Holding Fast to Dreams: Undocumented Youth Want True Immigration Reform

(Photo: AP/Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Immigrant advocates from United We Dream chant in front of the White House on July 28, 2014.

Election 2016 is complicated for millennials. They flocked to Bernie Sanders. Their top issues—the economy, the high cost of college, and the environment and climate change—have been overshadowed by the furor over emails and sexual abuse. Many of them are first-time voters casting ballots without enthusiasm—if they are voting at all.

But Dreamers, the young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children with their parents, are paying close attention to the election even though they cannot vote. A Hillary Clinton presidency raises key concerns for young people who’ve seen their hopes for a clear path to American citizenship dashed. Yet the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency brings on high anxiety, too. They remain fearful about the outcome in this tight race.

For this group of people who has to sit on the sidelines on November 8, the issue of comprehensive immigration reform supersedes all others. Without permanent residency or citizenship, Dreamers’ lives are in constant flux. Even as they pursue higher education and careers, they and their families live in fear of deportation.

They are cynical about the election because of the lack of progress and some backsliding on immigration reform during the past eight years. Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, the executive order that President Barack Obama issued in 2012, about 728,000 young undocumented immigrants have applied for a two-year exemption from deportation, which can be renewed indefinitely but does not provide legal immigration status or a path to citizenship. Under DACA, some Dreamers are eligible to receive Social Security numbers and work permits. Two years later, the president announced another measure, the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), a similar policy providing deportation relief for undocumented immigrants who have one or more children born in the United States.

But Obama, who has been nicknamed “Deporter-in-Chief” by immigration reform advocates because of the unprecedented number of immigrants deported by his administration, fell short of making more significant reforms. “The lesson from eight years of Obama is that he claimed he was supportive of immigration youth, but his actions did not result in substantive change,” says Kent Wong, director of the University of California Los Angeles Labor Center and a professor of labor studies and Asian American studies. “In fact, we saw the largest number of deportations in U.S. history.”

According to the Pew Research Center, from 2009 to 2014, 2.5 million immigrants have been deported, compared with about two million under George W. Bush. While undocumented youth hailed DACA, immigration advocates expected to see stronger action from Obama. But his efforts butted up against Republicans in the House who repeatedly blocked bipartisan Senate legislation to overhaul immigration laws.

But Gloria Rodriguez, a first-year student at New Jersey’s Essex County College, still supports DACA. “I’m able to attend college [and] I have a scholarship,” she says. “If DACA was not here, I don’t think I would be in college.” Indeed, the program has been a lifeline for many people. But since DACA only protects Dreamers for two years at a time, an individual must re-apply every 18 to 20 months and pay a $465 fee each time to avoid having any gaps in protection.

For UCLA senior Leticia Bustamante, that means a biennial choice between DACA or rent, which she says is “frustrating.” Bustamante, like many Dreamers, has an even bigger problem: Her family’s future is in limbo. Bustamante came from Mexico at age 5. Her family has been in the United States for 16 years now, and she has an American-born sibling. This past summer, Bustamante and families like hers experienced a crushing disappointment when the Supreme Court’s split decision on Obama’s proposed expansions of DACA and DAPA, which would have provided deportation relief for an estimated 4.4 million undocumented parents, meant that a lower court ruling remained in place.

Bustamante’s family had saved money to file for DAPA, which could have given legal employment authorization to her father, who has a skilled, but low-paying, job; he would have been able to apply for a higher-paying position.

DACA poses another headache for Dreamers. Saira Galindo, a junior at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, was recently laid off from her job in the public school system because her DACA renewal was not processed in time—which has been a growing problem in 2016. “I still can’t do certain things because I’m not a citizen—can’t apply for certain jobs, can’t study abroad freely,” she says. “Now with the delay … what would happen if I was already a teacher and I have a classroom and a contract?”

After the June decision, Hillary Clinton tweeted that it was “heartbreaking” and that “we must do better.” She believes that DAPA is well within the president’s authority, and she plans to uphold both policies if elected. “I will do everything in my power as president to protect President Obama’s executive actions, go further to provide relief for families, and introduce comprehensive immigration reform with a path to full and equal citizenship within my first 100 days in office,” Clinton said on the  fourth anniversary of DACA in June.

Yet Billy Rubi, a first-year student at California State University Long Beach, says that the program is “just a temporary solution that falls into a never-ending void.” He wants to see Clinton come up with a “complete plan that won’t leave anyone behind or won’t give another label to the individual, since that’s what I feel DACA is—[another] label to categorize you, under [which] you can’t progress anymore.”

Clinton might win over some voters by promising to take major steps on immigration, but what Dreamers want is action. “I am hearing a lot of pessimism and worry,” says Carola Suárez-Orozco, a professor of human development and psychology at UCLA, who has done extensive research on the adaptation of immigrant youth and their families. “Clearly, one of the candidates is understood as much more worrisome than the other, but there is not a lot of trust that Clinton will be particularly progressive.”

Nevertheless, Clinton is the clear “choice,” given that Trump disgorges a disturbing message of hate, discrimination, and misogyny. A President Trump would be a far worse alternative. Besides his call for deporting millions of undocumented people, Trump has said that he will eliminate DACA and DAPA, and pull federal funding from the 30-plus “sanctuary cities” that ban law enforcement from asking about a person’s immigration status.

“All we’re trying to do is go to college and get a job; we’re not here to harm anyone,” says Skarleth Velasquez, a first-year student at Houston Community College, whose family was also crushed by the DAPA defeat.

The wider immigrant-rights movement is also apprehensive about a Trump presidency. Greisa Martinez is the advocacy director for United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth–led network in the country. Martinez, a Dreamer herself, has worked on political strategies to put pressure on the Obama administration and members of Congress. “Young undocumented people … feel scared about what it means to have a President Trump,” she says.

United We Dream has called on Clinton to acknowledge the need for relief in the immigrant community, and they’ve been engaging immigrant voters by knocking on doors and educating them on what is at stake in this election. “The reality is that people are not voting for Hillary Clinton, they are voting to protect their families from deportation and detention,” Martinez says.

Wong, the UCLA labor center director, agrees that it is critical for the immigrant-rights movement to continue to put pressure on a potential Clinton administration to produce results. He cites DACA and DAPA as the product of youth-led activism. Making sure Trump is not elected is important, but he also notes that Dreamers should not get complacent if there is a Clinton administration. “It matters who controls the Senate and the House.”

Meanwhile, United We Dream is also working to combat Trump’s hate and racism. “The biggest challenge is going to be undoing the damage that has been done by the genie of xenophobia that Trump has unleashed and actively inflamed in this election cycle,” says Suárez-Orozco, the UCLA professor. “Even if he loses, that hatred and the misperceptions that have been freely circulated will not evaporate overnight.”

As November 8 approaches, Dreamers aren’t exactly waiting with towels and water bottles in Clinton’s corner if she wins. They are wary of living under the specter of being cast out of the only home they have known. But they will need to shake off their pessimism and apathy to join together in pressuring Washington to disavow temporary stopgaps like DACA or DAPA, and blaze a path toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

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