PORTERVILLE — Luis Galvan, 20, enjoyed a moment of triumph in late October when he boarded a plane for the first time and flew to Indianapolis to receive his Future Farmers of America degree, a prestigious certificate of achievement in the farm world.
But his euphoria was short-lived.
When Galvan got home he tore open an envelope waiting for him from the Department of Homeland Security. It was crushing news: He had submitted his application to renew a vital work permit for young immigrants known as “Dreamers” in plenty of time. He received a notice back that there was a snafu over a $495 scholarship check he had submitted to pay a renewal fee, and he promptly followed instructions to correct that.
But now, this second, final notice told him his application was rejected for being late.
If Galvan can’t appeal the rejection, his permit is set to expire Monday, Jan. 15. That would jeopardize his job tutoring junior high kids. It would affect his college studies. It could lead to him being deported.
“What a bucket of cold water,” Galvan said during an interview in Porterville, where he grew up.
Surrounded by a sea of orchards, Porterville sits in the Central Valley, where agribusiness depends on immigrant labor. Among those who represent the valley in Congress are multiple Republican lawmakers, not least of them Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the powerful GOP majority leader from Bakersfield whose district includes Porterville.
The work permit Galvan holds stems from DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program whose fate rests, in no small part, in McCarthy’s hands.
Former President Barack Obama created DACA in 2012 to allow undocumented young people brought to the United States as children to stay conditionally, until, Obama said he hoped, Congress came up with a solution to help them. Nicknamed Dreamers, these young people have no sure path to legal residency no matter how long they’ve been here or how much they accomplish. DACA has temporarily protected them from deportation and allowed them to obtain work permits.
On Sept. 5 though, President Donald Trump plunged nearly 800,000 recipients into uncertainty when he announced that he was pulling the plug on DACA, arguing that Obama lacked authority to create the program.
Dreamers whose permits expired before March were allowed to apply, one last time, for two-year renewals by Oct. 5. Many missed the tight deadline or said they were unfairly rejected. If nothing changes, after March, all DACA recipients will begin to lose permits in waves as individual cards expire.
Despite his harsh rhetoric claiming Dreamers occupy Americans’ jobs, Trump also challenged Congress to find a solution with “heart.” A flurry of negotiations is now underway involving DACA, potential border wall investments and controversial proposals to deeply slash family-based legal immigration.
Most polling, from ABC to Fox News, shows that a firm majority of Americans think Dreamers should get a shot at legalizing. But in the valley, Dreamer backers question why McCarthy isn’t publicly defending them and a fix — pronto— with so many local lives hanging in the balance. A quarter of Dreamers live in California.
McCarthy declined an interview but said in a statement that Congress is pursuing a “lawful solution to this problem.”
Differing perspectives On the ground in McCarthy’s district, where Latinos, many with immigrant roots, are 41 percent of the population and 27 percent of those eligible to vote, feelings can get raw.
McCarthy represents most of Kern County, the number one farm county in the nation in 2016 with $7.19 billion in value, and he represents much of Tulare County, whose farm production value was $6.37 billion.
Those stats form the basis for part of the passion here. After all, Dreamer advocates argue, California supplies a massive quantity of the food Americans consume and agribusiness admits that undocumented workers have been essential to this bounty.
“I’ve complained to McCarthy’s office: What about the Dreamers?” said John Duran, 67, a Republican in Porterville of Mexican descent. “He needs to be doing more.”
McCarthy’s 23rd Congressional District is home to an estimated 7,900 young people who arrived here before June 2007 and fit the DACA-eligible profile, according to Census Bureau data analyzed by the University of Southern California.
Duran, a former correctional officer, said he’s generally pro-Trump but winces at some of the rhetoric about immigrants.
Even here, where it’s plain to the eye who does a lot of hard labor, Duran said, “some people seem to have the idea that illegal immigrants don’t do anything but crime.”
In Congress, the bipartisan Dream Act of 2017 proposal would create a years-long path to green cards for eligible young people who’ve been here at least four years prior to enactment of such legislation. Versions of the Dream Act go back to 2001.
Porterville Dreamer Marco Reyes, 20, studies at Porterville College, said: “If I talked to McCarthy I’d ask him what he’s doing behind the scenes that nobody else is doing. Are you going to surprise us later, hopefully with something that’s not bad?”
American Dream at Stake Even with nerves on edge, Luis Galvan said he’s got to keep going to College of the Sequoias in Tulare and his job, as long as he can, tutoring 7th and 8th graders.
“After I got DACA, I went crazy,” Galvan said. “I joined every club I could. I’ve really tried to do my best.”
Galvan arrived from Mexico at five. As he was growing up, employers had little fear of penalty for “knowingly,” as the law says, hiring the undocumented.
At a December pro-DACA rally in Porterville, Rosa Salmeron, a California State University, Fresno, student shouted through a bullhorn: “These people live in the shadows and break their backs so that the people of America can eat!”
A U.S. citizen whose family lives in Bakersfield, Salmeron, 37, urged other voters to oust Republicans from Congress if they don’t do more for Dreamers.
Matt Sparks, McCarthy’s Washington, D.C., communications director, said field staff in California listen respectfully to complaints aired at district meetings.
He provided a statement from McCarthy: “President Trump was right to correct President Obama’s executive overreach by calling on Congress to find a solution for the children of illegal immigrants who came to this country through no fault of their own.”
In a previous interview with CNBC, McCarthy acknowledged, to a point, his district’s reliance on immigrants: “I come from an agricultural community and I know you need a guest-worker program.”
Agribusiness view Beatris Sanders, the executive director of the Kern County Farm Bureau, said that farmers want a “working system” to hire legal workers. “I don’t think anyone should penalize anyone because of something beyond their control,” she said of Dreamers.
Porterville Republican activist Susan Queen, 68, who is a “100 percent Trump fan,” said, “I think there should be some sort of way to make them (Dreamers) legal here, but I don’t know about citizens.”
Citrus grower Manuel Cunha, a strong proponent of legalizing longtime undocumented farmworkers, is the director of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno and has raised campaign money for McCarthy and other prominent Republicans.
“Come on, Kevin, let’s get it done,” Cunha said of a DACA fix. “Our rural communities are made up of thousands of these folks.”
In Bakersfield, the characterization of their parents as invaders upsets Dreamers Eloisa Torres, 18, and Leydy Rangel, 22.
“Your parents struggle,” said Torres, who was an infant when she arrived and who is now a student at Bakersfield State.
Rangel grew up picking grapes and pruning vines from the Coachella Valley to Bakersfield. She’s now a graduate of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
Another Bakersfield Dreamer, Ivan Gonzalez, 22, ran his way to a track scholarship and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. “People didn’t care about my citizenship status when I was running track,” the former 800 meters high school state champ said.
“There are people who think we don’t belong here while eating what my people are picking,” said Gonzalez, who today works at Bakersfield’s Youth 2 Leaders Education Foundation, where he counsels families on college options.
For Luis Galvan, there’s no time to waste. Staff of several members of California’s congressional delegation, he said, have offered to help with his permit problem.
“Honestly, the first few days after that I couldn’t sleep,” he said, recalling seeing his rejection notice. “It’s hard. I just try holding it in.”
Susan Ferriss is a reporter with The Center for Public Integrity , a nonprofit investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.