Lilli was born into a loving family in Mexico. Her dad was a bank guard and her mom stayed at home and took care of her and her younger sister.  One day, everything changed as her dad was approached by the cartel and given a choice – either work for us and we pay you or turn us down and we kill you and your family.  He knew he couldn’t stay and forever be in prison to the drug lords.  So, he packed up his family and chose to do what he felt would be in their best interests – flee to America.

The journey was tough with two kids under the age of two. At the California border, their Coyote directed them through a swamp. As they got near the border, their dreams seemed to be shattered as they were surrounded by police. The spotlights shined on their family and the pregnant woman who was tagging along. It turns out that Lilli’s little sister was splashing in the water and caught the attention of the agents. As the agents surveyed the situation, one of the officers said, “Let’s let ‘em go. If we don’t, those kids aren’t gonna make it.”  They breathed a sigh of relief, trudged through the rest of the swamp, and made it into America.

Through a variety of circumstances, they arrived in Denver and found an apartment that is two blocks from where I live.  Over the next sixteen years, Lilli went through the Denver Public School system. In God’s providence, she just happened to be in school at Cole Middle School when the mayor of Denver, John Hickenlooper, spoke at a pep rally to the students before they took their achievement tests.  He made a promise right then and there. He told every kid in the room that if they finished high school he would make sure they went to college.  Turns out, a reporter was in the room and made it a front-page story the next day even though the mayor wasn’t prepared for it to go public.  But now he was on the hook!

But this would not be a golden ticket for Lilli.  She was undocumented and while the mayor was committed to raising funds for all the kids in the room, they all got the same amount.  No problem, right?  Wrong. Undocumented residents have to pay out-of-state tuition.  So, at Metro State University in 2011-12, a Colorado resident paid $3809 for tuition and an out-of-state resident paid $14,665. Lilli would have to find another way to make up the difference. Couple that with the fact that she is not allowed to get a job in America and you have a problem. There is little to no chance she will ever get a college degree in America. We will invest $7000+ every year in her K-12 education, but then we sort of shut the door on her educational advancement.  We basically relegate her to a life of poverty as long as she lives here.

Thankfully, good caring people are involved in this issue.  Two years ago, Together Colorado advocates came and asked me if the organization I work for would be willing to make up the “Hickenlooper Promise Gap” for undocumented Cole graduates. We agreed to interview the students and that’s where my story began to intersect with Lilli’s story.

As I met Lilli, I saw that she had a dream, but I could tell she was about ready to give up.  She wanted to get a degree in Criminal Justice and be a US Marshall. She had a deep burden to help people, especially those who experience injustice. But she couldn’t hardly get up the courage to walk out her door. She was in constant fear of being deported by immigration authorities. Her relationship had turned sour with her son’s father.  His legal status gave him a permanent leg up on all custody issues and she endured the constant threat that he would “turn her in.” No job, no security, no educational path, no opportunity.

We granted her the scholarship and she arranged childcare and hit the books. That was two years ago. Today, I met with her for a check-up and she was beaming. I could tell things had changed. In twelve months, she will finish her Associates degree in Criminal Justice. But the first thing she showed me was her new documentation. In 2012, President Obama signed legislation allowing those who were undocumented but came here as children to pursue a modified legal status. Lilli applied and was accepted. She now has a modified Social Security card, a driver’s permit, and an Employment Authorization Card. She beamed as she told me she got a job at Chipotle, arranged for her son to start Kindergarten at Cole, and enrolled for the Spring semester.

Before I entered into a relationship with undocumented families, I came from a place where the immigration issue was pretty black and white. I was a captive to the latest horror story put out by the news of how some undocumented immigrant committed some heinous crime. I was scared into believing that “they” were going to take our jobs and ruin our economy. Underlying all the reporting was the simple message – “Send them all back.”  It all seemed to make sense. The answers were easy.  The problem was simple. “They” were not “us.”

But then I met Lilli…and hundreds of people like her. And I heard stories. And I agonized as I heard how families had been torn apart, employers had taken advantage of people who didn’t have a voice, and how the process of obtaining legal citizenship debilitates the person who is actually trying to become a citizen. I just started to become more informed about the history of immigration policy in America. I “read my Bible again for the first time” and saw how God not only tells Christians to advocate for the poor, the widow, and the orphan, but also the “alien or sojourner.” Things were no longer black and white. I don’t intend to simplify the issue, but one thing is pretty clear to me – we need comprehensive immigration reform in this country.

I yearn for the day when the left and right can actually come together and do what is best for our country and the families who reside here. I long for the time when people will turn off MSNBC and Fox News and actually engage the issue beyond pitiful sound bites. I will vote for members of Congress who are not worried about who is going to “capture the Latino vote” but rather who will make America a safe harbor for refugees from all nations. I dream of a day when we have a country where we truly love our neighbor.

*I want to thank the following “village” of people who have helped my friend, Lilli – Governor John Hickenlooper for making the promise and keeping his word; Jim Chavez of LAEF who helped facilitate the scholarship; Patty Lawless of Together Colorado who advocated for Lilli and many others; Jennifer Janz who gave Lilli a place to feel normal and safe at Single Moms Night Out; Tom Gamel for giving her the “Cole Promise Gap Scholarship;” President Barack Obama for his work in making DACA become a reality; and the many others who I do not know who have helped this dream come true for Lilli.

Original article about the Cole Promise

*Lilli gave me permission to write this story and post this picture.

Written by Jason Janz