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Two undocumented students describe growing up in a country that might turn its back on them.
By Doug Daniels
is haunted by uncertainty. For nearly her entire life, the Southwest Side of Chicago, an area composed of neighborhoods defined by their ethnic diversity and immigrant families, has been the place she calls home. But on paper, she has a different home.
When she was 11 months old, P (she asked to be identified by her first initial to maintain anonymity) entered the country illegally with her parents, immigrating from Jalisco, Mexico, and settling in Illinois. Although her parents always told her she was born in Mexico, P naturally didn’t grasp the legal intricacies of her undocumented status growing up, living her life as any typical American kid would. But as she grew older, she became increasingly aware of the risks undocumented immigrants face.
In 2010, when P was in 7th grade, the state of Arizona passed the SB 1070 law, which allowed police to use what critics viewed as racial profiling and other controversial techniques in an effort to crack down on suspected undocumented immigrants. The measure sparked a heated national debate and was challenged before the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld large portions of the law.
“That’s when I first really began to understand what it meant to be undocumented,” P says. “The Arizona law created fear in many undocumented families around the country, and the thought of losing my parents through deportation, or of being deported myself, has resulted in a lot of sleepless nights over the years.”
Today, P is one of the approximately 800,000 young people who were protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, enacted by the Obama administration in 2012. The act registered undocumented young people who came to the country as minors, and provided a two-year renewal period and work eligibility. The hope was that Congress would enact a permanent solution in the meantime.
But this past September, keeping with a campaign promise to implement hard-line immigration measures, the Trump administration announced it was eliminating the DACA program and that it would expire in March. Now students, workers, military personnel and others have been thrust into a churning political storm, and unless Congress acts, many of these individuals may face imminent deportation to a country they might not even remember, forced to leave behind the only home they’ve ever known.
“My biggest fear is that if Congress doesn’t find a fix for DACA, I’ll be deported,” says P, who intends to double-major in human development and sociology. After Conn, she wants to enter the nonprofit world and expand college access to underrepresented students. But this plan might be upended if the immigration reform impasse in Washington isn’t resolved.
“I wasn’t able to renew my DACA, so my permit will expire soon, and if nothing happens between now and then, I’ll no longer be protected against deportation.”
Conn isn’t the only college or university confronting the troubling prospect of students’ lives being torn apart as a result of partisan politics and legislative dysfunction in Washington.
In late 2016, Connecticut College president Katherine Bergeron joined more than 400 college and university presidents throughout the country in signing a letter that called for the preservation and expansion of DACA. Previously, in the days following Trump’s election, Bergeron declared in a letter to the Conn community that the college “remains steadfast in its support for our undocumented and DACA-status students—and for all students whose status might be threatened under the policies of a new administration.”
While P grew up with an appreciation for the cultural traditions of Mexico and has developed a love for the country through listening to her parents describe their experiences there, she still considers herself American.
“Although I can say that I am Mexican, I am really only Mexican on paper,” P explains. “I have not gone through the same experiences that people who live in Mexico have. So while I feel like I’m legally a citizen of Mexico, socially and culturally I’m a citizen of the United States.”
That’s a natural sentiment considering how young P was when her family came to the U.S. But for those who immigrated when they were older, even just a few years older, notions of identity can be more complex.
Liz (she asked to be identified only by her first name), a Conn student and fellow DACA recipient, was born one state over from P, in Michoacán, Mexico, and her family also settled in the Southwest Side of Chicago. Despite this shared background, Liz and P have sharply different perspectives. Liz, who came to the U.S. when she was five years old, still has fond memories of Mexico and feels a strong connection with that country.
“I will always identify with my birth country,” Liz says. “Even though I lived in Mexico only for the first years of my life and spent most of my life here in this country, I don’t feel like I can ever identify as American. The memories I do have of Mexico keep me connected to my home country, but most importantly to the culture and traditions. Even if at some point in the future I become an American citizen, I will not label myself as American, because I love where I come from.”
In Liz’s neighborhood, being undocumented was common among her neighbors, and never a source of discriminatory treatment. Although she recalls being angry that she wasn’t able to leave the country and visit family in Mexico as a child, it wasn’t until later that she began to notice the tendrils of her complicated immigration status stretching into other areas of her life.
“Things changed once I went to high school, because there were so many opportunities for scholarships, or to study abroad, and I couldn’t apply for things like that because they were limited to U.S. citizens,” Liz says.
P has faced similar obstacles. Despite her involvement with a variety of activities on campus, including being a member of the Mexican-American student organization M.E.Ch.A, and working with Unity House on race and ethnicity programs, opportunities that most students take for granted are just out of reach for P.
“My immigration status has prevented me from studying abroad, but I also can’t apply for jobs that require work-study, limiting the opportunities I have to earn money to help pay my room and board, and I can’t take internships that require residency or U.S. citizenship,” P says. “And if there is no solution to the rescinding of DACA, my DACA will eventually expire, making it difficult for me to travel to and from Conn, since I would not be able to provide a U.S. state ID when boarding an airplane.”
John McKnight, Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion, says his office is committed to supporting the college’s DACA students in any way possible.
“It has been a privilege getting to know and work with our DACA-status and undocumented students on campus,” McKnight says. “Sometimes these students are referred to as ‘dreamers,’ and while I can appreciate that idea, I think it falls short as a descriptor. These students are doers, who in the face of extraordinary challenges remain devoted to their studies and to their pursuit of a more just society. Individually and collectively, their stories inspire me to want to work harder to pursue equity at Conn and within all educational institutions.”
Both Liz and P work as activists in the growing national movement to reform U.S. immigration policy and to find a way to keep DACA recipients in the country. P, who was part of the team that helped organize the pro-DACA march in Boston last September, says she’s proud of the involvement of her fellow students. About 70 Conn students attended the Boston event, and several traveled to separate rallies last fall in New Haven and Hartford as well to show they stand with DACA recipients. P also plans to become more involved with CT Students for a Dream, a Connecticut-based advocacy organization founded by undocumented students from across the state in 2010.
Liz, who has attended some of the same rallies as P, says it’s essential to keep pressure on elected leaders and ensure that the voices of DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants are heard.
“I’ve participated in rallies and marches over the past three years because it’s important to be seen by the public and to raise awareness about these issues,” Liz says. “I participate because a lot of people are still scared due to their status, and I want to be someone who speaks for myself as well as for others who can’t.”
Over the past year or two, there is evidence that these rallies and activism have made an impact on public opinion. Last fall, in the immediate aftermath of President Trump’s announcement about rescinding DACA, large majorities of Americans in a variety of polls expressed their belief that young, undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the U.S., and that Congress should offer a pathway to citizenship for them. Economists and business leaders have also pleaded for a permanent fix, and the Center for American Progress released an analysis last year that estimated the U.S. economy could lose more than $460 billion in GDP over the next decade without DACA.
While the fear of deportation is a constant reality for DACA students, P says she’s heartened by the vocal backing of the Conn community and beyond.
“I am scared for my future and I feel a lot of uncertainty and anxiety,” she admits. “But I also feel encouraged by the broad support I have received from the college, and I’m thankful for the government officials who have come out in support of us.”
Liz recognizes the precarious situation undocumented immigrants face in Washington’s increasingly hostile political climate, but remains optimistic that those challenges will be met with persistence from the immigrant community.
“DACA is one of the reasons I can live a ‘normal’ life here in the United States and have the basic opportunities that Americans have, such as working and going to school and not having to be scared of being taken away,” she says.
“These recent developments make people like me more likely to push for something even better, and I feel that because we are all facing the same issue, we can come together to create change.”