This month’s Outside the Law post coincides with the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which pays tribute to the generations of Hispanic Americans who have enriched our nation and society (https://hispanicheritagemonth.gov/). Here at the 1891, we invited Carime A. Lee to share her story and tell us about her work with Mountain Dreamers.
I moved to the United States from Colombia with my mom and sister when I was six years old. Before this trip I didn’t even know what the United States was. My mom told me about this great place where everything looked shiny and new, and Disney World is there! She said we would love living there with her and my new family. My sister and I reacted like most kids by protesting that we didn’t want to go to a new place where we don’t know anyone. We wanted to live with her but did not want to leave our lives behind. In Colombia, I left behind my biological father, a very large and close-knit extended family, and some of my culture.
My assimilation into American life at such a young age resulted in sacrificing certain parts of my Colombian identity in order to pursue what I thought was “being American.” I was embarrassed by my differences from my neighbors and friends. I had to be in ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) classes through 3rd Grade, instead of being in regular classes with my new friends and neighbors. We ate different food and had different traditions. While my friends spent their summer vacations at camps, I traveled back to Colombia to see my dad. Or so I thought. Reality was, my mom knew it would be much easier for us to achieve the American Dream if we could manage to never overstay our permitted time in the US. You see, we had a tourist visa, which meant we couldn’t really live here. My mom’s new husband was on path to US citizenship and she would be able to obtain derivative residency through him once he was a citizen. So, for many years, my sister and I went back to Colombia about every six months. If asked why we were coming into the country by an immigration and customs agent, we remembered to answer, “We’re going to Disney World!” Most people didn’t understand my mom back then, including myself.
I became a United States Citizen in 2003 when I was in eighth grade. Compared to many, my path to citizenship was easy. When I first learned about the American immigration system and understood the complexity, I was a freshman at Florida State University. I went to an event about Dreamers with my dormmate. Dreamers are the more than 700,000 individuals who came to this country as children, like me, and who have lived in this country for an average of 22 years. Dreamers are not able to obtain permanent legal status due to our current immigration system. The similarity of Dreamers’ stories to my immigrant story sparked a passion for me. However, I initially steered away from immigration law for my practice because I felt it would be too emotionally taxing.
Mountain Dreamers found me in 2018, after recently having moved to Summit County. Mountain Dreamers is a local non-profit 501(c)(3) that prioritizes supporting the immigrant community and advocating for their rights. They asked me to join and become a founding member of the Board of Directors. Summit County’s economy is dependent on the several ski resorts that call it home. What many visitors may not realize is this economy is driven by a silent work force. Many workers in Summit County are immigrants from all over the world—many of whom are undocumented or rely on work visas or DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Summit County locals—both immigrants and non-immigrants—created Mountain Dreamers out of a desire to protect our immigrant neighbors and work toward providing them a safer and more inclusive place to call home.
Pre-COVID, Mountain Dreamers hosted regular events, including quarterly dinners with the local police chiefs, the Sheriff, and the immigrant community to help build better relationships with law enforcement. Mountain Dreamers also organized Dreamer storytelling events at which local Dreamers could share their personal stories of growing up in Summit County.
The COVID crisis has highlighted many shortcomings in our community, including housing, healthcare, and food security that have a disparate impact on the immigrant community. In the early months of the pandemic, Hispanics made up approximately 60% of the positive cases in Summit County while only making up approximately 30% of the population. Mountain Dreamers now leads a COVID equity task force with other community organizations and leaders to help address concerns highlighted by COVID.
In addition to its advocacy work, Mountain Dreamers has funded scholarships for DACA renewal applications and provided legal defense funding for families facing removal. Since joining the Mountain Dreamers Board, I have helped plan events, build our legal defense fund, and advocate on behalf of Mountain Dreamers through community events. I am very proud of the work Mountain Dreamers has accomplished in our community: gaining allies and educating our friends and neighbors about the plight of immigrants living in mountain towns and how we as a community can support them. Telling our Dreamers’ intimate stories has allowed us to open the eyes of many who did not know and understand the complexity of our immigration system. Mountain Dreamers has personally helped me to embrace my differences and my culture once again. Listening to the stories of our local young Dreamers gave me inspiration and courage to embrace my own immigrant story and speak out for them and all immigrants.
Learn more about Mountain Dreamers by visiting https://www.mountaindreamers.org/.
Carime Lee is an Associate Attorney with West Huntley Gregory PC. Carime practices primarily in real estate and business transactional work, community association law, landlord-tenant disputes and construction law. She is a Co-Chair of the Colorado Women's Bar Association Publication Committee. Carime is a member of the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association, the CBA Spanish Speaking Lawyers Committee and a founding board member of Mountain Dreamers, a local immigrants rights non-profit organization in Summit County.