'There is no legal way to do this': Utah DACA recipient on a pathway to citizenship

Venecia Salazar poses for a photo in Washington. She and other Dreamers have been fighting for a pathway to citizenship for years,

Venecia Salazar poses for a photo in Washington. She and other Dreamers have been fighting for a pathway to citizenship for years, (Venecia Salazar)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Venecia Salazar often hears people say they support immigrants — but only those who come to the country legally.

As one of an estimated 3.5 million undocumented immigrants illegally brought to the U.S. as children, those comments can be extremely frustrating. Only a small fraction of those 3.5 million — a group known as Dreamers — are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Although DACA does provide Salazar and about 8,000 other Utahns with temporary protections from deportation and work permits, it doesn't offer them a legal status like permanent residency or citizenship.

"What I need people to understand is that there is no legal way to do this. There are a lot of pathways to citizenship for a lot of different circumstances and for a lot of different kinds of people," she said. "DACA recipients do not have a pathway to citizenship like all these other individuals. That is the point: to create a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients. We are trying to do this legally, trust me.

"We don't want anything else than to do this legally, and we are working really hard to create a pathway to citizenship."

Salazar and other Dreamers have been fighting for a pathway to citizenship for years, but their plight was given a renewed spotlight after a U.S. appeals court ruled against the DACA program earlier this year. It was the latest blow in a decadelong legal roller coaster for recipients, who have been left in limbo wondering about the ultimate fate of a program after repeated failed attempts for Congress to pass legislation that would offer a solution.

"Court case from court case means that my life is in jeopardy all the time. What that does to the mental health — it's truly terrifying in some moments," she said. "Undocumented folks don't speak up. We don't really know who they are. You kind of live in the shadows and — and I know you've heard that before, but it's the truth — suffer in the shadows."

Salazar was 6 years old when her parents moved her and her brother from their hometown of Cananea in Sonoroa, Mexico, to Phoenix. The family lived in the Grand Canyon state until 2010, when the Arizona Legislature passed the "show me your papers" law, which allowed police to demand individuals they suspected of being undocumented to present proof of legal immigration status during routine traffic stops and to arrest them without a warrant.

"When that bill passed, my mom gathered our stuff and told me to pack in the middle of the night and we just fled to Utah — just in the middle of the night," said Salazar, who was in high school at the time. "That's how I came to Salt Lake City, Utah, on random day in July 2010."

For Salazar, the DACA program has meant being able to attend college, get her own apartment and establish a stable life in Salt Lake City. About two years after first enrolling in the DACA program as a senior in high school, Salazar felt like she needed to do more for Dreamers' cause.

"I wanted to do something else. I needed to do something else. I couldn't just do nothing," Salazar said, adding that her advocacy work the national nonprofit United We Dream has been empowering.

"I know that there's a lot of people who still feel ashamed, even with having DACA. Being able to be a voice for them is empowering. It's beautiful. It's enlightening and humbling and it really gives me the courage to keep going to keep moving forward even if we get turned down year after year."

Last week, Salazar traveled to Washington for her third time since 2017 to lobby Congress for a path to citizenship. While there, she rallied with about 300 others and received training on how to safely demonstrate and hold rallies and protests. She hopes to implement that information locally in Utah as well. She said the most memorable part of the trip was when the group learned that senators had chosen not to include a pathway to citizenship in the omnibus bill.

"When they told us that, it broke us down, but it also fired us back up in order to do demonstrations on the street in front of the Capitol building," she said. "When I was surrounded by other DACA recipients, especially this time around, it's such a beautiful feeling because there are others like me who understand.

"It's an empowering feeling to know I'm not in this just for myself. I'm not in this just for my family. I'm in this for strangers I haven't even met."


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Sydnee Chapman Gonzalez is a reporter and recent Utah transplant. She works at the Utah Investigative Journalism Project and was previously at KSL.com and the Wenatchee World in Washington. Her reporting has focused on marginalized communities, homelessness and local government. She grew up in Arizona and has lived in various parts of Mexico. During her free time, she enjoys hiking, traveling, rock climbing and embroidery.


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