Life changed dramatically for Marco* one summer night five years ago.
Because Marco — a 22-year-old Greenport High School graduate who enjoyed the North Fork’s sandy beaches and tight-knit community from a young age, played on the local soccer team and generally lived a quiet, ordinary life — had a secret.
The all-American boy with the unaccented English and big dreams, the boy that followed all the rules and was raised loving and respecting the United States, was undocumented.
Brought here as a small child by his parents, who came from Colombia, Marco knows no other homeland.
“I consider myself American. I don’t know anything else. I think and speak in English. I have American values,” he said in an interview this week. “I have no direct connections to Colombia, my parents’ country. I don’t even remember it well.”
Being undocumented prevented Marco from getting a driver’s license. Though he was accepted to several universities he was not able to attend because of his legal status. Summer jobs were hard to come by since he didn’t have a social security number.
Just a few years out of high school, the future looked bleak for him, the window of opportunities narrowing with each passing year.
Marco was far from alone. Nearly 800,000 undocumented young people were brought into the United States as children — 42,000 of them in New York State, according to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and 14,000 Long Islanders.
Beginning in 2001, with a bipartisan bill titled “Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act” or “DREAM Act, Congress tried to address the harsh predicament young people like Marco found themselves in. The bill was reintroduced several times over the next decade, either by itself or as part of broader immigration reform measures. None won passage in both chambers.
In June 2012, then-president Barack Obama acted by executive order, announcing his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, formally deferring deportation of undocumented young people who met specific criteria relating to age, age of arrival, education or military service and a clean criminal record.
“It makes no sense to expel talented young people, who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans,” Obama said in his Rose Garden announcement of the program. “They’ve been raised as Americans; understand themselves to be part of this country.” He also said then that the program was meant as a temporary measure and was put into place to provide relief for Dreamers while Congress acted.
Obama’s decision to issue the executive order drew swift criticism, which continues to this day, from opponents who argue he lacked constitutional authority to issue the order, which they say usurped congressional legislative powers.
First District Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) is among the critics of the DACA executive order.
“If the Obama administration wanted to implement the DACA program, it should have made the case to Congress and try to pass it’s [sic] proposal into law,” Zeldin said in a written statement issued yesterday. (See full statement.) “The administration absolutely did not have the authority to write its own ‘laws’. If the proposal did not have the support to pass than it should not go into effect. That is how our process is designed and must be respected.”
His predecessor in the congressional seat, Democrat Tim Bishop, who supported comprehensive immigration reform as well as the Dream Act and Obama’s DACA program, calls that argument “specious.”
“It was the last vote we took as the majority party in the House of Representatives, in December 2010,” Bishop said in an interview yesterday. “It was passed by the House but couldn’t get a supermajority in the Senate — it got only 55 votes.”
He noted that the Senate passed an immigration reform bill in 2014, but Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner “declared it DOA,” and it never came to a vote, Bishop said. Obama acted by executive order out of frustration with Congress and a desire to correct a fundamental unfairness where these young people were concerned, Bishop said.
For people like Marco, suddenly everything changed, incredibly, for the better.
He clearly recalls the day he was able to go to DMV to obtain his driver permit — six years later than his peers, who got theirs at age 16. His voice, alight with the memories of that day, trembled with emotion while recounting the experience and gave it an almost sacred quality. A simple procedure for so many was a huge mountain conquered for him.
“When I was able to apply for my driver’s license and my work permit it was one of the best things that happened to me in my life,” he said.
He’s graduated from college, moved to New York City, became a business development manager in the pharmaceutical sector for a multinational company, established his own successful business focused on corporate events and traveled abroad for work. He’s built a life here in New York, which he considers home.
“If it wouldn’t have been for DACA I would not have been able to accomplish many things, especially with work,” he said.
Now life has once again abruptly changed. With the announcement yesterday of President Donald Trump’s decision to rescind DACA and phase it out over the next six months.
“Even though I pay taxes and have done always the right thing, right now I feel persecuted by my own country, unwelcomed,” Marco said. “Why are they treating me this way? How can they say I don’t contribute to the community, to the economy?” he said.
“I do regular things, give money when people are in need, like with Harvey and Sandy. I don’t understand how they can think of taking everything away from me,” Marcos said, breaking down with emotion.
Jennifer*, another DACA recipient and lifelong South Fork resident who just graduated college with honors in May, shared similar sentiments.
“I feel they are taking away from me all of the opportunities that the future in this country — my country — had to offer,” she said.
“I feel betrayed because they are making me feel like I don’t belong, like I will always be an outsider and the American dream is not true,” she added.
Jennifer’s memories of Mexico, where she was born and lived till age nine, are dim. The East End of Long Island is her home.
“I can’t imagine myself anywhere else,” she said.
“I have to have hope,” she said. “I want to think that in these six months Congress will do something for us, that they will see that Dreamers are as Americans as anybody else,” she said.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the announcement on behalf of the president yesterday — the deadline given by a group of 19 state attorneys general who threatened to sue the federal government to overturn the DACA executive order.
Since DACA will be phased out and all DACA benefits are provided on a two-year basis, people who currently have DACA will be allowed to retain both DACA and their work authorizations until they expire.
After that, they will be subject to deportation — though they may not be actively sought for deportation unless they meet one of the administration’s priority criteria, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
There are currently more than 787,500 DACA recipients in the U.S., according to DHS.
Each of them has voluntarily come forward and identified themselves to the federal government, providing addresses and, in many cases, employer information.
“Now we’re going to say we were only kidding? Thank you for telling us who you are and where you live. Now we’re going to deport you,” Bishop said yesterday.
Zeldin in his statement said he supports legal immigration and the rule of law.
“It is great to pursue the American dream and to consider yourself a ‘dreamer’ and everyone in the United States legally should consider themselves ‘dreamers’, but you have to follow our laws. Period. We should not reward or excuse criminal behavior,” Zeldin said.
The president, meanwhile, is urging Congress to act.
“Congress, get ready to do your job – DACA!” he tweeted yesterday morning. He added in a subsequent tweet that he looks forward to working with Democrats and Republicans in Congress “to address immigration reform in a way that puts hardworking citizens of our country first.”
Last night the president tweeted again: “Congress now has 6 months to legalize DACA (something the Obama Administration was unable to do). If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!”
Denise Civiletti contributed reporting.
Editor’s note: The two DACA recipients agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity.