As Congress moves closer to reaching a decision on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, almost 800,000 Dreamers — young people brought to our nation illegally as babies or small children — await their fate. Will it be a path to citizenship, deportation or continued limbo?
I watch it all, from here in Chicago, and I am reminded of a Dreamer I was fortunate to teach.
On the day after President Donald Trump was elected, many of my students voiced their anger and sadness. But one of my most positive students said nothing at all. When I asked Denilson what was wrong, he responded with a different tone — fear.
“Mrs. Caneva,” he said. “My family and I are undocumented.”
In a high school class I teach, Denilson, then 17, was a model student and a self-made young adult. When I asked if anyone knew how to use a computer program to design the layout for our literary magazine, Denilson said he would learn. He soon mastered the program well enough to fully design the magazine.
Once I learned of Denilson Saavedra’s arduous journey to America, I realized that learning a computer program was, for him, only a small challenge. He, his brother and mother fled Guatemala when he was four. His alcoholic father had gotten into a bar fight with a drug trafficker. A few days later, the trafficker retaliated, killing his grandfather. Fearing they were next, Denilson’s mother got her and her sons across the Guatemalan-Mexico border on a visa.
They stayed in makeshift hotels and slept on the floors of people’s homes. After four days, they made it to the United States border. But it wasn’t to safety; they found themselves in the hands of Mexican police.
“We were caught and sent to jail,” Denilson told me. “My mom told us to pretend to sleep so that the police wouldn’t take our fingerprints. It worked.”
Border-crossers eventually helped them into the United States.
Despite her fears of kidnapping and arrest, Denilson’s mother was committed to a better future. She remarried, and her sons acquired opportunities they wouldn’t have had in Guatemala. But life in America wasn’t easy.
“My mother and stepfather worked hard to pay for rent and food. In Guatemala, my mother only got through the 3rd grade, so she had a hard time finding a job. She worked nights as a high school janitor, slept a few hours, woke up to cook for us, and then went to English classes.”
Denilson made a point of saying that his parents and other undocumented people who are not Dreamers face struggles that are greater than his.
“They cannot work for a company legally or continue their studies because it’s unaffordable time-wise and money-wise,” he said. “They work hard for us Dreamers to finish our studies and become someone, someone who doesn’t have to work 11 hours a day just to put food on the table, someone they cannot be.”
When former President Barack Obama passed DACA, Denilson and his family felt secure in a way they had never before. But DACA did not end all of Denilson’s problems. When it came time to apply for college and scholarships, he quickly realized his limited opportunities.
“Schools always asked if I was a U.S. citizen,” he said. “I wanted to apply to a school that I qualified for with my test scores and GPA, but I couldn’t. Even though I’ve been living here since I was four, all of my education took place here, and most of my memories happened here, it didn’t matter. I feared that the rest of my life was going to be like that.”
Last year, Denilson graduated from Chicago’s Lindblom Math and Science Academy and won partial “Dreamer-friendly” scholarships to a private university where he is studying structural engineering. With DACA’s uncertain future, I thought Denilson’s anxiety would return. But the opposite is true.
“When Trump said he would cancel DACA, I talked to my role models who are presidents of organizations and are undocumented,” he said. “They simply waved it off. We are fighters. Sure, the road will be difficult without DACA, but our persistence will give us hope. We don’t give up when things turn difficult. We have big hearts and big visions.”
Denilson believes that the way people think about immigrants, documented or not, needs to change. “We all live on the same planet,” he said. “Everything is connected. We should not see each other as aliens or foreigners, but as humans.”
Denilson’s possibilities seem limitless despite a policy that may call for his deportation. His positive attitude, triumphs in the face of defeat, and humble resolve are characteristics we often value as Americans, yet our laws soon may prevent us from fully valuing Denilson and Dreamers like him.
That would be our loss. And, though our country helped raise such a promising young man, it would be another country’s gain.
Gina Caneva is a 14-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.
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