Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado remembers looking up through the window and seeing sunshine and blue skies. His first image of America.
This vision came to Cresencio as he lay in the back of the van that transported him and his family from their hometown in Mexico, across the border through Arizona and into what they saw as the land of opportunity. Like all undocumented immigrants, they had no papers and few possessions. Mostly, they carried hopes for a better life.
Cresencio doesn't remember much about the journey. He recalls the "whole town" of Turicato, Michoacán, turning out for his family's departure. He recalls being told to stay down and out of sight as the van approached a checkpoint with riders on horseback. He recalls waving goodbye to the driver who delivered them, at night, to the Tulare County hamlet of Woodville.
"All of a sudden one day we woke up at my uncle's house," he says. "That was it."
On his first day in his new country, Cresencio turned 5 years old. He's 22 now and studying print journalism at Fresno State, where he serves as editor in chief of The Collegian. He's also a student writer at The Bee.
And like nearly 700,000 people around his age living in this country, the vast majority with similar stories and backgrounds, Cresencio is a Dreamer.
"We've gotten so much accomplished," he says, "but at any moment it could all be taken away."
Do you know a Dreamer? You've probably heard the term, used to describe those enrolled in the immigration policy known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). You probably know a little about their situation. How the program granted them temporary legal status and the right to work, which for many opened the doors to a college education. And now, how they've turned into human bargaining chips as our divided government struggles to reach an agreement on immigration reform.
You may empathize with their plight, be completely indifferent or want to ship every last one back to Mexico. But do you actually know a Dreamer? Have you sat down and heard their stories? Listened to their hopes and dreams?
Because if you did, I'm betting your views would change.
"They're called Dreamers for a reason," Fresno immigration attorney Linda Barreto says. "They were dreaming for a better future, and they believed that our government could do something for them.
"Maybe it was only a temporary fix. But their dream is to be assimilated into this culture. They want to be American, and they are American."
Cresencio's parents are undocumented farm workers. He has six brothers and four sisters. Six of them are DACA enrollees. His youngest sister, age 16, is the only member of the family born in the U.S. His three oldest brothers couldn't stay out of trouble and have been deported to Mexico. No one in the family can visit them, since there's no legal way to return.
Like most in his situation, Cresencio and his siblings grew up in the shadows. Whenever a rumor spread around Woodville that immigration was conducting a raid, or a suspicious vehicle was sighted, his parents instructed them to stay in the house. They never explained why, but he could hear the worry in their voices.
" 'Don't go to that store. Don't go out of the house. Stay indoors.' That's what we were told," he says. "Hearing them talk left us with the impression of, 'We're living here now. Why are we hiding?' We didn't understand."
Cresencio began to understand his situation when he had to fill out a form to receive free school lunches. His parents didn't know how, so he took the advice of older siblings and turned to a trusted teacher. He understood further during his junior year at Monache High in Porterville when a counselor sent him and his twin sister to apply for a summer internship in Tulare. When he got there and started to fill out the application, he stopped cold upon realizing he didn't have a Social Security number.
No Social Security number, no internship.
"That was the first time it kind of hit us that we couldn't apply for everything – even when someone invites you," he says.
Cresencio first learned about DACA in 2012 when it was enacted by President Obama. Soon thereafter, an older brother enrolled in the program and started attending Fresno State. Two years later, Cresencio moved in with him, also enrolled in DACA and started taking classes at Fresno City College. Now legally allowed to work, he helped support himself by working as an elementary school tutor.
After three years at City, where he got bit by the journalism bug and became editor in chief of The Rampage, Cresencio transferred to Fresno State, where the student body includes between 600 and 650 DACA recipients, and there are resource centers set up to specifically help them.
For a while, all seemed fine. But that all changed following the election of President Trump, who made Dreamers, a border wall and stronger immigration laws part of his campaign platform.
Their worst fears were realized Sept. 5 (which happens to be Cresencio's birthday) when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the program was being repealed.
Cresencio's world — and the world of every Dreamer like him — hasn't been the same since.
"They have our address and all our info," he says. "ICE could easily show up at our apartment (that he shares with his older brother and twin sister) and take everyone away."
Dreamers were granted a temporary reprieve when a California district court blocked the revocation of DACA. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, which ensured the program would survive at least into the fall. There was some hope the delay would give Congress more time craft a permanent solution, though the $1.3 trillion spending bill signed into law Friday didn't contain one.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of people in their 20s and 30s, the vast majority of whom contribute positively to our society and want nothing more than to be Americans, remain in limbo.
"We've been seeing students coming in feeling very worried, very anxious and a lot of depression," says Gabriela Encinas, coordinator of Fresno State's Dream Success Center. "They don't know what's going to happen. The uncertainty is the biggest factor."
Or, as Cresencio puts it, "Why am I even doing what I'm doing every day if I don't know if I will be here tomorrow? We sort of laid our foundation on eggshells. The whole thing can crack at any moment."
Cresencio is the only Dreamer I know. He's a fine young man. Hard working. Sharp. Dedicated. Determined to make a positive impact. We should be accepting people like him and making them feel welcome. The onus is on us to apply pressure to our elected representatives (I'm looking at you, Devin Nunes) to grant them permanent legal status. They make America better.
This issue is meaningful to me because I'm the child of immigrants. Neither of my parents were born in this country. I can remember the process they went through to become naturalized citizens. As an 11-year-old, I even helped them study for the test.
Yes, my mom and dad were able to do this through legal channels, which in some people's minds makes a difference. To me, it really doesn't. If Cresencio's parents had a legal avenue available to them, I'm sure they would've taken it.
No one wants to live in the shadows.
"I've never heard a story from any parent or any DACA recipient that indicated they were brought here for any reason than to have a better future than what they would be able to have in their home country," Clovis immigration attorney Isabel Machado says. "Most of them take great advantage of that. It's not right for us to treat them like second-class citizens."
For Cresencio and others like him, there is no path to citizenship or even permanent residency. Not unless they're married to an American citizen, have families that depend on them or were fleeing persecution at home. There are no forms to fill out or time period to wait. It's a roadblock.
This has to change, or we as a society risk turning the hopes and dreams of 700,000 productive people (any felony or certain misdemeanor convictions automatically make you ineligible) into resentment against our country. At the same time, how can we ship them back to a country they don't even know?
"A lot of us in DACA, our stories are not that different," Cresencio says. "We got into the program, started dreaming and now those dreams are about to be shattered."
We simply cannot allow that to happen. It's not the America I grew up in, or wish to live.
Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee