Javier Pineda learned to ride a bike when he was 12 years old. It was on a silver and red BMX single-speed from Walmart that his parents bought for him to share with his kid brother, Bryan. They’d take it out to the open space behind their home, near Upper Blue Elementary School in Breckenridge, and swap turns.
This was 2006, within the first few weeks of the Pineda family’s arrival to Colorado, and it was the first summer the whole family had spent together in a long time. Their dad had already been in the U.S. for years, working and saving money, hopeful his wife and kids, still in Mexico, could join someday. Breckenridge was family-friendly, safe and beautiful, they’d heard. Also, there was work in this resort town.
Summit County, in which Breckenridge is nestled, is 14 percent Latino, according to official U.S. Census Bureau data. School records tell a different story. About 40 percent of children are Latino or speak Spanish at home, according to Peter Bakken, executive director of Mountain Dreamers, a nonprofit Javier helped found last year that advocates legally and socially for undocumented folks in the surrounding mountain communities.
So, when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Act was rescinded by President Trump in September 2017, it hit many in Summit County hard. The original program, started by President Barack Obama in 2012, allowed students like Javier, a DACA recipient, to attend college, get work authorization and support his family after graduating from Summit High School. As it stands today, DACA will expire completely next March and though it has helped many undocumented children assimilate in U.S. academic and economic systems, it never contained a pathway to permanent citizenship for people like Javier.
To address both DACA’s expiration date and the need for clear citizenship pathways, Democrats introduced a new bill last March, known as the Dream and Promise Act, that would initiate some immigration reform. In June, when the bill passed in the House of Representatives with a 237-187 vote, it became the first time a citizenship bill passed either chamber of Congress in six years.
Whether controlled by Democratic majorities or Republican, both the House of Representatives and the Senate have declined every bill that’s entered their chamber since 2011. In 2018 alone, the Republican-controlled Senate heard three separate Republican-backed bills that would’ve granted permanent citizenship to DACA recipients, and all three failed.
The Dream and Promise Act’s passage in the House of Representatives represents a win for many immigration reform advocates. It offers conditional citizenship to undocumented immigrants like Javier, who entered the U.S. before the age of 18, and who have completed or are enrolled in a high school diploma, GED cerfication or apprenticeship program. The conditional status would transition to permanent citizenship when participants earn a college degree, complete two years of postsecondary education, serve in the military for two years or maintain employment for at least three years. It would offer the same for immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
Javier, now 25, was living in Denver during the 2016 presidential transition, but he moved back to Summit County soon after, afraid his undocumented status emperiled him in the state’s capital. Through the work permit that DACA provides, he now works as a paralegal for an immigration lawyer in Frisco, attends classes at Colorado Mountain College and supports his four-year-old daughter, Tiffany.
Once Javier heard that the Dream and Promise Act — the closest step toward a green card with his name on it that he’d ever seen — would be making its way through the House, he decided to plan a bike ride, his longest and most intense one yet, in order to raise awareness among both the Latino and Anglo communities in Colorado’s mountain towns. He plotted a 125-mile route from Copper Mountain over Vail Pass, through Glenwood Canyon, and up the valley to Aspen. Along the way he’d pass community after community — Vail, Eagle, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Aspen — that simply could not maintain the ski resorts, restaurants, golf courses, delivery services, auto-repair shops and more without immigrant workforces.
Though Javier and Bryan taught themselves the biking basics on their BMX, Javier says biking never became an integral part of his mountain endeavors. So he knew it wouldn’t be easy. The ride from Copper to Aspen, Javier says, “symbolizes the journey that many immigrants face. Every pedal symbolizes the work they’ve done to be here.”
When Javier, Bryan and his mom arrived in the U.S., none of them spoke much English despite their hometown’s appeal to U.S. tourists and the English classes at their primary school in Michoacán, Mexico — an old colonial town that inspired the backdrop of Disney’s movie Coco.
It was the spring of 2006, mere days after President Bush signed into law a 700-mile stretch of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. Javier, Bryan and their mom had left Michoacán for the northern desert, approaching the border near Nogales, Arizona.
To cross into the U.S., the trio walked two miles along a canal, Javier recalls. A coyote — a human smuggler — told them where to go and what to look for, but when a U.S. border patrol dog came sniffing around a corner, no one knew what to do. The agents “were really violent,” Javier remembers. All three were taken to a detention center. “It was cold,” he says, “and scary.” But the agents gave them food and after about five hours, released them into Mexico. Javier and his family checked into a nearby hotel. Javier cried to his mom, “I don’t want to be here. You guys can go.” But she coaxed him out and the next day they tried again, this time crossing successfully.
Once in Breckenridge, Javier enrolled in the seventh grade ESL program, and within a year he’d surpassed everyone’s expectations. He was named “Outstanding Eighth-Grade Student,” and he and Bryan joined the Boy Scouts together to learn more about the outdoor spaces surrounding their new home. Bryan was always the extroverted one, the kid that made people laugh. Javier was more quiet, always observing. The brothers were all each other had in those first few years: learning a new language, new customs, how to be different, yet the same.
Then Bryan died. He had just turned 13 and contracted swine flu. It took a full year for Javier to regain any sense of normalcy.
“That was kind of my metamorphosis,” he says. “I started to live my life the way he would like me to do it, which was to be more happy and to make more friendships to be more outgoing.”
So Javier branched out. He eventually became an Eagle Scout and got more involved in school politics. A month before his high school graduation in 2012, the Summit Daily News ran his profile noting he had become Summit High School’s student-body president. In the article, Javier says, “I want to make a change for minorities,” adding, “I want to help out people like me that don’t have the support they need. They’re too scared to ask for it, and don’t know where to get it.”
A little more than seven years after that statement, Javier hopped on his bike and started drumming up support for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants that could benefit from the Dream and Promise Act. On Saturday, July 20, Javier rode from Copper to Glenwood Springs. Then on Sunday, July 21, he finished the ride, pedaling from Glenwood Springs to Aspen.
Once arriving in Aspen, though, “I completely, right away, felt out of place,” he says. “I felt like I didn’t belong there. I felt resentment.”
People looked at him funny, he said. “I felt this weird vibe.”
Aspen, like much of the cycling community, is overwhelmingly represented by white people. As he dismounted his bike, confronting this racial disparity head-on, Javier couldn’t help but think about a book he’d recently read, The Slums of Aspen — published in 2011, detailing how some of Aspen’s environmental policies have covered up intentional discrimination against immigrants and the Latino workforce. “It was a relief [to be done with the ride], but at the same time I knew that there were bigger issues even just walking around town.”
So without much fanfare, Javier and his support team hopped in a car and booked it back down valley to Glenwood Springs for a heaping plate of chicken pasta.
Marissa Molina, a fellow DACA recipient who grew up in Glenwood Springs, is the Colorado state immigration manager at the national, bipartisan criminal justice and immigration reform organization Fwd.us. Javier, she believes, is the perfect person to be raising awareness about legislative immigration reform. “Not only is he a really remarkable community leader, but he is somebody who understands,” she says. “I think Javier and I have that in common: We know that our communities are interconnected. We know that immigrants play a key role in our communities.”
“He’s brave, you know,” says Bakken, of Mountain Dreamers. “He’s not afraid of speaking up for himself and for others who were in the same position.”
On the first day, about half-way through the ride, Javier stopped at Battle Mountain High School in Eagle. There, an entourage of supporters awaited him with signs and heartfelt stories about their own experiences with being undocumented. “Once I started mingling and talking to some of these folks, that’s where everything was really motivating because I was learning their stories, and for me that was powerful,” Javier says.
One undocumented woman in the crowd was so impressed by Javier’s bravery and gumption, she approached Bakken, who was also at the high school helping disseminate information about the Dream and Promise Act and Mountain Dreamers’ nonprofit initiatives. She told him, “I’m glad that there’s a lawyer in your group because I’m going to come out and do something like this, too.”
On the second day, when Javier was extra sore from sitting for hours on an uncomfortable bike seat, he says, “I just started questioning, ‘Why?’ The only thing that crossed my mind was questioning why I was suffering and why I was keeping up with the pain.”
But he pedaled on, motivated by his supporters, the stories of other immigrants, and the impact he felt he could make as an undocumented person out in the open, talking about politics. “The constant message that I had repeated to myself was that it was not about me, it was about other people.”
In Colorado, there are 39,700 people that could benefit from the Dream and Promise Act. On average, these “dreamers” arrived in the country at age 8, according to the Center for American Progress. They own 4,200 homes in Colorado and pay $38,100,000 in annual mortgage payments. Their households also contribute $287,600,000 in federal taxes and $138,500,000 in state and local taxes each year, annually generating $1,249,600,000 in spending power. Nationwide, the bill would benefit 2.5 million undocumented immigrants.
“I see Javier’s bike ride and the way in which I’ve seen Javier advocate being such a key and important piece of this [policy] work,” Molina says. “Because at the end of the day, our senators and our elected officials move when their constituents say, ‘You need to move.’ And so, I think what Javier has been working on is really getting the community to understand that this isn’t just an issue that makes the nightly news every so often — this isn’t just a political talking point. These are your neighbors, these are your friends, these are the people you’ve graduated school with, the people who you’ve admired and they’re just as much a part of our community as anybody else.”
During the June 4 hearing in the House of Representatives, most Republican lawmakers put up a strong fight. Democrat Rep. Joe Neguse from Boulder rose to refute claims that “gang members would be eligible for green cards“ under the new act. He said, “I would ask my [Republican] colleagues to spare me this false outrage, because if this really were about gang violence, my colleagues have continuously had opportunities to pass legislation that would curb that threat.”
Neguse further clarified that a series of criminal misdemeanors (not low-level marijuana offenses nor nonviolent civil disobedience) or a felony unrelated to immigration would automatically disqualify any applicants. A background check would also be required.
It’s unclear where the bill will go next. Although it was passed by the Democrat-controlled House, it awaits a hearing in the Republican-led Senate. The Trump administration officially opposes the Act, and the day after its passage in the House, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-KY) told Fox News Radio host Guy Benson the bill would “probably not” get a vote in the Senate.
For now, though, Javier says he’s resting. There’s still work to be done, but it’s also important to celebrate victories along the way, he says. Mountain Dreamers is gearing up to offer a 20-week Family Leadership Training Institute course. It will follow a national leadership and family advocacy curriculum run by Colorado State University Extension designed to help families develop leadership skills and knowledge about the civic process. Mountain Dreamers will soon also offer a legal defense fund to support legal representation for immigrants who have immigration-related hearings in court.
As for Javier and Bryan’s silver and red single-speed BMX bike? It’s sitting in the shed behind his parent’s house. Maybe one day, Javier says, his four-year-old daughter, Tiffany, will ride it and stand up for something she believes in, too.