As an immigration attorney in a culturally diverse neighborhood in Washington, DC I have had the pleasure and opportunity to represent many incredible young people. The stories I have heard from young undocumented immigration clients regarding their hardships and dreams are inspiring. These young people have lived in the US since they were small children and many do not know their home countries. They attend high school, go to all the events that teenagers enjoy, such as football games, homecoming dances, and graduation parties but they live with the secret of knowing that they are not documented in the United States.
Many of my young clients are living in the US without having an adult care for them so they quietly work after school in harsh conditions just to get a little money to pay for their room, board and necessities. For a lot of these youth the only joy in the day is attending school. Many of them excel in classes and would have no problem getting scholarships for college except for the fact that they are undocumented. When it came time to take an SAT test for college they found it difficult to explain to a teacher that they did not have documentation and they did not see a pathway to higher education.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act or “DREAM ACT” was first introduced in Congress in 2001 and would have provided a pathway to legal status for thousands of undocumented students. The DREAM ACT has come up for a vote several times and has failed to become law. On June 15, 2012, President Obama created a new policy under executive action called the Deferred Action for Certain Undocumented Young People who came to the US as children, it is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals does not grant permanent legal status that the DREAM Act would have provided but it gave the undocumented youth some hope. It allowed them to apply for deferred status and obtain work authorization and an opportunity to continue their educations or join the military.
The DACA program began on August 15, 2012 and my young clients came in so excited that they would be able to obtain identity documents in their names, they could have work permits, drivers licenses, and get ready for college and trade schools. The excitement was in the air and many of them described the feeling as being reborn.
My client from Sierra Leone who came to the US when she was two years old was already making plans to attend the community college and had an entire business plan in place for a future business. My Jamaican client that had been abandoned in the US since he was a young teen was able to get his GED and begin working. He kept holding his documents and staring in disbelief that he had official documents with his name on it for the first time. He told me he felt like he was finally visible and productive. My Guatemalan Mayan client who never had an opportunity to attend school in Guatemala was now excelling in high school. Every time a DACA application was approved the young client would come into my office to receive hugs and encouragement. They were excited to share their future dreams with me and my staff.
My young clients have watched the election campaigns and they have heard candidate Trump talk about “building a wall” , “keepingMuslims out”, and “deporting 3 million people” . Throughout the entire presidential campaign these young people worried about their futures but continued to pursue their dreams.
Now candidate Trump is President Elect Trump and he vowed to terminate the DACA program. The termination of the DACA program places all the young DACA recipients at risk of removal from the United States. The DACA youth trusted the US government when they were told they would be safe completing and filing a DACA application and putting down information about their contact information, addresses, and their parent’s information. Now we all are concerned that their information will be used to remove them or family members from the US.
What do I tell these young people now? I don’t know what the future will hold, but I tell them that there is an army of lawyers, teachers, and advocates ready to fight for them. I tell them to keep the faith and to hold on to their dreams.
- Diane McHugh Martinez is an immigration attorney practicing in Washington, DC.