Julian Gomez spent his childhood undocumented, from the time his educated parents made the hard choice to leave their friends and family behind in Argentina, to make a better life for their two year old son. Gomez remembers, in subtle ways, the impact of being undocumented: having a secret to keep, even from his closest friends. A thin veil of fear when a friend got pulled over for speeding, just in case the cop wanted to check on the passengers. And then there were the more prominent things: not being able to get a driver’s license in Miami, where it was a major rite of passage; graduating summa cum laude and then attending the local community college because he couldn’t apply for student loans. Gomez remembers the moment when that all changed, when DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was placed as a band-aid on the open wound of 800,000 young people who were brought to this country as children, who were raised as Americans and knew no other homeland, and were ripe and ready to contribute to this American life.
Gomez received DACA when he was 20, and suddenly his life changed. He got a driver’s license, which not only meant he could drive, but he could fly. He could go anywhere in the country; he could apply for some student loans. He transferred from the community college to American University in Washington, DC. He graduated and got his first job, and then moved up to Boston to continue his career.
“I lived my whole life undocumented,” Gomez told VICE Impact, “so I didn’t really think about it, but once you get that documentation, then you realize how much of a burden it was.”
In the five years that DACA existed, Gomez was one of the lucky ones. He got his green card. That means that when DACA officially expires in March and those deportation orders start going out, he’s safe. But most of his fellow DACA recipients, many of whom share a similar story of success and enterprise, are not so lucky.
“A lot of the fears are that their work life and their experience has been almost as if they had their papers,” said Gomez. “They got DACA in high school, had it through college, got their licenses, their first jobs, bought a house – all that stuff. And then this five year limbo period disappears, and this will be their first experience as adults who are undocumented.”
“When people were given DACA, they were allowed to participate and give to society in a way they weren’t before.”
For older DACA recipients who know the drill, he said, it’s devastating but not necessarily as shocking. They know how to live undocumented. For the people who have never functioned this way as adults, it will be painful. It will be as painful as the momentary relief that DACA provided was comforting. And of course, it impacts the whole society – not just DACA recipients.
“When people were given DACA, they were allowed to participate and give to society in a way they weren’t before,” said Kristian Ramos, Communications Director of Define American (www.defineamerican.com), an organization that aims to shift the conversation about immigrants, identity, and citizenship in a changing America. “Some of these folks became police officers, fire fighters, caregivers, and they could do it legally.”
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Five years is long enough to become rooted in a community, in a way that means other people depend on you.
“If this goes away,” said Ramos, “these people, who are American in every way except for status, have to decide whether to stay and go underground, or leave.”
Evelyn Rodriguez, 18, has lived in a mixed status family her whole life. She was born in the U.S., but her older sister was nine when their parents brought her here from Mexico. Their childhoods were completely different – one documented and the other undocumented.
“The best case scenario is Congress enacts a law by the end of this year so there’s something in place when these young people start falling out of status."
“My sister had to work a lot of little jobs here and there,” Rodriguez told VICE Impact, “and people were racist against her, and threatened her because of her status.”
Five years ago, when her sister was 23, she got DACA. Now she can work legally and support her young child. But if DACA is repealed without a replacement, Rodriguez fears she’ll be responsible for raising her nephew.
“If my sister or my parents were deported, that responsibility would go on me,” she said. “My nephew wouldn’t grow up with his mother, his mother who has lived her entire life in the U.S.”
The issue is coming to a head now, because the Dreamers have become a sort of bargaining chip. Even though the majority of voters, including a majority of Republicans, support a path to citizenship for people who were brought to the U.S. as children, the Dream Act has failed to pass and the DACA band-aid is being pulled off.
“The best case scenario is Congress enacts a law by the end of this year so there’s something in place when these young people start falling out of status,” Walter Barrientos of Make the Road NY, a group that aims to empower low-income working class immigrants, told VICE Impact at a gathering of local activists on Long Island.
But the key is that it can’t be tied to a wishlist from the Republican agenda. The Clean Dream Act, as it’s being called, is a stand-alone bill that would allow immigrant youth to adjust their status and to access citizenship. Many immigrants are calling for “A Clean Dream Act or No Dream Act”.
That’s because the trade-off that some Republicans are pushing is too steep a price to pay.
“We don’t want this Dream Act to be attached to a white supremacist agenda,” said Barrientos.
The Dirty Dream Act, as they’re calling it, would call for the largest increase in enforcement that has been seen in decades, and includes for-profit detention centers that would create a mass incarceration system.
“The crisis created by this administration ending DACA creates an impetus to pass legislation.”
“There are corporate interests that are bidding to build these detention centers and to build a wall,” explained Barrientos, “and [this provision] would put federal dollars into building private prisons to capitalize on criminal incarceration. What we’ve seen in black communities: the next market is immigrant communities.”
Barrientos had just returned from Washington, D.C., where he joined between 4,000 and 6,000 people from across the country in a day of advocacy and action for the Clean Dream Act. Congress was supposed to adjourn on December 8, but they now have an extended session which will go until either December 22 or December 31. If they include the Clean Dream Act in their budget vote, it will have a much better chance of passing without strings attached, and it will take effect in time to protect the people who would lose their DACA status.
“The crisis created by this administration ending DACA creates an impetus to pass legislation,” said Barrientos. “The administration knew Democrats and moderate Republicans have been supporting [DACA]. They knew if they took it away, they could force them to the table – it was meant to be a bargaining chip.”
A political gamble, with 800,000 young and hopeful Americans on the table.
Now that the fate of DACA rests with Congress, call your federal delegation and share your opinion one way or the other (every American is represented by one member of Congress, two US Senators ). Tweet @VICEImpact to let us know what you think about President Trump's decision to rescind the Obama-era DACA protections.