Fil-Am DREAMer shares her experience growing up undocumented, the importance of program
Twenty-four-year-old Jennifer* is not unlike most young people in America. She has a job, enjoys going out with her friends and has dreams of success.
But Jennifer isn’t like any other young person in America. Jennifer is undocumented.
When she was four months old, Jennifer’s family relocated from Quezon City, Philippines to the United States. The family settled in Rowland Heights, California, where Jennifer lived a “normal” childhood.
But Jennifer always knew something was different. Her parents told her that because she wasn’t U.S.-born, she would have to be cautious and err on the safe side of things: keep her citizenship a secret, don’t fill out applications without asking them and make a conscious effort to avoid run-ins with state and government officials.
She learned because of her lack of papers, she wasn’t allowed to drive, work or have the same opportunities as her peers, which she found frustrating.
“Growing up it was very restricting, and I didn’t really understand why I couldn’t do things like travel, drive or basically do what most teenagers are allowed to do,” Jennifer told the Asian Journal. “It just felt really restricting and that I couldn’t even breathe.”
Although she knew she was undocumented early on, it wasn’t until she began applying to college that she hit her “breaking point” and understood the scope of her predicament.
She had applied to three universities, excited to finally get the “real college experience” she had always dreamed of. She knew she had the grades to get in and had the determination to do well in a four-year university.
But in a cautious effort to protect her, she was advised not to apply anywhere other than community college.
““I kept thinking, ‘Why me?’” Jennifer recalls with tears in her eyes. “I resented my dad for a while even though he wasn’t doing that to be strict; I know he just wanted a better life for us. It’s not what he ultimately wanted for [me and my siblings], but he was just trying to protect us.”
For Jennifer, a shining beacon of hope came in the form of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was introduced in 2012. It was the first time she believed her life had some kind of direction.
Through DACA, Jennifer was able to get a driver’s license, land her first job at Disneyland and, at 20 years old, apply to Cal State Long Beach where she majored in kinesiology. In 2016, she graduated from college, the first in her family to do so.
“DACA was really life-changing for me,” Jennifer remarked. “Getting that real college experience helped me discover my passion which is physical therapy. I felt very grateful being in a family with three kids and being the first to graduate from college. It was so rewarding and I thank DACA. It was all because of that I was able to accomplish all of that. And I knew it made my parents proud.”
Since it came into effect in 2012, nearly 800,000 undocumented youth — called DREAMers — have signed up for DACA and have been able to find higher paying jobs which have helped more DREAMers attend four-year universities. Specific benefits vary from state-to-state; in California, DREAMers may now apply for driver’s licenses.
However, on Tuesday, September 5, the Trump administration has announced plans to slowly phase out and end DACA, which could affect a large portion of the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community.
California is home to more than 200,000 “DACAmented immigrants”, the most in the country. Since 2012, more than 16,000 Asian American immigrants — including over 4,500 Filipinos — received protection and benefits under DACA.
And those benefits have proven to be effective for, not just individuals, but for the American economy.
Impact on the economy
The most recent research on the effect of DACA on undocumented youth was conducted last month by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a left-leaning advocacy group. Researchers surveyed thousands of DREAMers, and found the following:
Since enrolling in DACA, 54.2 percent were able to land their first job, 69 percent of respondents reported that they found jobs with better pay, 65 percent “pursued educational opportunities that I previously could not”, according to the study which garnered 3,063 responses.
Currently, 91.4 percent of DACA recipients are currently working where, before DACA, 56 percent were not able to work.
CAP also found that an average of 30,000 people would be out of work each month if DACA was terminated. Moreover, ending DACA would put significant pressure on employers; experts say that ending DACA would impose major costs to employers: nearly $2 billion over two years.
“So when I think about the data and what it all points to, it makes clear that DACA works, that DACA not only improves the lives of individual recipients and their families, but positively affects the American economy and society,” Tom Wong, associate professor of political science at UC San Diego, said in a press call on Thursday, September 7.
“We also see that DACA recipients are American in every sense of the word but for a piece of paper,” Wong added.
In January, the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute also found that terminating DACA and deporting those enrolled would cost the federal government $60 billion and diminish economic growth by $280 billion in the next decade.
The announcement of DACA’s end has cast a shadow of doubt over the entire DREAMer community. Many are scrambling to figure out their options before the program ends in six months.
“After growing up with these restrictions, I thought that I was able to breathe again. Now I’m just back to that state of uncertainty, and it’s been really affecting me. I’m not sure what to do,” Jennifer lamented.
The news of DACA’s termination has caused a national outrage and started a movement to save DACA.
Options for DREAMers
However, DACA isn’t the only option for DREAMers to retain their benefits. Legal and civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice (Advancing Justice) has called upon Congress to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bill that proposes granting qualified undocumented youth conditional residency which could lead to permanent resident status. It was first introduced in 2001, and failed to pass multiple times.
“We urge Congress to pass a DREAM Act by December when the debt ceiling and government funding is set to expire,” Advancing Justice wrote in a statement released Thursday, September 7. “We need a clean DREAM Act without other immigration provisions. Those in Congress who truly care about immigrant youth should demand its inclusion in upcoming bills. Our affiliation will continue to fight for DACA recipients and fight against an anti-immigrant agenda that is driven by hate and divisiveness.”
Sponsor Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.) proposed a new version of the bill in July of this year which got a seemingly unfavorable response by the Trump administration. President Donald Trump’s legislative affairs director Marc Short expressed that the administration had “opposed the DREAM Act and likely will be consistent on that.”
Still, Durbin and Graham said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon that they were calling on Congress to act on the bill before the end of September.
“We need to pass in this month of September a DREAM Act — a permanent law in this country that says that these young people will have their chance to become part of America’s future, “ said Durbin.
If the revised DREAM Act is to pass, recipients would have the same protections as DACA, as well as a path to permanent legal resident status or citizenship, if certain requirements are met — DACA did not provide either.
Still room for worry
On Thursday, September 7, Trump sent out another tweet assuring that DACA participants had nothing to worry about.
The tweet read, “For all of those (DACA) that are concerned about your status during the 6 month period, you have nothing to worry about – No action!”
Despite Trump’s attempt at comforting those affected, there are certain realities that may keep DACA grantees worried.
For those already in the program, their window of making sure their documents are valid is only until Oct. 5. That deadline looks grimmer for those who might not have the $495 easily available. As for the many that were unable to secure DACA benefits by September 5, they are left in limbo.
One of the many concerns recipients had even prior to the decision that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had access to their personal information which they feared would be used for deportation. The DHS has said that DACA participant information would not be “proactively provided” to other law enforcement entities like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), or Customs and Border Protection (CBP), unless they pose a threat to national security or public safety. They also said that the policy may be rescinded or modified at any time without notice.
More recently, CNN obtained a memo by the Trump administration titled “Talking Points – DACA Rescission,” that included distressing content.
The 12th bullet point stated that the DHS urges DACA recipients to “use the time remaining on their work authorizations to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States.” (Klarize Medenilla with reports from Rae Ann Varona / AJPress)