I’m a DACA recipient. Immigrants need more than a temporary fix to a broken system.
I came to the U.S. at the age of 2 and became the first generation in the family to earn a college degree, DACA has been like a lifeline. But a pathway to citizenship is the only permanent solution for all immigrants.
Ten years ago this month, I was sitting in my parents’ kitchen listening to President Barack Obama announce the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on TV.
DACA authorized immigrants like me to work here in the U.S., assigned me a Social Security number, gave me the opportunity to acquire a driver’s license in Illinois and provided me with temporary protection from the ongoing threat of detention and deportation.
For someone who came to the U.S. at the age of 2 and became the first generation in the family to earn a college degree, DACA felt like a lifeline. I was 23.
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I remember bringing my hands to my face and crying subtly — in part because of how tired I felt from the rallies and marches pushing the administration for this executive action, and in part because I could neither process nor understand the hope I was feeling after such a long time of uncertainty. DACA brought a sense of normality to my life that I yearned for and did not know I needed.
In the years since DACA was announced, I have seen hundreds of immigrants like myself apply for and receive protection from deportation. I have seen dozens of younger immigrants apply for their first job without fear. I have seen many friends finally travel outside of the U.S. for humanitarian or educational reasons.
DACA currently protects over 600,000 immigrants nationwide, including over 31,000 in Illinois.
While 66% of voters support DACA, the political will has not yet coalesced around permanent protections for DACA recipients and all immigrants who live day-to-day under our broken and racist immigration system.
I am reminded of that every two years, because I have to pay $495 each time for the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service to consider renewing my protections. This forces me and thousands of others to live our lives in two-year increments and, beyond that, to take constant leaps of faith.
I have seen the vulnerability of the program highlighted constantly. I saw DACA come and go across administrations, ultimately sustained only by the power of community organizing. Currently, applicants are left out due to arbitrary criteria, and courts cut off potential new beneficiaries.
DACA is just one example of Congress’ inaction on immigration reform. My parents and my friends’ parents absorb and carry the blame for an immigration problem they didn’t create, and they grow older in the United States without any promise of support as they approach retirement.
Every day, I am inspired by the resilience of my community, but the mental health toll is so daunting that the social services sector is struggling to keep up with this need. This is where immigrant organizations across Illinois have stepped up.
My organization, the Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project, is continuing to encourage those who already have DACA to renew, and we offer scholarships and resources to do so. We have also worked to make Illinois a national leader in protecting immigrants who do not have DACA, including my parents, by limiting police collaboration with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and closing immigrant detention centers. We have won access to drivers’ licenses, opened scholarship opportunities, expanded health care access and more.
But our organizations and our state can only do so much when permanent protections can be enacted only by Congress.
To be sure, I have many reasons to celebrate the opportunities granted to me the last 10 years, in large part due to DACA. However, the fact that I am still unsure about my future outweighs the celebratory note.
A pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients and others is the only permanent solution, although I am not optimistic my senators and representatives feel enough urgency to fight for it anytime soon. They would have to be in my shoes to feel the weight of 10 years of endless debate and broken promises.
President Obama said in 2012 that “these kids deserve to plan their lives in more than two-year increments.”
The truth is, I am not a kid now, and I was not a kid then. I don’t deserve the peace of mind to live and work without fear any more than the next person. My parents and all 11 million undocumented persons who call this country home deserve it the same way, and they deserve it now.
Elizabeth Cervantes is the director of organizing at Southwest Suburban Immigrant Project, and vice president of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
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