As DACA falls again, what does it mean to be American?

Tony Valdovinos was brought to the U.S. at the age of 2. The challenges of not having citizenship haven’t stopped his success.


His text message reached me on Sept. 14, the day after a federal district court judge in Texas declared, for the second time in two years, that the Obama-era program that has shielded him and many others from deportation is illegal. “Just got in,” Tony Valdovinos wrote. “Let me know when you have some time to catch up.”

I first met Valdovinos in 2012. I was newly arrived in Arizona, charged with covering the Southwest as Phoenix bureau chief for The New York Times. He was effectively an Arizonan, having lived in the state since he was 2 years old.

That summer, at the age of 22, he was out volunteering, knocking on doors and urging his neighbors to vote. I was covering the federal civil rights trial of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who stood accused of discriminating against Latinos. Both Valdovinos and I are Latino, with one perverse distinction: I am a United States citizen, and he is undocumented.

Tony Valdovinos photographed in Phoenix, Arizona in October.

Valdovinos’ determination and drive have helped fuel resistance in a state where the law still entitles police to ask anyone they pull over about their immigration status. “I really believed in being the change I wanted to see in the world,” Valdovinos told me over dinner in New York, when he visited me after I moved back last year, after 10 years in Arizona.

The transformation I witnessed in the state during those 10 years were a counter-punch to the long history of repression underlining the relationship between Arizona’s waning white majority and the historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups that, combined, are projected to become the state’s largest demographic by 2030.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate, on a granular level, how policy and politics can at once propel and destabilize the trajectory of a person’s life. I’ve come to understand on a personal level — because Tony has become a dear friend — how the decisions that judges and legislators make (or don’t make), can defile the essence of what it means to be an American, whether those decisions stem from a misguided sense of righteousness or are made for the sake of electability.

Valdovinos is, by any definition that should matter, an American. He dutifully attended school and pledged allegiance to the flag every week. On weekends, he gave his free time to the family’s Arizona business, helping his father, a college-educated accountant in Mexico, demolish old homes and build new ones. He dreamed of one day becoming a Marine.

His father was his first drill sergeant, he told me, pushing him to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. digging trenches, swinging sledgehammers and tossing debris into dumpsters. He learned endurance and discipline, two qualities that would have served him well in boot camp.

Valdovinos is, by any definition that should matter, an American. 

Shortly before he turned 18, Valdovinos approached a Marine Corps recruiter at his school, eager to enlist. When the recruiter asked him where he was born, he said, “Mexico, I guess.” When the recruiter asked for his Social Security number, Valdovinos repeated the story he had heard his mother tell many times: “My Social Security is in process.”

As it turned out, however, there was no process, and no relief in sight for either him or his parents. Valdovinos was too young to remember, or to even understand, that his family had entered the U.S. without permission, escaping the deprivation of life in Colima, Mexico.

I learned the particulars of Valdovinos’ story against the backdrop of a divisive debate about who belongs in this country. Valdovinos had dropped out of college after a 2006 ballot measure barred undocumented residents from qualifying for instate tuition in Arizona, thereby tripling the cost of every course that he was taking.

The measure’s passage made him wonder how the voters — in a state where virtually one in three residents is Latino — could support a decision that essentially derailed the education of so many of their own. “Then I saw my first election map and realized that 60% of Latinos who can vote don’t vote,” he recalled. That, Valdovinos said, is what gave him a new purpose — a mission, if you will. Channeling the spirit of the Marines he so admired, he thought, “If you see a problem and you become the solution, that’s leadership. And that’s where I started becoming a leader.”

By Election Day, 2012, President Barack Obama was riding high on the success of his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, the executive action that has allowed more than a half-million young immigrants to legally live and work in the U.S. without immediate threat of deportation. Obama garnered 71% of the Latino vote, the highest share among Democratic candidates since 1996, and secured a second term in office despite his dismal record on deportations.

“If you see a problem and you become the solution, that’s leadership. And that’s where I started becoming a leader.”

By then, DACA had been in effect for two years. Valdovinos applied after the election; previously, he’d been too busy running the teams of volunteers who helped elect a Latino to represent a majority-Latino district on the Phoenix City Council and who also put a young Marine Corps veteran, in the Arizona House of Representatives.

During our dinner in New York, I asked Valdovinos how he felt back then — a time of strife, for sure, but also one of transformation and hope. “I really believed that we were going to have immigration reform, some real and permanent change,” he told me.

And then, of course, Donald Trump came along, promising to end DACA despite overwhelming support for the program from voters on both the left and the right. In May 2018, nine states — Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, West Virginia, Kansas and Mississippi — challenged the program’s legality in federal court. Twice, the judge assigned to the case sided with them.

Roughly 580,000 people were enrolled in DACA as of March 31, according to the most recent numbers by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Hundreds of thousands do not qualify, owing to the timing of their arrival in the U.S. The program has strict eligibility criteria: Among other things, DACA recipients must have come to the U.S. before the age of 16 and be under 31 as of June 15, 2012. Many others cannot apply because the judge’s order has barred the federal government from accepting new applications.

Valdovinos and I talked about how DACA’s fate — and Valdovinos’ fate, really — are very likely to end up in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court, the most conservative court in nearly a century. “Do you still believe in a solution, Tony?” I asked.

“I’m not young and naïve anymore,” he replied, a hint of resentment in his voice.

I reminded him that his work and that of many others significantly altered the political landscape in Arizona, where Latinos make up a quarter of eligible voters. “Arizona went for Biden in 2020,” I said — only the second time its voters chose a Democrat for president since 1948, when Harry Truman won the state. “You had a role in turning a Republican stronghold into a battleground.”

Today Valdovinos is a successful political consultant in Phoenix, Arizona.

He nodded absent-mindedly, his eyes focused on a television screen over my shoulder. I noticed tears pooling in his green eyes; growing up, kids at school called him “whitexican” because of his eyes, his pale skin and the gold strands in his mop of curly hair.

“Look,” he said, pointing to the TV, “it’s an ad for the Marine Corps.”

Valdovinos will never be a Marine, not only because he’s not a citizen or legal permanent resident, but because he is 33 now, too old to enlist.

He is still fighting, though: Today, he runs a successful political consulting business, creates jobs and makes, he said, “more money than I ever imagined.” He is currently working on the U.S. Senate campaign of Ruben Gallego, another Marine he helped elect, this time to Congress in 2014, and someone he considers a mentor. Valdovinos recently bought a large plot of land in the outskirts of Phoenix. “I don't have anything to prove anymore.”

Fernanda Santos is the author of The Fire Line: The Story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University, and a co-writer of ¡Americano!, a musical based on Valdovinos’s life. Follow her on Twitter @ByFernandaS or read her substack at byfernandasantos.substack.comWe welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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