Climb every mountain? Not unless Congress passes the Dream & Promise Act

I long to become an Army Ranger — but as a DACA recipient, I’m barred from serving.

In 2019, I saved a man’s life on the slopes of Denali, America’s highest peak — and was then detained and threatened with deportation on my journey home to Williston, ND, where I live and work between climbing expeditions

I was descending from a hard-fought assault on the 20,310-foot summit when I encountered a climber suffering from high altitude cerebral edema — a potentially fatal swelling of the brain. He was struggling to walk, so I hauled him to our 17,200-foot overnight camp, gave him oxygen and medication, and then — despite my own exhaustion — cared for him through the night and the next day.

The rangers who evacuated the climber the next evening said I’d helped save his life and gave me the National Park Service’s prestigious Mislow-Swanson Denali Pro Award for my efforts. But that didn’t matter to the immigration officials who boarded my Amtrak train a few days later. To them, I was just another potentially undocumented immigrant. When they learned I wasn’t a citizen, they yanked me off the train and told me to prepare for deportation.

It was a moment I’d long feared. I’m originally from Guatemala. In 2004, when I was 12, my mother brought us here lawfully using an investor visa and launched a tourism business. But when her business failed after the 2008 crash, we fell out of status.

As an undocumented teenager, I didn’t have the means to attend college after finishing high school. Instead, I found work in a local restaurant. It was a scary time; I knew a single speeding ticket could trigger my deportation. But in 2012, things changed: I gained legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. That gave me the confidence to seek new opportunities, and I started working in higher-end eateries. Today, I’m proud to serve customers at the Williston Brewing Company.

There are almost 1.2 million DACA-eligible people in the United States, according to New American Economy, and we all share similar stories. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 542,000 of us worked in essential jobs such as healthcare and agriculture, and at least 160,000, like me, worked in restaurants and food-service jobs to feed our communities and help small businesses stay open.

Like our American-born friends, we grew up here cultivating talents and passions. My own passion has always been the great outdoors, and I’ve built a career as a adventurer and nature photographer for news organizations such as Vice and outdoor brands such as REI.

But I’m still held back. I’ve climbed Denali five times and spent three seasons working in Mount Rainier National Park. But if Dreamers leave the country, we can’t return, so I’ve had to decline invitations to tackle higher peaks in the Himalayas and elsewhere.

I’ve also been unable to pursue my lifelong dream of serving in the U.S. Army Rangers. When I was younger I visited dozens of recruiting offices hoping that one would let me enlist — but each time, recruiters told me that because of my status I wasn’t eligible to serve. I’m an elite athlete with a full slate of survival skills. I could give so much to the Army. But for now, serving my country simply isn’t possible.

As for the immigration officials who boarded my train in 2019--they were just doing their jobs. Even so, I was held for several days before they realized my DACA status meant I couldn’t be deported. I’m no stranger to fear, but it was a terrifying ordeal. It shows the challenges Dreamers face, even those of us with DACA protections

I know I’m enormously fortunate: DACA allowed me to build a career exploring America’s incredible wilderness, and I’m so grateful. But I long to climb bigger mountains. I grew up reciting the pledge of allegiance every morning in school, and I long to find new ways to serve my country. The only thing stopping me now is my status.

That’s why I hope our senators, John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer, will have a change of heart and help pass the Dream and Promise Act, which would give Dreamers like me a path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship.

I haven’t given up on joining the military, and if the Dream and Promise Act passes, my first stop will be the Army recruiting office at the Dakota Square Mall in Minot. I long to do more, to go further, and to climb as high as I’m able—but that will only be possible if our senators clear the way.

Ibrahim Cetindemir is a photographer and mountaineer from Williston, ND

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