Cristian Padilla Romero is just the sort of young adult of whom America should be proud. After graduating as salutatorian from his metro Atlanta high school in 2014, he received an undergraduate degree from California’s Pomona College in 2018. He is currently a graduate student at Yale, pursuing a doctorate in history.
But Padilla Romero and his family are hardly being treated as assets to the country or models of the American dream. You see, they are undocumented immigrants, so they are currently on the receiving end of the harsh, xenophobia-fueled policies enacted by the administration of President Donald J. Trump.
Though Tania Romero, Padilla Romero’s mom, is in treatment for stage 4 oral cancer, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has started proceedings to deport her to Honduras, which she left two decades ago. Her son mounted a campaign to stay the proceedings — pleading that sending her back would be tantamount to a death sentence — but ICE seems unmoved.
And the news may only get bleaker for Padilla Romero and hundreds of thousands of undocumented young adults around the country. Padilla Romero has been able to pursue his education because he is a participant in the program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) started by President Barack Obama. Trump and his base of aging white voters hate the program, and the president has pledged to end it.
Trump may well get his way. His crusade against the program has now made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the conservative majority seems poised to dump DACA and betray hundreds of thousands of young adults who are among the nation’s brightest and best. In oral arguments earlier this week (Nov. 12), conservative justices seemed to signal sympathy for the Dreamers, as DACA participants are commonly called, while also suggesting that Trump would be well within his authority to pull the plug.
The president, for his part, has used ugly stereotypes and outright falsehoods to disparage Dreamers. Early on the morning of oral arguments, he sent out the following tweet: “Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from ‘angels.’ Some are very tough, hardened criminals …”
That’s an outrageous lie. Obama carefully structured the program to include only undocumented immigrants who would clearly make a contribution to the country. Those with criminal histories were excluded.
Dreamers had to have entered the U.S. as children and continuously lived here since 2007. They also had to either be in school or have completed high school or joined the military. As a result, thousands pursued college educations, and several hundred joined the U.S. Armed Forces.
But by the time Padilla Romero finished high school, anti-immigrant fever was raging through the fetid swamps of Trump’s base — culturally conservative whites who resent the advances brought about by the civil rights movement and fear demographic change. Georgia no longer allowed undocumented students, no matter how promising, to attend its most selective public universities, so Padilla Romero went to California for college.
His mother stayed behind in the Atlanta suburbs, where she had worked hard to provide the fuel for her children’s dreams. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2016 and has endured surgery as well as radiation and chemotherapy, according to The New York Times. But when she couldn’t produce proper documents following a routine traffic stop in August, she was turned over to ICE.
Not only does Padilla Romero represent the hard-working, self-reliant, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps sort on which we build our national legends, but so does his mother. He credits his success to her unflagging support. She worked as a housekeeper, dishwasher and laundromat attendant — sometimes all at once — before eventually landing a full-time job in construction, according to the Times. But none of that matters to the forces who only hear her accent and see the color of her skin.
The fierce resistance to immigrants of color — the cruelty, the resentment, the utter meanness — is stoked by the fears of Trump’s base, who see their cultural dominance slowly evaporating. They cannot win in the long run, but they can bring misery to the lives of people like Padilla Romero and his mom in the meantime.