DACA helped propel Santa Fe High grad to presidential policy appointment

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Jun. 19—Cindy Nava stood on the shoulders of giants.

A house cleaner. A construction laborer.

Humble underpinnings, perhaps. But solid, sturdy, true. Perhaps that's why Nava's voice is quaking as she describes her past, present and future.

"To think my parents don't have [immigration] status, to think I've even been considered for this opportunity, to think I've been given this opportunity, is beyond my belief," she said, the words accompanied by a shower of tears. "I could never have seen it coming."

And yet, here it is: Cindy Nava — child of undocumented immigrants; herself a product of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the policy started under former President Barack Obama that protected immigrant children from deportation — is headed to Washington, D.C.

The Santa Fe woman recently received a presidential appointment to serve as a senior policy adviser to U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia L. Fudge. Nava, 35, a graduate of Santa Fe Community College, is believed to be the first former DACA recipient to assume such a role at the federal level.

Nava, currently the executive director of Transform Education New Mexico, said she's thrilled by the honor — and the future, calling the appointment a seemingly out-of-the-blue opportunity that feels like a dream.

But she also said she can't look forward without thinking about the past and just how far she and her family have come. Born in Chihuahua, Nava and her family came to the U.S. when she was 8, living first in Albuquerque and later Santa Fe.

Like many of those covered in the DACA umbrella, Nava knows full well the tenuous uncertainty immigrants feel every day. Even now, headed to Washington and a naturalized U.S. citizen since 2021, she is reticent to identify her parents by name. But the history is there, rooted in sacrifice by the things they did — cleaning houses, working in the hot New Mexico sun — to build better lives for their three kids.

Nava said she fully understands the symbolism of her appointment, noting it comes with a responsibility.

"I hope to take their voices — and people like my parents — with me," she said in an interview Friday, referring to immigrant community here and throughout the country. "They never sit at those tables."

Nava spot in Washington's gleaming conference rooms was made possible in no small part by her own hard work. At 18, she received an internship at the Legislature, working for — this is not an elongated typo — former state Sen. Cynthia Nava, D-Las Cruces. With that foothold, she later became a policy analyst, eventually networking with some of the most influential and powerful political figures in New Mexico: U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland and former Cochiti Pueblo Gov. Regis Pecos, among others.

All helped her along the way, she said. And yet, she recalls with exacting detail those early years when, as someone who wasn't a U.S. citizen, she related more to the women cleaning the Roundhouse than the power brokers who ran it.

"They looked like my mom. They spoke like my mom," she said. "They did the jobs my mom did."

Nava said she did those jobs, too. When she wasn't dressed up and working in the Capitol, she was outfitted another way; helping her mother clean homes in Santa Fe.

Propelled by her history, her reality, Nava became a proponent for immigrant rights through her college days at Santa Fe Community College and the University of New Mexico. Most recently, she headed the Transform Education New Mexico organization, which advocates for change in the wake of the landmark Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit, which mandates massive alterations in the state's public school system, particularly for disabled and Native students and English-language learners.

Nava said the decision to leave wasn't easy. But then, what is?

Less than a year ago, Nava said she underwent surgery for a brain tumor — a harrowing procedure that offered the potential for as many bad outcomes as good ones. "Painful in many ways," she said, describing the endless, terrible night before she went into the surgical suite. "I saw my life go before my eyes that night."

The surgery and recovery were successes, and life went on as she'd planned. Though her name had been put forward for a job in Washington by her supporters and she'd filled out the paperwork, she had no guarantee she'd ever be called.

And then it came.

"The gratitude," she said, with tears rising once again, "is just beyond."

Proponents of DACA have talked for years about what the policy means to the immigrant, about how they, too, are part of the nation's future. Nava is among them and proud to be so. And though she said the policy is imperfect, believing in the future is something that should be celebrated and appreciated.

She learned that from her giants.

"I still believe the American Dream exists," she said.