On Nov. 12 of last year, I sat in the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court and listened to opening statements about the legal status of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
The fate of DACA, a federal program that gives young undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children the legal right to work and live here, hung in the balance. As a recipient of these protections, so did my future.
When Justice Sonia Sotomayor said “this is not about the law, this is about our choice to destroy lives,” the room gasped. Tears filled my eyes.
In that moment I knew that at least one justice understood the stakes: If the court rules in favor of the Trump administration, which has been trying to end DACA since 2017, 800,000 young people, myself included, could be deported.
We won’t know the Supreme Court’s decision until spring, so I’m facing months of uncertainty. Unfortunately, it’s a familiar feeling. From the time I was born in Mexico, my life has been one Hail Mary pass after another.
Back in Guadalajara, my family ran a grocery store. It was robbed repeatedly, and one night I was almost kidnapped. Were it not for my grandfather saving me, I might not be alive today. After that, my parents made their own Hail Mary pass to keep our family safe by moving us to Gadsden, Alabama. I was two.
Although we finally were free of the gangs who’d terrorized us, growing up in an American state with some of the strictest immigration laws in the country meant that we were always getting by on a prayer. I was a good student, but I didn’t know if I could go to college; Alabama is one of two states that prohibits undocumented immigrants from enrolling in state universities.
Luckily, the summer before my senior year, DACA was announced. My Social Security number arrived days before college applications were due.
I graduated with a degree in international relations from Samford University in 2017. But Trump had announced he was ending DACA, and my dream of becoming a lawyer no longer seemed possible. Even if I could find a way to pay for law school without access to federal aid, I might not be able to remain in the country to finish or become licensed.
I took a gap year, volunteering with a local immigrant rights advocacy group and babysitting to support myself. In the end, I decided to take advantage while the opportunity remained available and applied to study law at Loyola University Chicago. I was offered a full ride as a member of the school’s first law class to accept Dreamers.
This is the life of Dreamers: Having hopes, dreams and a drive to achieve, but having no assurance or long-term support to make it happen. And yet, in spite of all the instability, those of us who are eligible for DACA have accomplished so much. More than 80 percent of us have taken some college courses, according to the immigration nonprofit New American Economy. Ninety percent of us are employed, filling high-skilled jobs in health care and education, as well as manual and service positions in construction and hospitality.
With the $19.9 billion in income we generate annually, $3 billion goes to taxes, leaving us with $16.8 billion in spending power. Illinois gets a big chunk of that; our state’s DACA-eligible residents generate $1.2 billion of income.
Clearly, Dreamers aren’t the only ones who benefit from our presence in this country. From the employers who hire us to the businesses we support, Americans reap rewards too.
To make us leave the only country most of us have ever known isn’t just cruel. It is also, as Justice Sotomayor said, economically and civically shortsighted.
Fernanda Herrera Spieler is a second-year law student at Loyola University Chicago and a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
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