Like the thousands of undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers,” whose futures remain on hold, local immigration and criminal defense attorney Dulce Garcia, is fighting to share their stories and find a more permanent solution for these young immigrants.
Garcia is one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit against President Donald Trump and his administration for ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA, which provided young undocumented individuals who entered the United States as minors with work permits and protection from deportation.
It is a topic that Garcia is passionate about because she is one of the approximately 800,000 young individuals known as “Dreamers.”
“I’ve learned to not give up the first time a door closes in my face, to be resilient, and it’s made me stronger and it’s made me who I am today,” Garcia said.
Garcia has her own law offices one in Barrio Logan and recently opened an office in Chula Vista. She is involved with several organizations like San Diego Border Dreamers and is often a speaker at events focused on informing undocumented members in the communities of San Diego of their rights.
“I knew that I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer,” Garcia said. “It never occured to me that I would be practicing immigration law.”
But that changed when her younger brother was stopped by a police officer and charged for driving with a suspended license, even though he did not have one, and was later turned over to ICE, she said.
Her brother was placed in detention in El Centro, but while still a college student, Garcia and her older brother decided to risk getting stopped at a checkpoint to visit her brother in detention.
“When I saw him in detention he wasn’t himself his spirits were broken,” she said. “I couldn’t recognize him and I knew then that I had to learn immigration law.”
Garcia said that at that point, immigration law became more of a necessity for her to understand it in depth.
“I’ve seen so many resilient people in my line of work,” Garcia said. “My clients, I’ve heard their stories and some of them have gone through incredible things and it makes my story seem like a good time story compared to some of the difficult things that they have gone through.”
Garcia and her family moved to Barrio Logan in 1987, but she said that much like today, there was hateful rhetoric against Latinos. She recalls living a sheltered life because her parents did not want their children outside.
Because of their immigration status, Garcia said her family feared having any interaction with police or even hospitals. And their fear of having Immigration and Customs Enforcement called on them was so great that her father, a welder, once injured his arm so badly that because of avoiding immediate hospital care, was close to having his arm amputated, she said.
Garcia did not fully understand what being undocumented meant and associated their limitations as a family to their financial status, she said.
But her legal situation and obstacles were brought to light when she was in the process of applying to colleges like many of her high school friends.
“I didn’t realize there was a difference between my classmates and I,” Garcia said. “I didn’t know that being undocumented was going to affect the rest of my life.”
After being accepted to several colleges and universities, Garcia said she decided to seek advice from a well-regarded school counselor, but instead he told her that she would not be able to attend college because she was an “illegal alien.”
“I was crushed, I went in thinking that my counselor was going to be a hero for me,” she said with her voice breaking. “And instead he said, ‘you’re an illegal alien’ you’re not even going to go to a community college.’”
Garcia recalls storming out of his office and despite his comments, she told him, “you watch me do this.”
That summer, she attended night classes at a community college while working full-time for a lawyer. Garcia then transferred to UC San Diego and graduated with a degree in political science.
At the time that Garcia was attending college, the California Dream Act, which allowed Dreamers to apply for financial aid for school, was not in place so she worked until she saved up to attend law school.
She attributes her stubbornness to keep going to her mother who she describes as a resilient woman, but she admits her path has not been easy especially with the current administration.
“At times I feel so depressed and hopeless,” Garcia said.
But then she remembers her family members and it gives her strength, she said.
She became more outspoken about her legal status and her story when DACA was being threatened with the new administration, but she said she is simply following the steps of DACA activists who have been fighting for over 20 years.
“The least that I can do is to replicate some of the things that they have bravely done for 20 years and that’s tell my story,” Garcia said.
Garcia said she understands that although DACA provided relief for herself and others, many undocumented individuals like her own older brother did not qualify.
“He’s another reason why I keep fighting this fight because he was left out of this program,” Garcia said. “He’s another person that I have in mind whenever I speak to congressional offices, whenever I’m out on the street protesting, him and my parents are the ones that I have primarily in mind.”
Garcia said she feels that she owes it to the original DACA activist to speak out as much as she can and use her voice as a tool to continue fighting.
“Until we have a permanent fix to this DACA crisis, until people like my parents are safe, until people like my brother are acknowledged and we restore a little bit of dignity and respect then we are going to keep on fighting,” she said.