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Ogden man, 'Mexican on paper,' American in his heart, strives for secure place here

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OGDEN — As he was crossing Mexico, headed to the United States, 9-year-old Gustavo Ruiz de Chavez, traveling with his mother, didn't fully understand what was going on.

Actually crossing the desert into Arizona early one morning — an undocumented immigrant and a world removed from bustling Mexico City, where he had lived until then — that suddenly changed.

"What did it for me was when the sun came up and I saw the different world. I knew something big had just happened in my life," said Ruiz de Chavez, now living in Ogden.

Things at his first U.S. stop in southern California were tough, at least in the beginning. His mom worked at a McDonald's and he went to school. "I didn't speak any English. It was odd. It was awkward. It was embarrassing. Right off the bat you feel kind of dumb," Ruiz de Chavez said.

He plugged away, though, eventually came with his mom to Ogden, where he graduated from Ben Lomond High School and then from Weber State University. Now 30, he's a direct marketer for smart technology, owns a home in Ogden, is married to a U.S. citizen, Chalaye Phelts, and has two young kids, Americans.

This is where the major milestones in his life have occurred. This is where he spent his formative years. This is home.

"I'm Mexican on paper, but in my heart and soul, I'm American," he said.

Whatever the case, his future here is hardly assured. Like nearly 9,000 others across Utah and 661,000 in all across the United States, he has lawful status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative, or DACA. DACA, approved during the administration of President Barack Obama, gives younger undocumented immigrants brought to the country by their parents a means to work, study and live legally in the country.

DACA's future, though, is in question, facing a legal challenge from the administration of President Donald Trump. The U.S. Supreme Court is to weigh-in on its legality in coming months, and if the court shoots DACA down, Ruiz de Chavez could be forced to the shadows, no longer allowed to remain lawfully. The unpleasant possibility of deportation has crossed his mind. Trump has said he'd be open to a plan letting DACA recipients stay if justices nix the program. But he's also prone to strong anti-immigrant rhetoric, and the uncertainty that seems at times to gnaw at Ruiz de Chavez underscores the situation for millions of immigrants, whether undocumented or, like Ruiz de Chavez, protected by a program that faces a questionable future.

He's alternately excited and fearful thinking about the looming Supreme Court decision "because it could be good or it could be really, really bad," he said.

His mother, who had split with Ruiz de Chavez's dad years before traveling with her son to the United States, seeking opportunities and a better life, is in an even more tenuous situation. She's still undocumented, without the benefit even of DACA.

"She doesn't have an alternative. She's walking on thin ice. Very, very thin ice," he said.

'GREW UP WITH THAT FEAR'

Ruiz de Chavez learned quickly on arriving in the United States that he had to keep his guard up. He was told to avoid police, that they could get him in trouble given his undocumented status.

Ogden authorities, including Mayor Mike Caldwell and Ogden Police Chief Randy Watt, have made clear in recent years that pinning down the migratory status of Ogden residents isn't a focus for them, that they leave such issues to the feds. Even so, Ruiz de Chavez grew up uneasy with police.

"You don't know cops aren't supposed to ask you your immigration status. I grew up with that fear," he said.

Gustavo Ruiz de Chavez 02

Gustavo Ruiz de Chavez poses for a portrait on Nov. 15, 2019, at his Ogden home. Originally from Mexico City, he was brought to the United States by his mother illegally when he was 9. He is the beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative, giving him the ability to lawfully work in the United States, though the program faces an uncertain future.

Later, as a student at Ben Lomond High School, his concerns morphed. Deportation wasn't such a worry as was the derision of his classmates if his undocumented status were to be discovered. "It went from fear of being caught to fear of being judged," he said.

If he did have such concerns, Phelts, who attended Ben Lomond High School with Ruiz de Chavez, didn't notice. The migratory status of Ruiz de Chavez and his friends never registered as an issue on her radar screen, even if, as Ruiz de Chavez says, he and his undocumented friends talked about it among themselves.

"I just thought they were just like me," said Phelts, only friends with him at the time. He was a generally happy guy who liked to joke around, she remembers.

Later, on graduating high school in 2007, Ruiz de Chavez faced yet another sort of concern. Being undocumented, lacking a Social Security number, one that was legally his, anyway, he had no way to lawfully work.

All along, notwithstanding any worries he may have harbored inside, he had figured he'd make something of himself. "It's been like a race to catch up to something, the American dream, to better myself... I think I did a very good job for a long time convincing myself that nothing could stop me," he said.

But as ambitious as he was, as positive and upbeat as he remained, it couldn't change his undocumented status. In fact, he could be stopped, held back, he suddenly learned. He managed, though, taking jobs that weren't so rigorous about paperwork, and studying at Weber State, which is open to all, regardless of migratory status. 

Then in 2012, with DACA, things took another turn — a turn for the better. He applied, received DACA status when he was 23, and was finally able to get a job on his merits, without fake papers, without having to worry about getting caught. "That gives you a burst of confidence, to be able to work and not have that fear. You kind of feel blessed," he said.

These days, his wife sometimes worries, hearing the anti-immigrant rhetoric and talk of deportations.

"That does scare me, because I don't know what I'd do," she said, mulling the prospect of her husband, the family's breadwinner, being forced out of the country.

His Catholic faith, among other things, helps keep him going these days, Ruiz de Chavez said. He's also started looking into seeking U.S. residency through his wife, though that process has its own obstacles given his initial illegal entry into the United States back when he was 9-years-old.

"Hope is what I have. That's all I have," he said.

Still, the uncertainty, at least a little, always seems to be there. He's gone through too much for it to fade completely.

"When you're an immigrant, I don't think that ever goes away," he said.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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