A Piece Of Paper Is Controlling My Students' Lives

We gave Dreamers a five-year glimpse at how it feels to be treated as “real” Americans, and now we’re debating closing the blinds.
Prasit photo via Getty Images

Professors aren’t supposed to play favorites, but we can’t help it ― some students just shine more than the others. Tim and Tina were those students for me.

Last year, I would have given you their real names.

Tim came to the United States before he could walk and grew up in Sonoma County, California. He likely played alongside people like you or your own children. Tim worked and paid his own way ― at the full tuition price ― through Santa Rosa Junior College (where I work) and a top California university. After working as a video journalist for a few years, he was accepted to one of the country’s top graduate schools.

Wish I could tell you which one. You’d certainly be impressed.

Tim didn’t qualify for federal aid; instead, he scraped the hefty grad school tuition together through work, scholarships and fundraisers. He graduated with honors, and a major news organization promptly scooped him up.

Last summer, I’d have gladly told you which one. You may have even seen the stories he’s written or produced.

None of Tim’s accomplishments would have been possible without DACA. Five years ago, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program gave Tim a 10-digit number that provided the keys to his American dream, including the ability to hold a driver’s license and work permit and the ability to get a real, over-the-table job. Sept. 5, 2017 ― the day President Donald Trump announced he was ending the DACA program ― was the worst day of Tim’s life.

“The illusion that we were ever in control of our future died,” he said. “The definition of freedom is to pursue happiness anyway you see fit. I have never been truly free in this country.”

“We gave Dreamers a five-year glimpse at how it feels to be treated as 'real' Americans, and now we’re debating closing the blinds.”

Trump’s announcement last fall also devastated Tina, another former student of mine. She felt like all she’d worked for was slipping away. Journalism students who don’t yet have their four-year degrees are generally unlikely to make it as freelance writers, but that hadn’t deterred her. Tina worked early shifts at a local business, then went to school by day and wrote and photographed stories by night. She worked her way up, eventually covering bigger and more famous people for bigger and more famous publications.

Last year, I would have bragged about Tina’s interviews. You’ve probably read her work. You’d certainly be impressed by her portfolio. Wish I could link you there.

Like Tim, Tina relied on DACA for a driver’s license ― and to get paid. But she let her DACA permit expire due to deportation fears.

“I was scared of reapplying after Trump got into office,” she said as she finally printed her DACA renewal paperwork in the newsroom last month. “But they already have my fingerprints, they know where I work, they know where I go to school and they know what I do.”

Tina worries the government will take the $500 it costs to renew her DACA application and then deny her. Or scrap the program altogether, as they repeatedly threaten to do. If that happens, no one will be able to hire her.

“I’m done,” she said. “I can’t even continue school.”

But what worries Tina more than the inability to work is the threat of deportation to a country she doesn’t even remember. Though she speaks some Spanish, she doesn’t know how to read or write the language.

“I don’t know what I would do there,” she said. “I would have, like, a second-grade education.”

Though she has family back in Mexico, Tina doesn’t know them. She hasn’t been back since her mother brought her to the U.S. to escape an abusive relationship when Tina was just 4 years old. When I asked where in Mexico the rest of her extended family lived, Tina replied, “I genuinely don’t know.”

This, however, she does know: “It seems unfair that a piece of paper is controlling my whole life.”

I couldn’t agree more.

If you met Tim and Tina, you’d realize one thing very quickly: They are as American as your own children. In fact, they may even be your kids’ friends or classmates. People who consider DACA recipients ― or Dreamers ― “criminals,” “others” or “strangers” would probably be shocked to learn they already know several of them. They are your children’s teachers. They eat at your restaurants (or own the ones where your family eats). They might be your co-workers or employees. Hell, they may even be your boss. That National Guard member who carried your family through hurricane floodwaters last summer? He could’ve been a Dreamer. The paramedic who pulled you from your car after that frightening crash? Yep, she was probably one, too.

DACA has allowed Dreamers to pursue their education and careers. It’s helped them secure better jobs. In fact, according to a 2017 survey conducted by University of California, San Diego professor Tom Wong and colleagues, 97 percent of DACA recipients are either employed or in school. And this benefits the rest of the country: The current DACA population is poised to contribute $460.3 billion to the U.S. economy over the next decade.

Or was poised.

“If 800,000 dreamers suddenly disappeared, that’s 800,000 taxpayers, 800,000 business owners, 800,000 car owners,” Tim said. “When you take that money out of the economy, the economy shrinks, and then there’s less jobs.”

“But they’re taking away jobs from real Americans!” some of you shout. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said so. Never mind that the unemployment rate is the lowest in years.

Tim countered this by saying: “Everything DACA/Dreamers have, they’ve earned. Because they have had every single obstacle placed in front of them. If someone isn’t getting that job, it’s because they’re not competent.”

“What worries Tina more than the inability to work is the threat of deportation to a country she doesn’t even remember.”

Dreamers are already woven into the fabric of our lives. They are part of us. Deporting them, or even removing their semi-legal status if DACA expires, is like playing a game of “eeny, meeny, miny, mo” in our communities ― and kicking out every “mo.” To those who say Dreamers came here illegally and therefore don’t deserve citizenship, I ask if it’s constitutional to exile your children to Mexico because you cheated on your taxes last year, skipped out on jury duty or got in a simple fender bender. When America starts punishing children for their parents’ actions, we will truly have lost our collective moral compass. Maybe we already have.

With DACA’s future tangled in an endless political quagmire, Tim and Tina’s lives ― and livelihoods ― have gone from promising to uncertain. We gave Dreamers like Tim and Tina a five-year glimpse at how it feels to be treated as “real” Americans, and now we’re debating closing the blinds. Their only hope is an impossibly divided Congress or favorable judicial rulings. Monday’s Supreme Court decision may keep the DACA program alive for now, but for hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients, the anxiety remains, especially given recent raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Northern California.

Tim worries about keeping his own job if DACA ends. “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to work,” he said.

Regardless of governmental actions, we need to decide as Americans for what and whom we stand. Is it immigration policies that favor white European Christians (or, rather, anyone who is not Muslim, Latino or from a “shithole” country)? Or do we have a heart for young people who had no choice where they were born or transported?

“I have been here all of my life,” Tim said. “I have no ties to Mexico other than some family members I have never met. So, everything I know is American.”

Last year, I could’ve bragged about my star former students in more detail. Actually, they could have bragged about themselves. They’ve certainly earned the right. But fear has silenced them, so the rest of us must speak on their behalf. They asked me not to use their real names and to keep vague the details of their lives, for safety reasons. Of course, I complied.

But the fact that I had to – well, that’s un-American.

Anne Belden is a journalism faculty member and newsroom adviser at Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, California.

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