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  • Writer's pictureAlex Sánchez

New Civic Leader program offers inspiration for local Dreamers

By every measure imaginable, Norma Gurrola is a community leader.


The Battle Mountain High School and Colorado Mountain College graduate went to work as a preschool specialist at Edwards Elementary before becoming the elementary program administrator for the Vail Valley Foundation’s YouthPower365 branch. She’s a cofounder and former coordinator of Neighborhood Navigators of Eagle County, a do-it-all grassroots group united by the vision of an inclusive community where the Latino population is empowered to advocate for themselves.


You can call her a Dreamer.


Norma was born in Durango, Mexico. She was brought to Colorado as a child more than 20 years ago, eventually qualifying among the 800,000 young people currently protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that allows immigrants who came to the U.S. when they were children — the Dreamers — to obtain a two-year work permit. The program doesn’t grant them official legal status or a pathway to citizenship, but it does allow them to apply for a driver’s license, social security number, and work permit. At least for now.


Unfortunately, the DACA program originally established in 2012 faces legal challenges that render its future uncertain. Should a pending Supreme Court ruling cancel the program, DACA leaders like Norma would begin losing their temporary protection and be subject to deportation. In Colorado, it’s estimated that about 500 DACA participants could lose their temporary status each month for three consecutive years, beginning as soon as 2025.


Given the stakes and urgency, DACA leaders and supporters have been exploring ways to prepare for these political realities, but immigration policy reform is slow in coming. Meanwhile, even if DACA leaders had other ways to adjust their immigration status, many face the reality that their first entry into the U.S. was irregular, and most existing paths to legalization may require or give preference to those with an authorized entry.


That’s where “Advance Parole” comes in.


Advance Parole is a long-standing pre-approval process that allows immigrants to leave the U.S. and legally return after temporarily traveling abroad for humanitarian, educational or employment reasons. Beyond the ability to travel, Advance Parole offers the added benefit of providing Dreamers with valid and documented admission into the U.S., which can be beneficial if they qualify for other pathways to adjust their immigration status.


Norma knew that Advance Parole could help her. But study abroad or other educational programs are rarely open and accessible to DACA recipients or working families, even through universities or other mainstream organizations.


Understanding the struggles DACA leaders like Norma face to find affordable access to culturally relevant programs providing Advance Parole opportunities, my organization, Voces Unidas, recently established an annual Civic Leader Education & Advocacy Program (CLEAP), this year offering Norma and eight other Dreamers the chance to take advantage of Advance Parole while learning leadership and advocacy skills in Mexico City over the week of July 3-8.


Our educational program is community-informed, designed for the everyday advocate to continue to learn more about the intersectionality of public policy in Mexico and the U.S. while also exposing participants to today’s cultural, civic and political realities of Mexico-U.S. relations. Through meetings with federal policymakers and government officials, CLEAP offers a unique opportunity for community leaders — especially those who have lived experiences in Mexico — to be able to advocate and help inform policies on both sides of the border.


For leaders like Norma, the experience was as inspirational as it was educational.


“This program really impacted my way of thinking, how I now see our community and the work that still needs to be done with the community,” she said upon returning home to Gypsum. “I know a lot of people who are still afraid to even say that they are Dreamers. They are frightened. That’s something I’d like to work on as part of an ongoing project in our community, finding a way to encourage and support those Dreamers that live here to speak up, come out and become even more effective leaders so that we can advocate for the laws that need to be passed.”


I spent a week with Norma in Mexico City where I saw first-hand her resiliency, tenacity and courage to fight for immigrant rights and her community in Eagle County. At every opportunity, she spoke up to share real stories about her community’s lived experiences and was never afraid to question federal officials and policymakers when she saw the need.


As leaders with ties to both countries, CLEAP participants like Norma bring a deep understanding of the challenges faced by our communities on both sides of the border, helping policymakers envision solutions that prioritize human rights, promote legal pathways for migration, and address the root causes of forced displacement due to issues like climate change. We believe that through these types of binational, community-led efforts, we can create more humane and just immigration policies in our independent democracies that uphold our shared values of compassion and dignity for all individuals seeking a better life.


As Norma puts it: “As Dreamers, we work hard to contribute to our community and raise our family — just like everyone else.”


We need more Normas — visionaries, leaders, the Dreamers among us — here in Eagle County and the rest of the state. And whether you prefer to focus on policy reforms or promoting leadership programs like CLEAP, I hope you’ll join me in supporting Norma and the thousands of other leaders just like her who deserve to see their dreams fulfilled.


Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and Voces Unidas Action Fund, nonprofit organizations working in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin, and Garfield counties. His column appears monthly at Vail Daily.

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