While the fate of the Dream Act has raged into a larger debate about who we are as a nation, in the middle, there is a large group of young adults that has become trapped in a political and ethical quagmire – and they’re suffering.
“My heart is broken,” said Jennifer,* a 23-year-old lifelong South Fork resident who, when speaking Spanish, has a slight American accent. “I have anxiety. It’s so hard not to be able to know what’s going to happen to us.”
For Jennifer, it has been an emotional rollercoaster that plays out in daily headlines about the debate, where the hope of so many seems to be attached to a nationally political pendulum that swings from one extreme to the other every other day.
“It’s like they’re playing with us, with our lives,” she said.
“No human being deserves to live with fear and the anguish of losing everything,” said Martha Maffei, SEPA Mujer’s executive director, in an interview about the fate of the Dream Act.
Jennifer is one of almost 700,000 recipients of the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals policy, a 2012 executive order by former president Barack Obama that formally defers deportation of undocumented young people who where brought to the United States as children. Recipients must meet a number of criteria relating to age, age of arrival, education or military service and have a clean criminal record to be eligible.
As a Dreamer, Jennifer has been able to go to college, drive and work legally – something she says has made it possible for her to pursue her dreams.
Born in Mexico, a country of which she only has distant memories, she arrived to the U.S. when she was just ten years old. Since then, she has lived her life like any other kid: making friends, going to school and thinking about the future.
“I can’t imagine my life anywhere else but here,” she said. “All my opportunities, my life and my future are in this country.”
And it is in that relentless pursuit of the American dream that Jennifer found the drive to excel time and again at each turn of her young life.
As a brown Latina middle schooler who barely spoke any English, she remembers being subjected to bullying because she “looked different” and “spoke funny.” But Jennifer says those experiences pushed her to study harder to learn how to defend herself and also to become the best version of herself she could be – so she could fight back.
“That’s when I learned I had to work twice as hard if I wanted to succeed, and I was determined to do it in spite of how I looked or sounded,” she said. “My parents were very encouraging too. They told me all the time that succeeding academically was the best thing I could do for my future.”
“People have always assumed, even today, that I only speak Spanish or that I am not educated just because of how I look: my darker skin, my facial features,” Jennifer said. “And that hurts, but I just have to keep going,”
As a teenager, she only realized she was undocumented when her peers at school started applying for driver’s permits and she wasn’t able to.
But all of that changed when Jennifer was in 12th grade and former president Barack Obama issued the executive order for DACA.
By then already an honor student, a flute player and a star on her track and soccer teams, Jessica’s drive only increased by the new world of possibilities that suddenly opened for her.
Encouraged by her teachers and principal she applied to the PowHERful Fund scholarship, a foundation co-founded by Soledad O’Brien, where she had to compete with thousands of other young women at the national level. And she won.
“It was an indescribable feeling, the moment I found out I was able to go to college thanks to this scholarship,” she said.
With a full scholarship supporting her, Jennifer went on to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish with a minor in Latin American Studies from Ithaca College.
“I wanted to go back to my roots,” she said. “I realized that even if English wasn’t my native tongue, Spanish wasn’t either, and because I want to work in the legal field, I need both.”
Jennifer graduated last May with honors and went on to work as a paralegal on the East End. Her goal, she says, is to continue her studies and become a court translator or an attorney.
However, she says that all her aspirations and dreams will be gone when her DACA status expires in February of next year.
“Time is like an enemy now. Each day that gets closer to 2019, all I can think is what is going to happen to me and thousands of others?”
Since the Trump administration decided to officially cancel the program in September, these past few months have been especially hard for Jennifer and thousands of others who have hung onto every word and proposal from the president, Congress and others.
“I have done everything possible to be a good citizen: I pay my taxes, I have a degree, I have no criminal record, I love this country and I feel I have contributed to society in every way I can, but it is not enough,” Jennifer said.
The anguish and fear many Dreamers have experienced over the fate of their future in the country can cause “irreparable damage,” according to Maffei of SEPA Mujer. “Policies that show compassion, that strive to keep families together, and that support diversity are immediately required so that our Dreamers have the opportunity to continue growing, developing and contributing to their full potential,” Maffei said.
A study published this month by The Center for Migration Studies of New York in response to the recent government shutdown revealed that Dreamers are a “highly productive, integrated group of young Americans, who are deeply committed to the United States and poised to make – with status and time – even more substantial contributions to the communities that have invested in them.”
However, President Donald Trump has suggested that DACA runs counter to the needs of American citizens – and that American citizens must be put first. During his first State of the Union address Tuesday, where the theme of “America First” was underscored throughout the speech and especially during the subject of immigration, Trump said that “Americans are dreamers too” in a play of words that indirectly references Dreamers.
Like Trump, First District Rep. Lee Zeldin and others, believe that in order for the Dream Act to have any chance of becoming law, other immigration policies that are tougher and more restrictive should be put in place first.
“We must secure the entry process into our country and strengthen interior enforcement,” Zeldin said in a statement.
“What I struggle with the most is how you can possibly allow someone illegally in our country to be given preference over someone who is not in our country, solely because that individual abroad is following the rules and respecting our laws, and as a result they are not yet here,” he said.
Zeldin believes that Congress “should pursue common ground on what at all to do with people who are already in our country illegally, but proposals that recklessly actually increase the amount of people in our country illegally and incentivize disrespecting and abusing our laws on the books should not be supported.”
This was a sentiment that was echoed yesterday by President Trump, who unlike many in the Republican party who flat-out refuse to consider any legislation for Dreamers, reiterated the proposal of a plan that would provide a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million. Such a pathway would be contingent upon $25 billion in funding for the building of a wall across the southern border with Mexico, an increase in U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and the ending of legal immigration programs such as the visa lottery and limits on family reunification policies, which Trump described as “chain migration.”
Long Island Immigrant Students Advocates founder and community organizer Osman Canales said in an interview that the president’s proposal is unacceptable and that it only exacerbates the nation’s divisiveness, describing it as “nativist.”
“It is regrettable that politicians are playing games with the lives of so many people,” he said. “President Trump’s proposal would hurt more than help our community by pitting us against one another, criminalizing the parents of Dreamers, breaking families and creating more panic and fear.”
According to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, there are about 42,000 Dreamers in New York State, and 14,000 in Long Island.
*The subject’s name has been changed to protect her privacy due to the sensitive nature of this topic.
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