Ernestor is an undocumented immigrant — but also the Interim Human Resource Director and Assistant to the City Manager of Dodge City, where he helps oversee a $51.7 million budget, support local businesses, and coordinate with state and federal officials to advocate for city residents. “It’s very sad that someone like me, working to better this community and the United States and wanting to contribute in such a positive manner, can still not have a path to permanent residency or citizenship,” he says.
Ernestor was born in a poor region of northern Mexico, where his father raised cattle, and brought to the United States by his parents when he was 13. “There was no option for me to go to college in Mexico, and they wanted me to have a better life,” he recalls. The family obtained multi-year visitor visas and came to Dodge City thinking they’d be able to gain permanent status well before their visas expired. That proved impossible, Ernestor says, and the family wound up overstaying their visas. “We all hear comments about, ‘Get back in line, Do it legally.’ Well, we tried, but the system right now is so complex that it can take 20 years.”
We came here to work, and to better ourselves, and to have a better life. I just hope people can see the positive impact that we’re having.
The family put down roots in Dodge City, and Ernestor set about learning English and getting an education. After high school, he worked as a waiter and a hotel desk clerk to pay for college, without telling his employers about his immigration status. “I basically had to lie to be able to afford my tuition and feed myself,” he says. By working hard, Ernestor was able to put himself through two years of pre-law studies at Dodge City Community College and enough courses to earn a bachelor’s degree from Fort Hays State University and a master’s degree in public administration from Wichita State University. “Often kids my age enjoy the college lifestyle, hanging out with friends and partying, but I wasn’t able to do that,” he says. “I was so disciplined. I said to myself, I can’t fail a class because I’m going to have to pay out of my pocket again.”
In 2012, as Ernestor was completing his first year of graduate school, President Barack Obama initiated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program, shielding him from deportation and giving him authorization to work. That opened the door to a job with Dodge City. “If it wasn’t for DACA, I wouldn’t have been able to work for the city,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to pursue a career after seven years in college.” Still, he says, DACA is just a stopgap. “The next president could simply cancel DACA,” he says. “That would leave almost 2 million DACA recipients out in the dark again. All those individuals who are currently employed, just like me, would be out of work.”
What’s needed, Ernestor says, are reforms to streamline the process for people who want to come to the United States legally. “We need an immigration system that works in a timely fashion,” he says. “I don’t believe in illegal immigration, but we need a system that works for everyone.” Ernestor also believes that undocumented immigrants already in the country need a path to legal status. “This is a problem we already have, so we need sensible reforms that work for the 11 million people who are already here.”
Efforts to deport undocumented workers would do real harm, not just to immigrants, Ernestor says, but also to the Dodge City economy. Hispanics now account for half the city’s population and are productive members of the local workforce. “They’re really the motor that keeps this community going. If it wasn’t for them, I’m not sure where we’d be.” In fact, Dodge City businesses need even more workers: the local meatpacking plant has scores of open positions, Ernestor says, and is currently recruiting from as far away as Puerto Rico. The bottom line, he says, is that immigrants come to America to seek new opportunities but help their new communities in the process. “We came here to work, and to better ourselves, and to have a better life,” he says. “I just hope people can see the positive impact that we’re having.”