Evaporating dreams: Ending DACA puts whole communities at stake

File photo by Lucio Villa

Protesters participate in a “March for a Moratorium on Deportations” at Daley Plaza on Jan. 21, 2013.

Illinois has 42,376 DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, according to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service.  They range from youth with professional and graduate degrees to youth who have completed their GED and joined the work force. Some have come of age with DACA. But others who were older when the program was implemented know too well what they stand to lose under President Donald Trump’s plan to end the program.

“Ernesto” graduated from high school and worked for two years in a factory under harsh labor conditions. Once DACA was passed, he was able to combine a private scholarship with his savings to attend a public local university and study to become a music teacher. With DACA, he supplemented his scholarship by teaching music and dance. DACA also allowed him to visit his family in Mexico for the first time in 15 years, and see his grandfather shortly before he died. He has completed his student teaching and graduates in December. While Ernesto’s scholarship allowed him to finish college in five years, “Alicia” took 10 years to finish, and was only able to do so because DACA allowed her to  work two jobs while attending, part-time, a public university that had no private funds to offer her. Having DACA also meant she could put her name on a mortgage and help her mother purchase a house. Alicia graduated last December and is now a youth counselor.

For Ernesto and Alicia, the end of DACA will put a halt to everything they have worked for. And behind Ernesto and Alicia, there are thousands of DACA students currently attending college and high school hoping to pursue their own dreams.  As Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet and author, said, “Nothing is harder on the soul than the smell of dreams while they’re evaporating.”

Photo by Max Herman

Thousands participated in a rally to protect DACA and all immigrants in downtown Chicago on Sept. 5, 2017.

DACA is a product of the struggles of immigrant youth who relied on advocacy, direct action, and civil disobedience to pressure Congress to pass the Dream Act, and once this failed to pass, to pressure President Obama to enact an executive order.  Since its implementation in August 2012, over 800,000 immigrant youth nationwide have benefitted from it. Renewable every two years, DACA allowed youth to gain a work permit, a Social Security number, and a stay of deportation. Two major studies have found that it has allowed youth to obtain more education, work in jobs related to their profession, achieve important social mobility, and improve their mental health.

But to be clear, what is at stake are the dreams of millions of undocumented immigrants, and not just DACA recipients.  DACA does not just benefit these youth as individuals, but their families and communities as well.  Many of these youth help to supplement their family incomes, and will help support their parents when they retire, as they are not eligible for Social Security benefits despite paying into the system.  Several of my students have recently become guardians of their minor siblings, as their parents face the increasingly likely possibility of deportation or voluntarily return to their home country to avoid the trauma of detention and deportation. Many DACA recipients are also parents supporting children who are citizens. Several DACA youth have also become organizers, building wide and deep community networks of support for immigrants and other struggling communities. In Chicago alone, DACA youth have participated actively in anti-deportation, labor, health, sanctuary and education movements, as well as in the Black Lives Matter movement. Losing DACA will negatively impact their families and communities emotionally, socially and financially.

What can Illinois do to counter these effects and protect its affected youth? While public universities in Illinois want to offer institutional grants and scholarships that will allow current DACA students to complete their education, their hands are tied without state legislative action. The Student Access Bill would allow public universities to make institutional scholarships available to students who do not qualify for federal aid, including undocumented students who will not be able to work once DACA is terminated. By passing the Student Access Bill, the State of Illinois lets these students and their families know that it will play an active role in helping undocumented youth stay in school and graduate, that it values them as human beings who matter in their communities, and that it will help them build their futures until federal policy changes.

Helping youth who will lose DACA is necessary and just.  But it also begs the question of the need to protect all undocumented immigrants, including older immigrants, parents, and those who did not qualify for DACA in these challenging political times. When the undocumented youth at a rally at Federal Plaza on Tuesday ask for “protection for all,” they make an urgent call to our institutions, businesses, local and state governments to think outside the box and implement policies that will enable them to survive and prosper. But they were also stating that every individual immigrant’s dream is valuable, and that the fate of DACA, non-DACA recipients and citizens has always been tied together.

I am confident that these youth, who are responsible for the creation of DACA, will continue to lead the way, and I ask that you support them. In Illinois in these urgent times, we need to work together using our collective imagination to create policies and practices that will help DACA youth thrive–not only for their own benefit, but for the benefit of us all.