg. She’s with an activist group called Michigan United, and she grew up in Sturgis,

“It was a good place to grow up,” she said. “It was very safe and very homey.”

And Colberg says she remembers growing up and realizing more and more immigrants, particularly Mexican immigrants showing up in the schools, and around town.

And once in a while, there’d be a conflict here or there, she says you could hear some people grumble about “illegal aliens” in the town.

“But at the same time, Sturgis was starting to really struggle economically,” she said, “and trying to figure out like, ‘How are we going to keep this town alive?’ And then at the same time, you had this wave of new people and new families who were like, starting small businesses and filling up the classrooms at school and shopping at the store. And so I think maybe part of why there wasn’t such a backlash was that folks were buying houses. Folks were renting apartments. Folks were spending their money there. It was good for the town.”

“It’s been a fact for many years that they’ve been a good and productive fabric of our community here in Sturgis,” said Aaron Miller, who also grew up in Sturgis and now represents this district in the Michigan House of Representatives.

He’s a Republican. This is certainly Republican territory. But Miller tells me, he never heard many people around here make a big deal about immigrants arriving without papers. Not when he was growing up, and not now, when he takes calls from constituents.

“It just, it hasn’t been an issue,” he said. “You’ll hear the occasional political argument, the frustration about illegal immigrants and taking our jobs, but the truth is, here in Sturgis, we’re at rock-bottom unemployment, and if you ask a factory owner here in Sturgis, they will say we need 50 people to show up for work yesterday. So as far as taking our jobs, it’s simply not true. So I don’t think you get a lot of frustration about the fact that there could be a number of illegal immigrants.”

Geoff Smith is Director of Sturgis’ Department of Public Safety.

“I would definitely say that we don’t have a conflict when it comes to our immigrant population at all,” Smith said. “Most of the immigrants that we have have been here for quite some time, have businesses, homes, jobs and that type of thing. So we really don’t get the phone calls or anything like that, with people concerned with somebody being undocumented or things like that.”

Smith says when his police officers make a traffic stop they always check drivers licenses, and from time to time still it turns out the driver doesn’t have one. Those people may be referred to federal immigration officers. But in just the day-to-day law enforcement of Sturgis, he says illegal immigration is not a topic that comes up a lot, not in this town.


In Sturgis, Michigan, lots of undocumented immigrants I spoke to said they feel welcome. But that doesn’t mean the rest of America has welcomed them. And it doesn’t mean the laws are welcoming.

After a quick tour of her town, Sarahi Nieves takes me back to her church, Holy Angels. The rain has cleared. The sun’s back out. It’s hot and muggy in the parking lot, where a number of Sarahi’s family members have just arrived. She tries to rope them into an interview.

One brave young man steps up: Sarahi’s cousin.

“My name is Jonathan Nieves and I live down the street,” he says.

Jonathan is in high school. He plays on the soccer team. He’s fit, with short hair. He’s dressed up nice for church. He tells me he was born in Mexico but his parents brought him here to Sturgis when he was 2. This is the only home he remembers.

Jonathan’s not into the politics of it all. He strikes me as just a typical all American teenager, living his life.

But we’re standing there on the Sunday after a major Supreme Court decision affecting millions immigrant families, including his own. The court – in a tie vote with no further explanation – effectively blocked a new program that would protect millions of immigrants from deportation. It turns out Jonathan hasn’t heard the news about the Supreme Court ruling yet.

I pause for a second. I look at Sarahi, his cousin, not sure which one of us should tell him.  

Sarahi does it.

“You know how we were waiting to see if the Supreme Court would allow our parents to have DAPA,” Sarahi says. “Well right now they said it’s a tie, so it’s not moving forward. If it would have been unfrozen, our parents could have applied for a work permit. Did you know?”

He didn’t. I ask him if it’s a big deal.

“Well, I think about it now,” he said. “And it’s kind of sad, because most parents need that to work and stuff, and to be able to drive most of all.”

Without a work permit, without a license, they could be deported at any time.

The Obama Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- all of them say they’re not after people like Sarahi and Jonathan’s parents. They say they target people with criminal records.

But people here have heard stories. People all over will tell you stories. Agents came looking for one person, ended up taking someone else.

So the fear is real.

Whatever’s going to happen in Washington, D.C. However long it takes for the people in charge to actually step up and do something, it has a real, immediate effect on people’s lives.

It has an effect right here in little Sturgis, Michigan.

We’re still standing in the parking lot, in the heat before church starts, when Sarahi spots some more family, and she introduces me to her uncle, Carlos Lopez. I ask him how the Supreme Court decision affects him.

Sarahi interprets.

“So, with this decision, it was heartbreaking,” he says. “It was devastating because it kind of took away our hopes. And it turned off that light of hope that we had. And I hope that we get a president or a candidate that has a heart.”

We have to persevere, he adds. He’s says been in Sturgis for about 16 or 17 years. He says he likes it here, he likes the people here. When I ask if he plans to stay, Lopez says, it’s in God’s hands.

And then he has to go inside. Church is starting.

I walk in a few rows and stand at the edge of the pew, recording the music. Come Holy Spirit, they sing.

Next to me, a man sways to the beat, cradling his young son, and kissing his head.

The church is full of parents, children, families.

In here, people aren’t identified by their papers. In here it’s families that matter, not the federal government and its laws.

In here, no one is afraid, for now, of being separated. In here, families are together.

The man kisses his son’s head like I kiss my son’s head. And the people sing.

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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