On the evening of the 2016 presidential election, 26-year-old Gerardo Noriega finished his shift at a Denver-area auto parts store and headed to southeast Aurora, where he, his parents, and brothers had settled after emigrating from Mexico almost 20 years earlier. They planned to watch the election results as a family. Once home, Noriega sat down on the couch, turned on the news, and listened to a panel of political soothsayers speculate about the early returns out of Florida.
The person who would become the 45th president of the United States meant a lot to everyone in Noriega’s family, but the election was particularly important to him. His older brothers were now legal residents, having married American citizens, which allowed his parents to acquire green cards. His younger brother had been born in Colorado. But Noriega was protected only by then President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a policy that offered temporary legal status and work permits to young immigrants living in the country illegally who met certain criteria.
These “Dreamers,” as they’re often called—after failed legislation known as the DREAM Act that would have given young immigrants some level of protection—are people who were under the age of 31 in June 2012; had come to the United States before they were 16; and had lived in the country for at least five consecutive years with no criminal record. (They also had to be students, high school graduates, GED holders, or honorably discharged veterans.) During a high-profile political fight over his immigration status that began in 2010, Noriega’s story had made its way to the nation’s capital, where it helped push Obama toward establishing DACA in the first place. In 2013 Noriega had become one of America’s very first DACA recipients, and he had been building a life in Aurora ever since.
But as one state and then another and another turned red on election night, Noriega felt the growing weight of uncertainty. Months earlier, as Donald Trump and his anti-immigration rhetoric gained popularity during the campaign, Noriega had started to worry DACA might be in jeopardy, so he did what little he could to protect himself: He mailed in his renewal forms and a check for the $495 fee five months before his permit expired. He even sent the envelope by priority mail, guaranteed to arrive at the Department of Homeland Security by November 1—a full week before the election.
When Noriega woke up on the morning of November 9 and scrolled through news of Trump’s victory on Facebook, he was glad he’d taken the precaution.
Shortly after 11 a.m. on September 5, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stepped up to a podium on the seventh floor of the Department of Justice. “Good morning,” Sessions said to a few dozen journalists. “I am here today to announce that the program known as DACA that was effectuated under the Obama administration is being rescinded.” He took no questions after he read his statement. President Trump noted later that day that the program would expire in six months, in March 2018.
The news was deflating to Noriega, but it wasn’t the first time he had faced adversity since moving to the United States at the age of nine. Like most DACA recipients, Noriega came to the country with his parents. Ricardo and Aracely had met in college in Mexico City, married, and started a family in the metropolis of eight million people. But the pollution there exacerbated Gerardo’s childhood asthma, so the family moved to a Mexican border town when he was five. Aracely stayed home to take care of the children while Ricardo worked in a packing warehouse. After four years, the young family started making plans to head north in pursuit of better opportunities for their children. In 2000, Ricardo and Aracely acquired tourist visas for everyone, but they had no intention of returning to Mexico. When the paperwork came through, they left everything—family, friends, jobs, car, and house—behind.
Colorado was an obvious destination. The Noriegas had extended family in the state. Ricardo and Aracely rented a basement apartment in Aurora and enrolled the kids—who had picked up some English in their years living near the border—in local schools. By the time Noriega was in middle school, roughly two years after he moved to the United States, his parents had saved enough money from Ricardo’s painting business to buy a house inside the boundaries for Smoky Hill High School. There, in the sprawling, brick-faced building east of Cherry Creek State Park, Noriega first became intimately acquainted with disappointment.
Throughout high school, he’d been a mostly average student—except when it came to his automotive classes. Pistons and engines made sense to him in a way that biology and geometry did not. “That was the one thing that called out to me,” Noriega says. So when a representative from BMW came to Smoky Hill during Noriega’s senior year, it surprised no one that the shop teacher recommended him for the company’s training program. If accepted, BMW would pay for him to attend a two-year course in California. After he graduated from the program, a full-time position with the company would await.
The car-obsessed 17-year-old was excited when he went to pick up the application—until he looked at the first two lines on the form. It asked for his social security and driver’s license numbers. “And I didn’t have those things,” Noriega says. So he didn’t apply. This was years before DACA existed. Without legal status, Noriega didn’t have many options when he graduated—no BMW gig, no college assistance. About all he could do was paint walls for his father.
By then, the family had lived in the United States for almost a decade. During those years, federal and state immigration policy had evolved in a few notable ways, including, in Colorado, with a piece of 2006 legislation known as SB 90. The bill required local law enforcement to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement anyone arrested for a crime whom they reasonably believed might be in the country illegally. That meant anyone arrested for minor traffic infractions was subject to ICE investigation. “It allowed for bias-based policing,” says Denver immigration and criminal defense attorney Hans Meyer. “Every day [local police] would send a list of people who landed in custody to ICE if they’d reported a foreign place of birth.” Noriega’s name ended up on one of those lists in the spring of 2010.
Noriega had just passed through an intersection in Centennial’s Piney Creek subdivision when he saw the lights of an Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office car in his rearview mirror. It was early in the morning of April 1, 2010, and he was on his way home from the grocery store, taking the back roads as he usually did in an effort to reduce the chances of running into police—and precisely this kind of scenario. He pulled his Jeep to the side of the road and waited for the officer to approach.
Flashlight in hand, the cop explained that he’d stopped Noriega because the tiny bulb that illuminated the car’s license plate was out. The encounter escalated into an interrogation about his immigration status, Noriega says. It ended with Noriega in handcuffs, headed to jail after acknowledging he’d been born in Mexico. He was charged with driving without a license and not having proof of insurance or registration.
Noriega spent the next few hours in a cell and appeared in court by video later that day for a hearing that took no more than 15 minutes. The judge dismissed the latter two charges—the car was registered and insured under his brother’s name—but he did temporarily suspend Noriega’s driving privileges. Noriega still wasn’t free to go, though. Because of the provisions of SB 90 (which the Colorado Legislature repealed in 2013), the 19-year-old was transferred to a separate holding cell and questioned by ICE about his immigration status.
By this point, he hadn’t spoken to his family in nearly 10 hours. He was finally able to call his brother, who showed up with bail money, but by then Noriega was already being transferred to an ICE facility. He remained there for a few days and was placed in deportation proceedings before his family was able to bail him out.
The Noriegas met with several attorneys, but they all declined to help for the same reason: Noriega didn’t have a case. His legal bind came down to a matter of timing. Immigrants living in the United States illegally who have been in the country with a clean record for at least 10 years have a clear defense against removal proceedings via a federal provision known as the Cancellation of Removal for Non-Permanent Residents. ICE got hold of Noriega when he was 12 days shy of his 10-year mark.
Noriega’s mother couldn’t believe that less than two weeks could be the difference between her son staying in the States or being sent back to a country he barely knew. She reached out to a community organizer who introduced her to Meyer. He agreed to take the case on principle. “There was no reason for us to deport him,” Meyer says. “Gerardo was making that argument to me, and I was saying, ‘You’re absolutely right.’ ” At Noriega’s first hearing in December, Meyer told the judge they planned to contest any deportation order and asked for a continuance to prepare. It was the first step in trying to drag out Noriega’s case while they looked for some other solution. The judge gave them a continuance until May. With the court date looming and few legal options, Meyer and Noriega opted for a different approach: They would try the case in the court of public opinion.
In 2011, the Obama administration was deporting nearly 400,000 immigrants annually, a rate roughly one and a half times greater than that of previous Republican and Democratic administrations. Some critics later took to calling the president the “deporter in chief.” In such an environment, people like Noriega did everything they could to avoid attracting attention—like taking back roads and avoiding employment questionnaires and even casual conversations that delved too deeply into their pasts. “I grew up with that whole mentality of, ‘Don’t tell anybody, don’t speak out, stay under the radar, that’s better,’ ” Noriega says. Which makes what happened in May of that year all the more remarkable.
Dressed in a shirt and tie, Noriega stood anxiously in front of the federal immigration court in Denver on the morning of his second hearing. His nerves weren’t just related to the imminent court proceeding; Meyer had also staged a press conference, and a few journalists had shown up to hear Noriega’s story. He talked about his family, how he considered himself a Coloradan, and how he wouldn’t really know what to do if he were sent to Mexico.
The appeal wasn’t the first time Noriega had shared his story that spring. In the months following his first court appearance, Noriega spoke out any chance he could get, even delivering a speech beneath the gold dome on the Capitol steps. In today’s Denver—one in which undocumented immigrants speak out from the protected confines of churches—Noriega’s public appeals may not seem groundbreaking. But in that era of increased deportations, such acts were almost unheard of.
U.S. Representative Jared Polis took note. Although Noriega wasn’t one of his constituents, the Boulder politician agreed to write a letter of support to Congress. And at Noriega’s second hearing in May, activists organized a protest downtown before his speech. In court, the judge granted Noriega a second continuance—this one until January 6, 2014—a huge triumph at the time.
An even larger victory came a month later, in June 2011, when then director of ICE John Morton released a memo indicating the department would scale back deportation of immigrants in categories such as those with strong family ties and instead focus more on violent criminals. The government launched a pilot program in two cities—Baltimore and Denver—through which nonresidents could apply to have their cases administratively deprioritized. “I don’t think they put [the program] in Denver because of Noriega’s case,” Meyer says, “but I don’t think it hurt.”
Noriega was among the first applicants approved for relief under the Morton Memos, which pushed his story further into the spotlight. The New York Times and the Associated Press wrote pieces highlighting his situation, and Noriega even called in for an interview with a radio station in London. “It was a victory in the sense that, OK, they’re not actively trying to deport me,” he says. “But at the same time, they could reopen the case whenever they wanted.” What Noriega was really after was a more permanent fix.
The DREAM Act would have been the answer. The bill, which proposed giving legal status to some immigrants living in the country illegally who’d come here as children, passed the House in 2010 but stalled in Congress in subsequent years. Obama acted instead. On a sunny June afternoon in 2012 in the White House Rose Garden, he announced he was implementing DACA—the criteria for which mirrored Noriega’s life and circumstances almost exactly. In effect, he’d been a Dreamer long before the term became entrenched in the American lexicon.
Noriega received his first DACA permit in April 2013, and he promptly got a driver’s license—and then his dream car, a 1995 white Mitsubishi Eclipse. He’d fallen in love with the model as a child during a family trip to Texas. He’d never seen anything as sporty in Mexico. The Eclipse Noriega bought in 2014 was in rough shape—bald tires, stray wires sticking out everywhere, a leaky engine—but the talented amateur mechanic slowly coaxed the car back to life, installing new hoses, fuel injectors, brakes, and an exhaust system. “It runs,” he says. “But I baby it; I probably drive it once every other week.”
While restoring the Eclipse, Noriega became a regular at a local auto parts store, frequently stopping in to find the equipment he needed. Eventually, thanks to his DACA paperwork, he got a job there, and he spent more than three years building his skills and resumé before moving to another company with more opportunity for advancement. His girlfriend, Yolanda Hernandez, also found relief through DACA, securing work with Denver Public Schools as a kindergarten teacher. The couple recently started thinking about buying a house, but with Trump as president and DACA’s future uncertain, Noriega, now 27, worries he might not be able to leave his parents’ house. “If I do, that will technically void the petition my mom has put in for me,” he says. He’s also concerned that the information he and thousands of other DACA recipients supplied to the government in their applications for the program—addresses, dates and locations of birth, etc.—could be used against them.
So for now, Noriega and Hernandez’s future bounces along with the news cycle. One day DACA is out; the next day, Trump’s inviting Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer to the White House to work out a deal over Chinese food—a remarkable shift just eight days after the harsh rhetoric in Sessions’ initial DACA announcement. Since then, the administration has flip-flopped on the issue, at first denying there was a deal and later indicating that if there were a deal, it would require, in exchange, funding for Trump’s border wall, something Democrats have adamantly opposed. At press time, no agreement had been reached, although bipartisan talks were underway. Meanwhile, a federal judge in California issued an injunction that would temporarily block the Trump administration’s plan to phase out DACA.
All of which means that uncertainty may continue to plague the lives of the more than 700,000 people protected under DACA—over 17,000 of whom live in Colorado. The program was never intended to be a permanent fix, but for so many young immigrants like Noriega, it was enough to find stability and a sense of belonging here. Which is precisely what Noriega intends to keep doing. Inspired by the difficult decision his parents made decades ago—to come to the United States with nothing and try to make their way—he’s determined to move forward without fear. “The way I see it,” he says, “that whole living in the shadows thing—especially for Dreamers—that era is over.”
This winter, he and Hernandez started looking at houses, spending their evenings scrolling through listings online. Ideally, Noriega says, they’ll find something small, a couple of bedrooms. Maybe somewhere between Lakewood and Commerce City, so they’re both close to their jobs. Wherever they end up, Noriega told Hernandez she could pick out all of the details—so long as there’s a nice, big garage.