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Columnist Razvan Sibii: Ten years later, the Dreamers are still in limbo

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., accompanied by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., left, and others members of the House and Senate Democrats, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 6, 2017. AP FILE PHOTO



Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Almost exactly 10 years ago, having failed to persuade enough Republicans in Congress to pass the DREAM Act, President Obama signed an executive order protecting some undocumented immigrants from deportation and granting them work authorization. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), as the policy was known, recognized that people who have been brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents are not themselves guilty of anything and do not deserve to be uprooted from their communities and be deported to countries that they barely remember, if at all. (Not to mention the myriad benefits those communities reap from these immigrants’ presence).

The Act did not cover all individuals who fit this description, as it came from the start with several stringent caveats, but at least 600,000 young American residents (the so-called “Dreamers”) were able to come out from the shadows and get the jobs they were qualified for. Even though executive orders are notoriously wobbly, DACA has miraculously withstood four years of legal challenges from the Trump administration, and continues to make life livable for hundreds of thousands of previously undocumented immigrants. But the vast majority of these individuals are not children anymore, and they would appreciate it if America could finally decide if it wants them as citizens or not.

I recently spoke to a former student of mine at UMass who is a DACA recipient, and asked him whether he’s hopeful that his precarious decade-long legal protection will ever turn into a path to citizenship. He is, but his hope is a cautious one. A year into a Biden administration that has yet to significantly deliver on immigration reform, Miguel (not his real name) is ready for anything.

He was brought to the U.S. by his parents when he was 2. “My family wasn’t doing well economically,” he explained. “And my uncle told his brothers to come to the U.S. because there’s great opportunities here — the American Dream. And so we went to New Jersey. We lived four or five families in one house. There were cockroaches and rats. We lived in the attic. We had no beds. We slept on the floor. And during our first week in the U.S., our neighbors called the police, because they saw that I didn’t have a bed. They came to our house and they said that if they didn’t see a bed where I could sleep, I would be taken away from my family. And so my parents found a way to work and be able to afford a bed. And from there on, we were able to progress, and move out of that building.”

Back in Ecuador, Miguel’s father had managed a sports store, and his mother had a degree in computer science. In New Jersey, though, they worked in factories and were paid under the table. They moved to Massachusetts after a couple of years in search of a less violent community for their son. Miguel was in high school when Obama announced the DACA protections.

“I thought I was an American until everyone was getting their driving permits and I couldn’t,” he said. “My friends were like, ‘Miguel, why aren’t you getting your permit?’ I would just tell them that I was not ready yet. I didn’t want to tell them that I was undocumented.”

He was able to apply for DACA in his junior year, and then get his driving permit. He attended a community college and later transferred to UMass. On the home front, his legal papers now helped insure the car and rent a house.

“I’ve had to mature at an early stage of my life, and not do anything bad. Everything I did had to be correct. If there was ever any minor thing, every single member of my family could be deported. When Trump became president, it was some of the most stressful years of our lives. I would be studying at UMass and also worrying about my parents getting stopped by police, because they don’t have a driving license. What happens if I’m at UMass while ICE comes by?” Miguel said.

Biden’s election was a relief. “We were like, ‘Maybe we’re going to get a path to citizenship.’ But now I don’t know. I feel like it’s just a political game. We’re just being used, just tossed around. I’ve been trying to not follow politics, just for my mental health,” he said.

While the Dreamers’ saga continues to wind a tortuous path through the halls of the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court, it is Miguel’s parents who might get some deliverance soon. Miguel’s American-born young sister, who is now a UMass student, will be able to sponsor their parents’ change of status when she turns 21. This is possible only because, all those years ago, they did not cross into the U.S. illegally, but rather came on a valid visa which they then overstayed. Illegal entry into the U.S. is a federal misdemeanor; overstaying your visa is not.

Miguel said that his parents regretted coming to the U.S. during the first years, because of the conditions in which the family had to live. “But now, seeing that I have a college education and that my sister is also attending UMass, they see the results of their sacrifice,” he said.

At the end of our interview, I asked Miguel why he’d requested anonymity. What exactly was he afraid of? His answer: “In case Trump becomes president again.”

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at razvan@umass.edu.