Congress is having fits and starts in finding a policy solution to DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DREAMers, as DACA recipients also are called, stress the U.S. is their home. Many are finding solace in organizing and using their voice.
CHICAGO — Paula discovered she was not living in the United States legally after making plans to apply for a job at the local swimming pool when she was in high school.
Her parents revealed that they entered the U.S. from their native Philippines on a tourist visa in 2001, when Paula was 4 and her sister was 2, and remained in the country without legal authorization. There would be no summer job at the pool.
“Finding out was really jarring and confusing,” said Paula, now a 20-year-old sophomore at Loyola University Chicago. “At first, I felt really mad at my parents, because I was like, why would you even make this decision? Why would you do this? Why are we here?”
Paula asked that her last name not be used for this story. Like many unauthorized people, she fears retaliation from U.S. immigration officials – especially since her parents are vulnerable to deportation.
Though Paula was angry with her parents when she first found out her family was unauthorized, she doesn’t feel that way now.
“I grew to realize that my parents have done all of this for me, and I wouldn’t be able to go to school or sit here today without all the work that my parents have done,” she said.
Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, Paula and roughly 800,000 other young unauthorized immigrants were able to apply for temporary work authorization in the U.S. Though most of them – about 94 percent – were born in Mexico or Central and South America, nearly 20,000 are from Asia. Another several thousand are from Europe and Africa.
Often called DREAMers, these young immigrants are a largely urban group, with about three quarters living in 20 large metropolitan areas in the U.S. Chicago’s 34,000 DACA recipients seem to be especially diverse, representing the city’s Hispanic, Asian, and European immigrant communities.
Now, they’re left in limbo, uncertain if they will be able to remain in the U.S. after President Donald Trump moved to shut down the program in 2017. While deportations continued to rise, the DACA program was put on tenuous life support by federal court rulings that questioned the Trump administration’s decision. At least one U.S. judge required that the Trump administration must continue to accept DACA applications.
Meanwhile, a coalition of seven state governments led by Texas filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the DACA program.
Without action by Congress on the DREAM Act, the possibility of a long-term solution seems remote. But the thousands of young people at the center of the debate, as well as their families and grassroots organizations that support keeping families together, view social activism as one way to counterbalance the anxiety over what might happen.
“What helped me was doing a lot of work and research into who is the group that fights for immigrant rights,” said Paula, who volunteers with the Chicago affiliate of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
Like many other DACA recipients, Paula no longer feels the DREAM Act goes far enough.
“My parents have been here for 20 years, and they’ve never had a break,” she said. “So because I’m protected, I’m going to use it to advocate for them.”
Chirayu Patel was 11 years old in 1994 when his family came to the U.S. from India on tourist visas. His parents had heard of a “fixer” in Atlanta who could secure work authorization for a $5,000 fee. It turned out to be a scam, but they still settled near family in Chicago and stayed, in part because of the idea of a better life.
Patel didn’t think about his immigration status much until he started applying for colleges. Many of the application forms asked about his legal status, but the University of Illinois at Chicago didn’t. He borrowed money from family friends and worked at Walgreens to get through school.
But after graduation, his immigration status made starting a career difficult.
“It seemed like the degree was useless,” he said. “It seemed like a wall, an invisible wall.”
He found a temporary solution through a “new Americans” fellowship with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).
Patel worked the 50th Ward, the north side home to Chicago’s Little India community. If people were U.S. citizens and had not registered to vote, he helped them do so and in a nonpartisan way. If they had green cards, he distributed citizenship information. And if they were unauthorized, he shared information on ICIRR resources.
A keen watcher of immigration politics, Patel traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the 2007 iteration of the DREAM Act.
“When it didn’t pass, that was a punch in the gut,” he recalled.
Patel, who has a thick Chicago accent and doesn’t know how to read or write the languages native to the part of India he came from, had no intention of leaving the U.S., his home. He found ways to live and navigate the legal status issue for several more years, at one point incorporating as a company in Illinois so that employers could hire that company as a contractor.
DACA was a welcome relief when it was implemented in 2012.
Patel, now 34 and working as an accountant for a small Chicago real estate firm, worries about what will happen if DACA is allowed to lapse and Congress fails to pass a remedy.
“It seems like I’ll go back to square one,’ he said. “But if it fails, then I’m not going to go. I see myself as part of Chicago and part of America. It seems like this issue is just a political football to build people’s careers on.”
Cindy Augustin’s family moved to Chicago from Mexico City in 1992 when she was 3 years old.
What good is it if we save people like Cindy at the expense of making her an orphan by deporting her parents, or criminalizing her parents? How does that serve us as a community, as families, as a country?
“Most of our family is still in Mexico – aunts, uncles, siblings of my parents, grandparents,” said Augustin, now 28. “My dad was coming back and forth for a few years before he decided, ‘I’m making money here, but I have my wife and kids in Mexico, so I’ll just move to the U.S.’”
Augustin’s parents settled in Back of The Yards, the neighborhood documented in Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle.” The book told the harsh conditions for the mostly European immigrants working in the nearby Union Stock Yard, which shut down in 1971. Now, the neighborhood is mostly Hispanic.
Growing up in Chicago, Augustin kept quiet about her immigration status. When she was accepted to the University of Chicago, she kept mum about her legal status – even with her closest friends.
“That was a conversation you didn’t have with anyone,” she said. “My third year of college, I had a year and a half left, I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ It was starting to become more and more real that there was nothing for me after graduation.”
Feeling she had little to lose, Augustin became involved in activism to push for the passage of the DREAM Act in 2010. When it failed, she began to reconsider whether protected status for one category of unauthorized immigrants – those brought here as children – was even the right approach.
“We were the sympathetic cases,” she said. “It was like, of course they’re gonna give us something, because we’re sympathetic. But what about everyone else?”
When she and her sister received deferred action in 2012, she wrestled with what that meant for other unauthorized people.
“What about my parents, what about everyone else – my neighbors and my family members who don’t qualify for DACA?” she said. “So, it took me a few months before I applied for DACA, because I wasn’t just comfortable applying.”
Some immigration reform activists are convinced that even the passage of a “clean” DREAM Act – with no concessions on border security attached – would be a form of betrayal. In September 2017, activists disrupted Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House minority leader, at a press conference in which she was announcing a plan to push for passage of the DREAM Act.
“All 11 million, all 11 million!” the activists chanted, referencing to the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. The protesters chanted and yelled for more than 30 minutes until Pelosi, flustered and exasperated, gave up and left.
“There’s very little appetite for throwing one group under the bus to save another,” said Lawrence Benito, ICIRR executive director and CEO. “Part of it is the realization that there seems to be a deliberate intent from the administration to further criminalize immigrant communities, and the danger inside of making some kind of deal is the impact it will have on future immigration.”
Benito added: “What good is it if we save people like Cindy at the expense of making her an orphan by deporting her parents, or criminalizing her parents? How does that serve us as a community, as families, as a country?”
Patel was once hopeful that Democrats in Congress would force through a DACA bill on the threat of a government shutdown. Now, he’s wondering about a path forward.
“The goal always was, we’ll take this for now and then come back for more,” he said.
He said any deal on DACA recipients would likely be followed by further concessions on other categories of immigrants – and what that would mean for his parents.
“At the end of the day, I’m not a dreamer – they are,” he said. “My parents are the ones who took the risk and came here.”
Keith Griffith is a freelance journalist in New York City. In 2017, he wrote “Troubled Waters: Tennessee Families Stand Up for a Clean Environment” for Equal Voice. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included. The top image shows Chirayu Patel in downtown Chicago in November 2017.
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