Every ignorant and divisive rant from Donald Trump about undocumented immigrants moves hatred forward, and every cruel joke about immigrants “going back to where they came from” deflates the dreams of young people like Zoe. She is a young person like so many others, living in the United States for most of their lives – only to find out they do not have legal documentation.
For her, college workshops in her junior year of high school became painful. Dreams of college and a future ended when a family member told her: “You don’t have papers.”
Those four words led to months of anxiety, confusion, and unanswered questions. No one shared this family secret before. Zoe, 18, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym due to her immigration status, kept this family secret until a college preparation workshop I facilitated in the spring, when she became increasingly distracted and then distant. I decided to walk with her to the bus stop on her way home, and wait for her to share what was on her mind.
Zoe: “Miss, I don’t know about going to college.”
Me: “Why not?! You’re so bright! You’d love college.”
Zoe: “I don’t have my papers…”
And as buses passed us by, Zoe recounted what her relative told her – that her family sent her from the Dominican Republic at age 4, and never let her know it was done without proper immigration documentation. Since then, she has not seen her mother, who remained in the Dominican Republic, and shortly after Zoe and her father moved to New York, he was incarcerated. Raised by other relatives in the Bronx, no one ever told her the truth about her status, until, annoyed by her excitement about going to college, a relative told her that wasn’t possible.
“So you see Miss, I can’t go to college after high school. I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Zoe was ashamed, depressed and ready to give up. How do you explain to a young person that a situation is not her fault? That it’s okay to be angry with her family even though they are keeping a roof over her head? That attending and paying for college is possible? That she matters and being anundocumented minor is no reason to feel as though she doesn’t?
While she expressed her anger and hopelessness – recounting the untruths and half-truths her relatives told her – I knew there were other ways for Zoeto make her college dream a real possibility. In June 2012, President Obama passed DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Another young woman I mentored applied for and was granted a work permit and Social Security card six months later. Just like Zoe, that young woman found out the family secret of her immigration status during her college application process.
I told her Serena’s story.
In 2002, Serena(also identified by a pseudonym) was accepted to many colleges and planned on attending a historically black college; however, when she needed to submit additional information, including her Social Security number, a relative explained that she was not in the country legally. Instead of deferring her dreams to attend college because she lacked status and the federal aid to make it possible, she attended Hunter College as anundocumented student, paid her way through by working up to 60 hours a week at a restaurant. She graduated from Hunter within five years but was then stuck in the shadows, unable to acquire work serving others, as she wanted to, because she was still undocumented. Frustrated and exhausted by the number of work hours on top of course work, Serena often felt overwhelmed. The only work she could secure was as a nanny – all other jobs necessitated formal paperwork. She worked as a nanny for four years.
Then in 2012, her life changed forever when President Obama announced the U.S. government would not deport certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. His executive order came about after the stalling of the DREAM Act that would have created a clear pathto citizenship for people who entered the country as minors. Although not the comprehensive immigration reform that is needed in our country, DACA is impacting the visibility and mobility of undocumented youth by providing documentation so young people can work “on the books” and receive public benefits.
After the arduous application process and months of nervously waiting, Serena received DACA status. She immediately applied to Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work and began her graduate school journey.
Hearing Serena’s story renewed Zoe’s spirit, and she trusted that DACA process would also work in her favor. She began to regain focus in school, and spend extra time on college applications. We attended several meetings with a pro bono lawyer with experience with the DACA process, and began the long and stressful process of gathering evidence. It sent me on a crash course of what I thought I knew about immigration policies in the United States. It also proved that Zoe was not only bright but also resilient.
Unfortunately, seeking information to complete the required documents led to the opening of more family wounds and created great tension between Zoe and her family. In the face of that, she recognized that DACA would not only make college possible but also would allow her to live beyond the shadows. She could pursue higher education and become employed.
There was an estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in the United States in 2014, and 1.1 to 1.4 million are undocumented students, according to the American Immigration Council. Candidates who are seriously seeking to become the next President of the United States need toacknowledge that our immigration policy needs an overhaul. It needs to be comprehensive – not scapegoating immigrants as the cause of the “war on terror” or of underemployment among citizens – and acknowledge all immigrants as individuals and families who matter to the future of our country. According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, “Assessing the Economic Impacts of Granting Deferred Action Through DACA and DAPA,” the deferred action programs will grow the US economy cumulatively by $230 billion over the next 10 years.
The threats to DACA and other proposals for immigration reform are political resistance to a clear and compassionate path to citizenship based on fearnot fact.
This May, I witnessed one of my favorite college graduation moments – Serena posing across the auditorium like her homeland hero Usain Bolt, shouting “Jamaica!” as she accepted her Masters in Social Work from Hunter. In June, I witnessed one of my favorite high school graduation moments – Zoe receiving her high school diploma from her principal. I look forward to witnessing Zoe’s graduation from college, securing her first job and continuing herdreams.
The day will come when Zoe can openly share her journey under her full name, no need to remain invisible for safety or shame. She will become a social worker or an entrepreneur or a documentary filmmaker, or all three, she told me. Zoe is one of thousands of teens in New York, and among hundreds of thousands in the country, who will benefit from DACA. In the face of naysayers, fear mongers and bigots who choose to trump young people’s dreams, there must be a more comprehensive policy that is a lasting solution to our immigration system. As a nation, we can all benefit from providing a pathwayto citizenship that recognizes and honors families, and respects that dignity and humanity in everyone.