WATERLOO | Monica Reyes’ mother held onto every memento of her daughter’s achievements over the years. Especially anything with a clear location or date on it.
A mother’s pride, in part. But the documents -- squirreled away in a suitcase -- also had a specific purpose, serving both as hope and as evidence.
On June 15, 2012, that suitcase full of perfect attendance awards, school forms, immunization records and even mailed letters finally served its purpose. On that day, President Barack Obama’s administration announced it would bypass Congress and launch Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
DACA exempts many undocumented immigrants who arrived as children from deportation for a renewable two-year period
The enduring hope Reyes and her sister Nilvia, who were brought to the United States from Mexico at ages 3 and 1, respectively, could ultimately earn legal status was finally achieved later in 2012.
Thanks to the long-held documents and much determination, both young women filed the paperwork and received DACA status so they are no longer in the country illegally.
With that protection from deportation in place, Reyes, now 23 and living in Waterloo, is ready to share her story.
“I was brought here illegally when I was little, 3 years old. I came from a very, very bad family," she said. "My father was extremely abusive, so much so that he almost killed my mother. So, at the time, we had no family in Mexico, so we had to migrate to the United States and joined the little bit of family we did have.”
That story is important to Reyes not just because it is hers, but because it paints a picture. A picture of a human being worthy of dignity, of an ambitious millennial and a nearly All-American upbringing.
She made that opening statement -- one of her first public testimonials -- last week in front of a skeptical audience: U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, who has called DACA lawless, supported an effort to end DACA as part of an immigration bill and has made colorful statements about undocumented immigrants.
The resulting video, from a town hall meeting in New Hampton, where Reyes was raised from eighth grade, was released by the DREAM Action Coalition, a national group that lobbies for undocumented youths, to highlight King’s stance on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
The video shows only King at his podium, with an off-camera Reyes sharing her and her family’s history for nearly 2 1/2 minutes.
At 1 1/2 minutes, King asks her to speed it along, but he says she can talk to him on the phone afterward if she’s interested. A minute later, he cuts her off.
“You’re done. I ask you politely to stop,” he says, turning away. “So, we’re going to go to another question.”
Reyes told The Courier she shared her back story to challenge King’s perceptions about undocumented immigrant children. She also wanted to ask him, once he heard her history, if she deserved to be deported.
“We want to show his decision affects real people. It’s real lives he’s going to be playing with,” Reyes said a few days after her encounter with King.
Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition made news with his own confrontation with King. He said Reyes’ comments to King highlight the mission of the coalition: to put a human face on the issue of undocumented immigrants. The group tries to respectfully confront many politicians on the issue, not just King.
He added, “It’s easy for them to just take a vote in Washington, D.C., or make a speech on TV, including Congressman King.”
For Reyes, the immigration debate is not about partisan politics but about families.
“If he’s really a family man, you’d think he’d be a little more understanding with immigration. Does he really want to break up families?” she said of King.
Reyes began addressing King in New Hampton by noting that she respects King’s right to his own opinion and even praises him for always standing up for his beliefs. She is less kind after her face-to-face encounter.
“He completely disregarded me as if I wasn’t even human,” she says now. “He’s just this man that assumes the worst about Hispanics.”
A spokesman for King did not respond to several requests for comment.
Reyes is angry about King’s 2013 statement most undocumented youths are drug smugglers with “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.” She said the reality is they’re going to school or working or both.
Though Reyes is new to activism, she has long advocated Hispanic people’s rights in their communities. She said she started as a teenager in New Hampton after seeing the unjust way many Hispanics were treated during traffic stops.
Once she had DACA, she began to make her story part of her advocacy. Through her and her sister’s Facebook group Iowa Dreamers, their story has helped others with practicalities of DACA and inspired others to achieve more.
“Some people live mad at the world because of the status they’re in. … I cherish it,” Reyes says.
Of course, it hasn’t been easy to get where she is today.
Before DACA, Reyes worked 75 hours a week at minimum wage jobs to try to make ends meet and put herself through college.
She saw the DREAM Act -- or Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors -- fail. It would have provided a pathway to citizenship, which DACA doesn’t. She has watched comprehensive immigration reform stall in Congress.
While Reyes will continue to advocate for reform, the benefits of DACA have been priceless.
Now she has an Iowa driver’s license to get to and from work. Her job makes it easier to pay for classes and helped her put a down payment on a house.
“I’m living the American Dream now since I’ve gotten DACA. It really has improved my life a lot,” Reyes said recently after finishing her work day. “God forbid it’s repealed.”