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My American Dream - FILM

The Only Home They Know

Nov 21, 2017
by Christopher Kerosky, Kerosky, Purves & Bogue, LLP, Sonoma County Human Rights Commissioner

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You can make a difference. For ways you can help, go to:myamericandreams.org/get_involved.html. To watch the films made about six Sonoma County DREAMers, go to: myamericandreams.org/films.html.Happy Holidays to you and yours!


The holiday season is a time for sharing heartwarming stories and helping those in need. What better time to consider our young immigrants who have DACA – that Obama-era reprieve from deportation that will expire in three months, unless our federal government takes action. There are about 800,000 of these young people nationwide and approximately 4,000 in Sonoma County. Starting in March, they will begin to lose their right to stay in what for most is the only country they know.

The best way to understand the impact DACA has had and what its termination will mean is to hear the stories of those directly affected. Here are profiles of four DACA recipients from our own community:

Diego JimenezDiego Jimenez ~ One of the most well-known local DACA stories is that of Diego and Giovanni, whose parallel lives were featured in a short film made for PBS by My American Dreams in 2014. Diego Jimenez andGiovanni Albertolliare best friends who grew up together here; they attended the same elementary school, high school (Rancho Cotate) and university (Sonoma State). Although they were both children of immigrants, one (Giovanni) is a U.S. citizen and the other (Diego) is not. “I just happened to be born here, and he didn’t.” Giovanni observes in the film.

Diego Jimenez was born in Jalisco, Mexico but brought to the U.S. by his parents before the age of 2. He spent his whole life here. Nonetheless, when he graduated from SSU, without the legal right to work or stay in the U.S., Diego suddenly felt like he was not considered American. Diego: “I can’t be. I wasn’t born here.”

Then in 2013, his DACA status was approved, and his whole life changed. “Suddenly he was like a new person.” Explains Giovanni. He could travel without fear for the first time and he took a trip cross-country for his brother’s graduation at Harvard. “It was like no-holds barred”. Today, Diego works as Access-to-Care specialist for Genentech, the biotech giant. He was married to his college sweetheart in May, and the two began saving to buy their first home. Diego’s future looked very bright and then the Trump Administration announced the end of DACA.

Gymmel GarciaGymmel Garcia ~ Gymmel Garcia is a native of El Salvador who was raised here in Sonoma County. “My life as an undocumented person was spent blending in. Standing out meant exposing my status and risking everything I had earned up to that moment, and all the opportunities that lay ahead.” A lot of undocumented immigrants grow up here in constant fear of deportation, afraid to attract attention, cautious with friends and peers, and afraid to travel outside of their communities.

“The day I received DACA, I reclaimed my life,” says Gymmel. Her first employer after receiving DACA was 10,000 Degrees, a non-profit organization that helps kids from underprivileged families go to college. Through this organization, she shared her undocumented experience with local and national audiences.

“DACA was the key to unlocking my voice and advocating for meaningful change.” Gymmel writes. After two years at Santa Rosa Junior College, she transferred to UC Berkeley, where she graduated in 2016; now she’s in law school at UC Davis. Gymmel worked part-time during the year for a legal clinic, defending workers’ rights, and then spent the summer working for a large prestigious law firm in San Francisco. She graduates in two years and a bright future in law is within reach.

Denia and familyDenia Candela ~ A native of Acapulco, Mexico, Denia Candela grew up in Sonoma Valley, raised by a single mother. She became a young mother herself, but with support from her husband, her family and her friends, Denia finished high school and college while raising her son,Damiann. She majored in applied statistics, with a concentration in the actuarial field; as she explains, “I liked math. Math is the one thing that’s the same all around the world.” As an undocumented immigrant, she thought that would be important.

“When DACA passed, there were suddenly a lot more doors open in my life.” Denia worked her way through college and then got a job as Enrollment and Outreach Manager at the North Bay Children’s Center at SSU.

Denia’s story was also featured in a PBS film entitled “Diary of a Dreamer”. Last year, when the film was released, a celebration for Denia was held at Sonoma State, where college administrators and professors spoke with pride of this always-upbeat but determined young woman who overcame so many obstacles.

Denia is now not only a full-time professional and mother, but a community leader and a member of the board of several local organizations. Denia is a constant presence in community events, frequently speaking out on behalf of immigrants, the poor and the disenfranchised. But all of this is at risk if she loses her status..

Christian FertinoCristian Fertino ~ “My story began when I was only five years old.” explainsCristian Fertino. “As a child I recall my mom and dad warning us not to open the door unless we knew who it was. They were always concerned about ICE showing up one day, separating our family, and eventually deporting them and me.” 

Cristian had immigrated as a toddler to the U.S. from his native Michoacan, Mexico. In many ways, he grew up like any American child, speaking English and attending American schools.  “My childhood did not revolve around my unlawful status.  Despite local ICE raids and checkpoints, my parents never showed fear in front of us.” It was not until he was in his mid-teens that Cristian began to experience the consequences of being “undocumented.”  Unlike most of his high school friends, he could not apply for a driver’s license, financial aid for college, or a social security number. Then his own mother was deported to Mexico after being pulled over on the freeway. “I began to live in constant fear of ICE and deportation.  I felt like a prisoner in the land of the free.” 

After obtaining his bachelor’s degree from UC Riverside, Cristian hit another barrier: he could not apply for a job in his field because he was ineligible for a social security number.  Instead, he worked as a gardener and helped his dad paint houses to make ends meet.

Then came DACA. “For the first time, I felt welcomed in the country I had called home for over 16 years. No amount of words could ever describe the emotions I felt the first time I held my work permit or social security card.  It was my name and photo on those documents. It felt surreal. My dreams no longer had to be dreams because now I could make them a reality. I now possessed the tools needed to thrive and succeed.”

For the last 5 years, Cris has been working for immigrants, helping them navigate difficult immigration laws or fight their deportation. (His own mother can re-apply to return to the U.S. in 2019). Cristian intends to attend law school next fall. His story will be told in an upcoming My American Dreams video, shown on KRCB in the spring and shared with the PBS network thereafter.

Uncertain Future The PBS film about Diego ends with him saying that which sums of the attitude of most DACA recipients: “I’m just a young guy. Just trying to make a living, trying to grow up in a country that is my home, the only home I’ve known.” Each of the hundreds of thousands of Americans with DACA has a similar story like Denia and Cristian, Diego and Gymmel. Will we as a nation uproot these young people from the life they’ve built here, and deport them to a country they don’t know? Surely we are better than that.

Immigrant Stories by Christopher Kerosky

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