Under the towering eucalyptus trees in the Monarch grove at Natural Bridges, Gabriela Cruz and her 5-year-old classmates were doing their best to follow their Head Start teacher’s instructions to let the butterflies sleep in peace. That didn’t last long. A clattering sound from something hitting the wood platform under their feet triggered an eruption of black and orange, delighting the young crowd.
After that, Cruz always looked forward to the annual Bay View Elementary School field trip to the sanctuary, studying metamorphosis and the importance of the grove in providing shelter for the butterflies in their long annual migration. So it only seemed natural last year for Cruz, now 29, to don a pair of Monarch-colored wings to cement her own transformation into an activist, joining a group of fellow first-generation immigrant “Dreamers” at the nation’s Capitol to protest President Donald Trump’s hardline anti-immigration policies.
Cruz, who still lives in Santa Cruz and now works full-time as a community organizer for the group United We Dream (UWD), is undocumented. Her mom brought her to the U.S. from Oaxaca, Mexico, when she was 1 year old. This is the only country she has ever known.
In 2012, Cruz was awarded legal protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Her grandmother, also firmly rooted in the community, started the annual week-long festival Las Posadas, of processions reenacting Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter for the birth of their baby, Jesus, and Cruz now continues the Christmas tradition.
On September 5, 2017, when the Trump administration reversed the protected status for Dreamers like Cruz and rescinded DACA, she and 800,000 other recipients had already undergone rigorous vetting and given the government information about every aspect of their lives. Cruz was working at a downtown bank when she heard the news. She was terrified when she thought about what might happen next.
“It could have been the worst-case scenario, like tomorrow they are going to show up at my house or at my work and find me, because they have all of that information,” Cruz says. “Luckily that didn’t happen, but that was a fear, and it was a realistic fear.”
Santa Cruz, with its border on the Pacific Ocean, is well within the 100-mile zone where U.S. Border Patrol is able to operate random immigration checkpoints. The U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment is supposed to protect Americans from arbitrary stops and searches, but undocumented residents in the area increasingly find themselves at risk of being targeted by law enforcement under a previously unenforced regulation that was passed in 1953 without any public comment or debate.
Devastated but determined after the sudden reversal on DACA a year and a half ago, Cruz stumbled across an announcement on Facebook that protesters would be gathering at the clock tower in downtown Santa Cruz. She had never attended a protest, but that day she brought her cousins, her niece and a few friends. It was there that she spoke openly about being undocumented for the first time, in front of a crowd of about 50 strangers.
As news began to spread about what was happening with DACA, Cruz felt it was important for people to hear directly from someone who would be impacted by the decision. “I was just at such a low place emotionally,” Cruz says. “I felt like I had nothing to lose because everything I had been working towards my entire life—being stable and thriving in this community—is being taken from me.”
Miriam Stombler, a retired attorney who worked for the San Francisco City Attorney’s office, and later for the Santa Cruz County Counsel’s office, was at the clock tower that day. Stombler says that when Trump was elected, she felt the need to go back on active status, reactivating her bar license to help immigrants who are being affected by his administration’s policies. She met Cruz after she shared her story with the crowd.
“As I got to know her,” Stombler says, “I got to realize what a leap that was for her—from living quietly, never talking about her status, to suddenly bursting out with this passion for justice. I’m just astounded and enthralled with how she has grown.”
Stombler had also been considering offering shelter to a person or family in need. After she heard Cruz speak, she approached her with a hug and an offer of a place to stay if she needed one.
”I was overwhelmed by the fact that this person I didn’t know would open her doors to me,” Cruz says. “The fact that this woman was offering me her home to hide in, essentially, it was also like, ‘Holy shit, this is really happening, right?’ We all don’t know what’s going to happen to me. It was comforting to know that someone was so loving to open her doors to me, but it was also the scariest thing of my life.”
Stombler also introduced Cruz to Sanctuary Santa Cruz, an immigrant rights group. Soon, Cruz was managing the group’s Facebook page. After that, she started planning her first trip to Washington, D.C., where she would meet a group of young immigrant activists from all over the country who were making their voices heard in Congress as members of immigrant advocacy group United We Dream.
Cruz and her fellow Dreamers wore orange-and-black Monarch wings as they gathered in a rotunda at the Capitol to push for a “clean” Dream Act. The Dream Act was introduced in 2017 as bipartisan legislation that provides a pathway to citizenship for the 2 million immigrant youth and young adults who came to the U.S. as kids, including the 800,000 DACA recipients who were left in limbo when the program was rescinded in September 2017. A “clean” act would not include additional conditions, such as funding for a border wall or increased law enforcement targeted at immigrants tacked on.
Cruz promised her mom that she would not get arrested in D.C., and she kept that promise—on her first visit, anyway. The weight of the situation started to sink in during a visit to the Holocaust Museum, and as she watched members of Bend the Arc Jewish Action stage a protest with songs of liberation from Jewish internment camps.
“They understood what was happening back then is happening now,” Cruz says. “It’s not something they wanted to just sit back and watch.” Knowing that others were willing to risk arrest for Dreamers was emotional, she said. “I cried my whole face off.”
As Cruz became immersed in the world of activism—volunteering for Sanctuary Santa Cruz, joining activist groups on social media, meeting young adults from across the nation who shared similar stories—she thought back to growing up in Santa Cruz, “a goody two shoes” who avoided any risk of getting in trouble. “For so long, I was walking on eggshells trying to be this perfect person worthy of citizenship,” Cruz said. “I thought, ‘If I never commit a crime, they can never call me a criminal.’”
One of Trump’s most common refrains is that immigrants who come here illegally commit crimes. While this feeds his political base and helps justify racist policy proposals like border walls and increased deportations, a wide array of research concludes that it is simply not true that immigrants commit more crimes. A recent New York Times article based on a comprehensive study by four universities reported that while immigration rates have grown steadily in the past few decades, plateauing more recently, crime rates during the same period have declined. The national violent crime rate today is well below what it was in the 1980s.
Cruz’s anxiety went out the window on her second trip to D.C. a year ago, when she was arrested during a planned protest demanding the inclusion of a clean Dream Act in a deal to fund the government. She knew when she left Santa Cruz that she would participate in civil disobedience that would likely result in her arrest. Her spotless criminal record passed the test of the criminal and immigration attorneys who screened protestors for the action.
“Our people are being found in cages already, so it was to show what was happening and that our lives are in danger,” Cruz says. “And yes, we are taking a risk, but we are taking a stand against injustice.”
Growing up, Cruz was taught that bad people are criminals. But she now realized that entire populations could also be criminalized with political rhetoric. “Being called criminal simply because my mom fled a country where she didn’t see a future for me to offer me a better life—to call her a criminal, it really hurt,” Cruz says.
As Cruz and her fellow Dreamers gathered in the rotunda of the congressional building last year, it initially felt like the other actions she had been a part of. But when the Capitol police gave a third warning to move from the area or be arrested, things got real. Cruz and about 80 others stood chanting “Undocumented, Unafraid” and sang the song “We Shall Not be Moved.” Those who didn’t want to be arrested went up the stairs to watch over them from above. As Cruz looked up and saw some of her friends crying, she became emotional. “I remember thinking, ‘Don’t cry, because they’re going to think you’re scared, and you’re not scared. You’re fine. So just stay strong and keep chanting,’” she says.
Cruz was the first person to be arrested. Her arresting officer removed her wings and put zip ties around her wrists with shaking hands. “I kind of felt like, ‘You’re nervous. I’m scared. We’re kind of in this together in a sense. Which is a weird feeling to have for someone who obviously has authority over you and is about to arrest you,” she says.
“The funny thing is I wanted to be a police officer at one point. When I realized I wasn’t going to be going to law school, I thought, ‘Well, maybe I could be a police officer,’ so at Cabrillo I took almost all of the criminal justice classes.”
The activists were detained for about five hours in a freezing warehouse before they were released and fined $50 each. Afterword, while she and her fellow protestors were eating dinner together, Cruz asked the person sitting next to her if he had ever been arrested. “Yes,” he told her, “but never for something so important.”
Cruz was in middle school when she found out that she wasn’t documented. Teachers and students were preparing for an 8th grade field trip to Washington, D.C. when her mom broke the news to her. She couldn’t travel because she wasn’t a U.S. citizen, and the risk of that being discovered was too great.
It was a jarring discovery for a young person who had developed a deep sense of patriotism thanks to a 6th grade teacher at Bay View Elementary, Donna Merlotti. Cruz was in Ms. Merlotti’s class on Sept. 11, 2001. Merlotti, who has since passed away, had asked students to write letters and send care packages to firefighters who cleaned up the wreckage, sometimes to a soundtrack of Mariah Carey’s song “Hero.”
“We would read the newspaper every day. I think that’s where I started to read about politics that were happening around the world and got more interested in it,” Cruz says. “She really taught us so much more than what you would normally learn in school. She taught us to have good, moral character, and how to behave.”
Not being able to go to Washington with her classmates stung, but Cruz really started to internalize the stakes of being undocumented in high school. Staying motivated with her future uncertain was difficult, and her grades suffered during freshman and sophomore year.
“I remember having this argument with my mom about my grades one time. I said, ‘Why does it even matter?’” Cruz recalls. “Why does it matter if at the end of this, I could work so hard for something and one, we can’t afford me going to a four-year college, and two, I can’t go because I’m undocumented?’”
Still, Cruz became captain of the cheerleading team at Santa Cruz High. In her “little bubble,” avoiding parties or anything that might get her in the slightest bit of trouble, she often didn’t have anyone to talk to about what was really going on. Her friends and teachers didn’t know, and there was no visible support for students in similar situation.
“I had to come up with these little white lies as to why I couldn’t get a job, or I could get a job in certain places, but not anywhere like anybody else,” Cruz says. “I couldn’t get a driver’s license, and I used to say, ‘Well, I don’t really need a car.’”
There is no telling exactly how many students in Santa Cruz County are undocumented. Collecting that information at schools is a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Still, there are indicators of how many local residents are directly impacted by shifting immigration policies. At the time DACA was rescinded in 2017, there were 1,700 DACA recipients in Santa Cruz County, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Cruz’s grades rebounded in her junior year, and she wanted to take an honors U.S. History class. Cruz says a counselor discouraged her. Getting a C in civics was admittedly not great, but it also didn’t seem disqualifying.
“She didn’t know that my mom was a single parent to four girls and whenever my little sister was sick, I would have to stay home from school to take care of her so my mom could go to work,” Cruz said. “She didn’t know that I had an after-school job and I cheered and I was undocumented.” It hurt to think that “no one else cared enough to ask,” assuming that she just didn’t want to do her homework, or wasn’t smart enough.
Under A.B. 60 in California, undocumented residents can now get a driver’s license, but not much else has changed for students. They still can’t get jobs and aren’t eligible for most scholarships. Higher education is more accessible for those who can pay for it through the California Dream Act and A.B. 540, the in-state-tuition law that allows students to pay in-state-tuition instead of out-of-state tuition if they attended at least three years of high school in California.
Rather than discouraging her, the honor’s class where Cruz would learn about civil disobedience became a catalyst to prove the counselor—and everyone else—wrong. “I just remember my ears burning. They were so red and hot just because I was so mad that she told me, like, ‘You’re too stupid to take this class,’” Cruz says.
She told the counselor that if she didn’t let her take the class, she was going to go to another counselor. “I ended up getting an A in that class,” Cruz says, setting her up to finish high school early with a 3.5 GPA. She then went to Cabrillo College, working full-time to pay for it, while also applying for DACA.
After six months of waiting to hear whether she would be awarded DACA or denied the stability that the program offered—all the while leaving her personal information in the hands of the government—Cruz got the good news. She saw an opportunity to live as an independent adult who could apply for an apartment without being asked why she didn’t have a social security card. Now she could build credit and provide a credit score in a rental application and move out of her mom’s house. She took a break from her college education to work at the bank full time, and she didn’t go back.
Cruz recently returned to Santa Cruz from an internship with United We Dream in Los Angeles, where she worked with other immigrant youth on a civic engagement campaign to get out the vote in the 2018 primary elections. She covered notoriously red corners of Orange County to help turn the entire county blue—an undertaking that received national attention. Next, she went to Modesto, where she joined the United Farm Workers union to help elect pro-immigrant rights Democrat Josh Harder to Congress.
“She gave up the safety of her job to pursue social justice work,” Stombler says. “I have the impression from getting to know her that she’s always played it very safely, and now she’s just following this spark that’s been ignited in her. She’s really extraordinary. This activist has been ignited in her.”
Quitting her job to become a full-time activist was easier with Cruz’s growing support network. Stombler introduced her to Vicki Winters, a web design consultant and Sanctuary Santa Cruz member, who Cruz worked up the courage to ask to go in her place to protest child detention centers in Tornillo, Texas. Though Cruz was helping UWD organize the protest, she needed a U.S. citizen to stand in for her because it was on federal property so close to the border. Winters agreed.
“She was in over 100-degree weather—in the heat and melting ice on her face because it was so hot during this action—waiting to get arrested,” Cruz says. “I’ll never forget that she was willing to put herself on the line for me personally, and people like me.”
Winters did not get end up getting arrested. Partly, she thinks, because local law enforcement there also did not support the camps. Though it is not a new U.S. policy to detain unaccompanied minors, Winters says she saw the protest as a way to bring attention to what she describes as Trump’s new practice of “creating unaccompanied minors” by separating them from their parents.
“We really need to get in there and interfere with this system that’s ruining people’s lives,” Winters says. “Being an ally, I think you need to take the cue from the affected people.”
As Cruz turns her newfound organizing acumen back to her hometown of Santa Cruz, she hopes to bring the organizing force of United We Dream to local schools. One of Cruz’s goals is to work with high schools, UCSC and Cabrillo College to create support systems for students that she didn’t have.
Cruz is also helping documentary filmmaker Brenda Avila-Hanna promote a documentary, Vida Diferida (Life, Deferred), which follows a young woman through the DACA process over several years. The film, they hope, will serve as a starting point for discussions about supporting undocumented students through United We Dream’s established toolkit.
Thinking back to the honors U.S. History class that she fought to get into, Cruz recalls a project she did on the Little Rock Nine, and how much learning about history has shaped her current activism. Now, she hopes to help students forge similar connections between the classroom and civic engagement.
Ultimately, Cruz hopes to create UWD groups at each local school, where immigrant youth are encouraged to develop their voices and become leaders in the community, especially on issues related to immigration.
On August 3, 2018, federal courts ordered the Trump administration to fully reinstate the DACA program. But the ruling only applies to renewals, not new applications, and Congress has yet to address the long-term fate of affected young people. Cruz is hopeful that newly elected leaders in Congress will finally move forward on a clean Dream Act. Cruz has successfully renewed her DACA status and carries a DACA ID, but is hesitant to show it and flag herself as an immigrant—and a vulnerable one at that.
As I was talking to Cruz on the phone during a recent last-minute trip to Las Vegas, to surprise a friend for his birthday, there was a scare with her boarding pass. Cruz’s middle name wasn’t printed on the ticket, but it is on her new California ID. Hoping to avoid unnecessary attention that might provoke further questioning, I heard her calmly asking a gate agent to reassure her about going through security. Later, she called me, relieved, on the other side of the security checkpoint.
In instances like this, she takes some comfort in an app that UWD has developed called “Motifica” that is available to the public. It sends an SOS with her location and a prepared text to her attorney and loved ones, and then deletes the contacts. “I keep my phone with me all the time,” she says.
This week, Cruz is sending five volunteers from Santa Cruz to Washington D.C. as United We Dream mobilizes youth leaders in an effort to make their voices heard. “We want to have our presence known at Capitol Hill while the ‘negotiations’ for Trump’s wall funding continues,” Cruz says.
While her future and the future of millions of other immigrants is far from settled, Cruz still finds inspiration in the Monarch. Just as she and her classmates looked up at butterflies just taking flight all those years ago, she now sees other potential activists everywhere.
“I see just a normal person before they find their voice,” she says. “You do not need to be a U.S. citizen to be worthy of having rights and feeling safe in the only country you’ve ever known.”