By Alaide Vilchis Ibarra
Recently, there have been a number of efforts in Congress to strip funding for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program announced by President Obama in 2012 granting relief from deportation and a work permit to eligible young undocumented migrants known as DREAMers. From House Republicans passing the No More Dreamers Act (H.R. 5272) in a successful attempt to get conservative members of the party to vote for a funding bill that strips away trafficking protections for vulnerable children, to Senator Ted Cruz threatening a government shutdown to “prevent the president from illegally granting amnesty,” DREAMers face the threat of having to derail their dreams. Although DACA recipients have seen their hopes and dreams used as a bargaining chip in partisan negotiations, their progress and challenges in the past two years are a window into what broader reform could bring.
Miriam Cuevoa is one of the 685,544 current DACA recipients who have experienced the benefits and challenges of the program. Like many DACA-eligible youth, Miriam grew up and attended school in the United States but did not disclose her status to peers or school counselors for fear of what could happen. DACA has given her a chance to come out of the shadows, become a visible advocate and take opportunities she could never have taken before. She still remembers the day that President Obama announced the executive action. Her father excitedly called her downstairs to replay the President’s announcement.
“I couldn’t believe it.” Miriam told me. “It was a feeling that I have never felt before in my life. I remember going to the basement, jumping around in the couches and thinking: Something big has happened”
At the time of the announcement there were approximately 1.2 young migrants who could benefit from DACA but not everyone eligible has applied. According to figures from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), approximately 41% of those eligible have requested deferred action. This means that the majority of DACA-eligible youth have still not turned in the documents to be considered for relief. A study from the National UnDACAmented Research Project (NURP) provides insight into the barriers faced by young migrants. In a recent study, they found that 43% of the participants reported failing to apply because they could not afford the $465 dollars application fee, 15% had fear of sending their information to an immigration agency and 10% did not know how to begin the process.
The young people who have obtained DACA, and the communities in which they live, see the benefits of the program in seemingly small and significant ways. DACA recipients in most states can now have a driver’s license, which allows them to travel without the fear that one small traffic violation will turn into detention or deportation. As far as economic gains, the same NURP study found that 59% of their sample had obtained a new job since receiving DACA and 45% of them reporting increased earnings.
Since receiving DACA in January 2013, Miriam has been able to transfer from a community college to a four-year university thanks to now having the ability to work for the school. She considers herself one of the lucky ones because she has been able to continuously find volunteer work that allows her to gain experience in her field of study, social work. She knows, however, others have had to struggle to find work in their preferred field after being unable to gain the relevant experience needed as undocumented migrants.
Graciela Gomez, who asked her name be changed, is one of the students finding it hard to find work in the sciences even after being top of her class in a private high school and a leader in extracurricular activities.
“After receiving DACA I found it difficult to find a job as a research assistant due to the lack of experience inside a lab.” she said. “Therefore, I am settling for a less-than desires job with substantial pay to afford day to day activities”
Consistently, community support received by undocumented youth and their involvement within those communities make the difference in the access and impact of surrounding resources. Many DACA youth have become strong advocates for the kind of community support that helps others succeed. Miriam, for example, works to ensure that Michigan schools provide in-state tuition rates to other students like her.
The destiny of DACA eligible youth is in legislators’ hands. Executive action is only a temporary fix that can be easily used as a bargaining chip by politicians who want to be seen as taking a strong stance against immigration. In only two years, DREAMers all over the country have benefited their community and prospered despite significant barriers. DREAMers deserve advocates and community members who stand with them calling for a change in the law to ensure the safety and success of those young people who have always been a key part of this country.
Although reform sometimes seems far, Graciela perfectly summarizes what fighting for lasting change means in the life of many DREAMers.
“It’s being able to drive everyday to class and even offering a classmate a ride home without having fear of getting pulled over. It’s knowing I won’t get deported. It’s all of these, and more reasons that I can go to sleep with confidence that the only barrier stopping me from achieving my goals is my own determination, and not the law.”
Alaide Vilchis Ibarra is a DREAMer who recently became a United States citizen. She has bachelors degrees in journalism and international studies from University of Kansas and a masters degree in Public Policy with a from American University in Washington, DC. She found her voice as an immigration advocate, testifying in the Kansas legislature to protect the in-state tuition law, which had allowed her and other undocumented Kansans to continue their education. She has continued her immigration advocacy work at the federal level interning and working for immigration advocacy organizations. She is driven to promote fair and compassionate immigration policies because her family, and the wonderful communities and people she has encountered as a migrant.