A Dream Denied?

Crete Counselor’s Promising Career May be Derailed by Immigration Status

One of the many assignments Joel Lemus-Leon has taken on in his role as a guidance counselor at Crete High School is sponsorship of the Grassroots Leadership Development Program for seniors.

Under his tutelage, the seniors meet with school, city and county officials to learn about the roles those officials play in local government.

“I want students to understand that there are a lot of decisions being made in every town, and they need to think about being a part of that, whether it’s the school board, whether it’s the city council, whether it’s just voting,” said Lemus-Leon.

There is great irony in the fact that Lemus-Leon is teaching high school students to become valued, involved citizens. Born in Mexico, he was brought into the U.S., undocumented, by his parents when he was 6. Since his arrival 25 years ago, Lemus-Leon has done all he can to become a contributing, valued resident of his community and his state.

Yet in the unsettled world of U.S. immigration law, Lemus-Leon is just that: a resident, not a citizen. He is a textbook representative of the DREAMers – the young, undocumented immigrants brought into the U.S. as children.

The term DREAMer takes its name from the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, first introduced in Congress in 2001, but never enacted. The act would have granted legal status to immigrant children like Lemus-Leon.

Until recently, Lemus-Leon was one of 3,000 Nebraska youth and 800,000 across the United States living under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status. DACA gives those young undocumented immigrants like Lemus-Leon who meet certain conditions temporary protection from deportation.

His DACA permit expires in August 2018. Following executive action by President Donald Trump in early September, he no can longer apply to renew his DACA permit. That leaves Lemus-Leon out of options. DACA does not allow a pathway to U.S. citizenship.

As tears welled from his eyes, Lemus-Leon voiced his current status out loud for the first time.

“If everything goes the way that it is now, this will be my last year at Crete.”

Without congressional action, his dream may become a dream denied.

‘An Excellent Role Model’

Lemus-Leon clearly loves the students and the challenges he faces as a counselor. He is a member of the NSEA family. He loves the school, the community and, with his fiancée, has been pre-approved for a loan that will allow them to buy a home in Crete.

Rather than live in Crete, however, Lemus-Leon may be forced to leave and return to Mexico. Crete High School Principal Tim Conway sees that as a loss for both school and community.

Conway said Lemus-Leon “jumped out at us” when the district was looking for a new counselor. Five years later, he continues to stand out.

“The kids love him, the parents love him, the community loves him,” said Conway. “He bridges that gap.”

Lemus-Leon is an assistant soccer coach, and serves as an interpreter, particularly for younger, non-English speaking students. His work helps guide those kids to develop team player skills. In the halls of Crete High, he works with all kids, but serves as “an excellent role model for our Hispanic males,” said Conway.

“He’s quick to say ‘you are not doing that. That is not what we do here,” he said.

The loss would run deep if Lemus-Leon were to leave Crete.

“I don’t know how far it would trickle down,” said Conway. “A lot of community members know him, they see him and they are not afraid to talk to him about school issues. Our kids are the same way. It would be a pretty big loss.”

Dangerous Border Crossings

You might say his teaching career began at Monterrey, Mexico, where Lemus-Leon was born.

His parents were from the area. His grandparents still live in the state of Michoacan, Mexico.

“I won’t say we were poor. We had a roof over our heads, but were not well off,” he said. “My parents grew up in more poverty than my brothers and sisters and I did.”

His father had been a landscaper – undocumented – in Southern California in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was sometimes caught up in immigration sweeps and dropped off across the border in Tijuana. Lemus-Leon said it was difficult, but possible in those days, for his father to come back across the border, return home and be at work the next morning.

But the return crossings could sometimes be dangerous. With a four-year-old U.S.-born son and baby Joel on the way, the family decided to return to Mexico. Lemus-Leon was born at Monterrey.

“I joke that I was made in the USA and born in Mexico,” he said.

It was at Monterrey that his love for school was first fostered. When he was three or four years old, a neighbor girl with dreams of teaching frequently used him as her “student.”

She did well enough that in his first day at kindergarten Lemus-Leon read along as his teacher was writing on the board. That would be the first of many times he caught the eye of an experienced educator.

Monterrey, however, was a large and sometimes dangerous city. Lemus-Leon has distinct memories of stabbing victims lying in the street as police officers arrived.

“My Dad’s brothers told him he needed to get his family out of Monterrey,’ he said. They returned, undocumented, to California.

Steered Toward College

They lived in California for a year, then moved to Nebraska. They made brief stops in Lexington, Overton and Columbus before settling in Schuyler when Lemus-Leon was a fourth grader.

By high school, he was playing soccer and was involved with the science and math clubs and the Multicultural Club.

It was at Schuyler Central High School that he caught the eye of another teacher, a science teacher, now the school counselor. She pushed Lemus-Leon toward something he didn’t think possible: college.

“I grew really close to her not knowing truly what her intentions were, which were to get me to college,” he said. “She knew more about me than I thought she did.”

He had good relationships with his high school teachers and said that “having that love for them and what they do, teaching just grew on me. I’ve known pretty much since high school that I wanted to be an educator or work with kids in some way.”

No License, No Options

After graduating at Schuyler, he enrolled at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. A woman he’d never met funded much of his bachelor’s program through a scholarship program for DACA youth.

At UNK he was president of Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity; was vice president of national counseling organization Chi Sigma Iota; a member of the Hispanic Student Association; and played intramural sports.

In the spring of his senior year, Lemus-Leon did a student teaching semester at Columbus Middle School, teaching math.

“Student teaching was a great experience, and I felt like I really connected with kids,” he said. He was offered a job at Columbus Lakeview and other area schools. He might have stayed in the classroom, but was forced to turn down every offer.

“I didn’t have a valid Social Security number. I wasn’t able to obtain a teaching license,” he said.

“I told my principal at Lakeview Middle School ‘here’s the reason I’m telling you no’ and he understood that. I didn’t have any other options at that point,” he said.

Funding Extended

Lemus-Leon returned to UNK and began work on a master’s degree.

His scholarship benefactor extended funding for his master’s degree in hopes it would make Lemus-Leon more marketable, or that statutory changes might come.

In May 2012, he was awarded a master’s degree in counseling and mental health. He also met his benefactor.

“She is obviously someone who is very important in this whole piece,” he said.

In June 2012, under intense pressure from immigration advocates, and after years of congressional inaction, President Barack Obama instituted DACA.

DACA Children Seen as an Asset

DACA recipients gave their name, address and fingerprints and other details, to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in exchange for a two-year, renewable, deportation waiver. They must have had no criminal record and offer proof they entered the U.S. before the age of 16. They could then get a work permit and a Social Security number. The permit cost: $495.

DACA drew support from a broad alliance of clergy, business and humanitarian leaders. Even so, 10 state attorney generals, including Nebraska’s, threatened a lawsuit against the federal government, alleging that DACA is unconstitutional. The threat of legal action is thought to have pushed Trump to rescind DACA.

As it stands, no DACA permits will be renewed after Oct. 5. Current permits will begin to expire in March.

Obama’s administration, said Lemus-Leon, saw DACA youth as an asset.

“They are no threat to national security. They are learning English, are in school or the military,” said Lemus-Leon. “They’re doing a lot of things we would want anybody in the United States to do. We want to keep them in our country, we want them to contribute to our economy.’”

No ‘Proactive’ Sharing

That is how Lemus-Leon has tried to live.

He obeys the law and tries to contribute as much as he can to his school and community. He has concerns, however, about some DACA provisions.

“When we applied for DACA we had a background check, we had to give our fingerprints, our parents’ information, our information,” he said.

At that point, the worry was that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would visit his home. But he was told that the federal agency that collected his personal information and fingerprints would not share those details with ICE.

“Now what I’ve heard is that they will not proactively give that information to immigration, which in my head is different from saying we’re going to keep it confidential.  It means ‘we’re not going to give it to them, but if they come ask for it….,’” said Lemus-Leon.

“I’m not worried about me, but my parents’ information is there,” he said. “So, that’s the other big worry: what they do with that information.”

Dismantling DACA Affects Communities, Neighbors

Lemus-Leon has begun to overcome what he says is the shame and apprehension surrounding his status.

“It’s still difficult to talk about, because you’re told by your parents not to talk to anybody about this in any way because you don’t know what peoples’ intentions might be, or what they might do with that information,” he said.

He now believes that unless he puts a face to the situation, people won’t make a connection – they won’t realize that dismantling DACA affects people in their community.

“I’m trying to encourage other people to say ‘look, we have to let other people know that we’re here, and that we’re their neighbors, and that we are their kids’ counselors and their teachers and that we’re not what maybe some people think in their head,’” he said.

Starting to Prepare

If it comes to deportation, Lemus-Leon is uncertain what he might do. He has a few relatives in Mexico, none that he knows well. Most of his family – aunts, uncles and cousins – are in California, Arkansas and Delaware.

He is engaged to be married in October 2018. His fiancée is from Mexico and they have discussed his status. He said he has told her that Mexico is “not like we’re dying, it’s not like hell.”

That, he admits, is his optimism speaking, an attempt to minimize the situation.

“I know in certain parts of Mexico there is a lot of danger, and I haven’t been there since I was six,” he said. “I like to think my Spanish is good, and I’m bilingual but I know it isn’t as good as someone who has been born, raised and spent their whole life in Mexico.

“But I don’t know where we would live, don’t know if we would go back to my parents’ hometown where my grandma and grandpa still live,” he said. “It’s a really, really small ranch-style town. I could work the fields, or, I don’t know…

“We’re starting to prepare for what that might be.”

Opportunities, Obstacles

Some have told Lemus-Leon that his parents made a mistake by bringing him to the U.S. as a child.

“I don’t think so. They did what they thought was best at the time,” he said. “I don’t fault them, I thank them for what they’ve done because I don’t think I would have had this opportunity in my home country.”

Formal documentation, he says, likely would have changed his life course.

“I don’t know if I’d be where I’m at today if I would have had documentation,” he said.

“If I would not have had those obstacles, would I be a school counselor? I don’t know. I like to think of those obstacles as opportunities, and that is what I try to tell our students,” he said.

Lemus-Leon shares that he has no problem showing emotion, no problem crying.

“But when we’re done crying, what are we going to do? What’s our plan?” he said.

DACA Temporary, a Band-Aid

He says his tears do not flow because he worries about the future.

“The part that bugs me is knowing how much I’ve fallen in love with this place, the kids…and not being able to continue that,” he said.

“They’ll get a new school counselor and will be fine. These five years have been great, I’ve found somebody I really love…”

What is the best possible outcome? Lemus-Leon said congressional action that institutes the Dream Act, or something similar that will offer a pathway to citizenship for DACA youth.

“DACA has been great, but we knew it was temporary, a Band-Aid over a bigger issue,” he said.

Most DACA youth, he believes, would readily pay a fine or a fee.

“If I could continue to prove that I am just as American as anybody else…

“In my opinion, what that means is the core values, and being an honest, good person, paying your taxes, following the law, contributing to society, helping the community to become better…

“If there was a way for me to continue to prove that, and then over time, if over time, I am able to apply for residency, and then eventually citizenship… That would be the dream, right? Because it’s the DREAM Act.”