Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Columbia school director shares plight of DACA recipient

by Robert Misciagna, Columbia Borough school director

This is my boy Fernando. Fernando is a DACA recipient. He was brought to the United States at the age of 3 years old. For him, being an American is the only life he has ever known.

DACA, which stands for “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”, protects him from the looming threat of deportation. The program gives him a 2 year authorization to work and go to school in the United States. Because of it, Fernando now has a Social Security Number, and is allowed a drivers license. Fernando is one of about 650,000 DACA recipients, 37% of whom, like Fernando, came here before the age of 5. For him and the hundreds of thousands of other beneficiaries of the program, DACA has given them hope that one day, the country that they have worked so hard to be a part of will accept them as equals.

Originally born in Mexico, his parents brought him to this country to provide him with a better life. For 16 years, he has lived here. He went to school with your children. He has worked beside you, your friends, your family, and your neighbors. This country has shaped Fernando into the man he is today. I often have deep conversations with him on late nights, while playing on PS4. His story, which shares many parallels with those of other immigrants, is amazing. And it deserves to be heard, hence my writing this post.

His story is one of adversity and perseverance.

Fernando and his family worked extremely hard for the opportunity that DACA provides. He recalls his parents both working 50+ hours every week to provide for him. Yet, even that was not enough at times. On school breaks, he too worked full time. Like many undocumented immigrants and their children, Fernando was deprived of summer vacations. When he was old enough to do manual labor, his times for relaxation were replaced with 10 hour days, doing landscaping work. When he finally reached the age of 15, he became eligible to apply for DACA. The long hours put in by him and his family were the only way for them to afford the $500 application fee and steep legal costs. It wouldn’t be until he was 17 that he would finally receive the program’s protections from detention and deportation. I dare say that he and every other DACA recipient has more than earned those benefits.

As an undocumented immigrant, Fernando has been the subject of discrimination for much of his life. As a kid, he recalls being bullied at school. His classmates would call him a “beaner”, and he has heard adults in his life label him a “wetback”. His family has been harassed on the job, and their work has gone unappreciated. He is extremely strong and very brave for being able to withstand such persecution in addition to the traditional stresses of American life. I certainly couldn’t do it.

What’s worse, the benefits for DACA are a lot worse than many Americans realize. For example, Fernando majors in Environmental Science at a local community college. His path to obtaining his degree is a bigger uphill climb than that of a citizen. He doesn’t even receive federal student aid. Every DACA recipient relies on what their state provides. Dreamers must pay their way through college. They are not afforded the privilege to go to school and pay it back after receiving the benefits of their education. What this means for Fernando and 650,000 other people in this county, is that a college education is just barely achievable. For those that are willing to take on that fight, it means that working full time on top of school is the norm. We must realize that, for non-citizens, 70+ hours a week is what it takes to get a college degree. Most will not graduate on time.

When I asked Fernando about his plans for the future, he opened my eyes to the reality that he and others like him face: some doors are open, others are shut, and more shut every day. DACA recipients must be prepared to adapt to changing opportunities on a daily basis. He told me that when he was younger, he wanted to join the army. “I was so appreciative for what this country has given me, that all I wanted to do was fight for it, and give something back”, he said. When he got to high school and finally came in contact with military recruiters, he was informed that he was not allowed to serve. He was crushed when he was told that, but there is nothing he can do. So he changed course. When he applied and was accepted for deferred action, he began his pursuit for an Environmental Science degree. Fernando cares for the environment, and wants to contribute to the modernization of our society. He is particularly interested in desalination technology. Fernando’s aspirations illustrate the untapped and often wasted potential that undocumented citizens have, potential that they would utilize if the society they live in would let them.

There are so many other hurdles for Fernando to jump through. Even though he is better off than most undocumented immigrants, DACA presents its own challenges. To maintain the status of deferred action, Fernando must get his status renewed every two years. On its own, this fact warrants no concern. When you consider, however, that it took Fernando several months to initially become a recipient, the process becomes a hindrance. Dreamers are entirely dependent on USCIS, the agency charged with processing applications and renewal requests, for their future status. Many DACA recipients experience lapses in their coverage while waiting for renewal. A lapse in coverage means that their work authorizations are revoked. This means that they lose out on income, and depending on their employer, may lose their job entirely.

While Fernando is safe from detention and deportation, that doesn’t extend to undocumented friends and family. Before they were accepted for asylum status, there was always the chance that his parents could be deported. Even for DACA recipients, they are unable to receive deferred action until the age of 15. This means that they can only apply to the program and receive its protections if they have survived for up to 15 years without being detained. Temporary partial legal status does not ensure a life free from the anxieties that plague the undocumented community.

“DACA has made me depressed”. Fernando feels that despite the privileges that DACA gives him, it also means that he has more to lose. He reminisces on how he felt when the program was created. “It gave me hope”, he says. But 8 years later, he is disillusioned by the state of immigration policy in this country. “Whenever I’m talking about DACA with people, there's always one word that comes to mind: purgatory”. He says that the reality for undocumented immigrants is that none of the current policies is permanent. The government can choose to view them as illegitimate just as quickly as DACA was delivered to them. He says that his life is lived in limbo between legal and illegal, and that that uncertainty takes an emotional toll.

In 2017, the Trump administration announced that it would be ending the program that has delivered so much for my friend Fernando and other young, undocumented immigrants. For nearly two years since then, they have been involved in a legal battle that has the power to determine the future of my (and your) friends and neighbors. Since then, the USCIS has stated that it will not be accepting new applicants for DACA. This means that those immigrants brought to the US before the age of 16, and who have come of eligible age in the past two years, are vulnerable to deportation.

A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court ruled on the case. Its opinion was that the Administration had violated the Administrative Procedure Act in its attempt to end the program. It did, however, leave open the possibility for the Trump administration to end it a different way. The decision does not ensure the safety of Dreamers, it simply buys them time. For Fernando, the case was a victory, even if just a temporary one. He expressed feelings of relief and hope. For him, this decision allows him to continue working and going to school. It gives Congress the chance to pass concrete policy changes. The work isn’t over, not by a long shot. He and other recipients are still in limbo, uncertain of their own future. They are uncertain if their hard work will be worth anything. They are uncertain if they will see their friends this time next year, or if they will be spending those days in an ICE detention center. I don’t want to see Fernando in a detention center.

And Donald Trump has the nerve to call the decision “politically charged”. I think a better statement is that his decision to rescind DACA is “morally charged”.

One thing that allows Fernando to remain as resilient as he is are his friends. Just the other day, he told me this:

“I love my friends. They are just so supportive. They all know my status. If I didn’t know the friends I do I probably wouldn’t have any friends. I’d be too scared to talk to people. I don’t tell anyone about my status for fear of being judged.”

This makes a lot of sense if you consider that he didn’t have DACA protections until two years ago. His friends are one of his support pillars. Another source that he draws strength from is his family, in particular his sister Stephanie. He says that his situation has inspired her to pursue a career in immigration law.

His sister Stephanie, as well as his brother Edgar, are both citizens. If he were ever to be deported, he would be forced to rely on them in order to come back home. “If I’m forced to go back to Mexico I’m f***ed. I don’t have any memory of it, I don’t know anyone there. My Spanish isn’t the best”, there would be a big language barrier, he says. Keep in mind that his parents brought him here when he was THREE. Stories like these are commonplace for DACA recipients.

Ending DACA wouldn’t just be a blow to Fernando, it would also affect the 650,000 other immigrants currently under DACA, as well as future applicants. These are all people who contribute to our society on a daily basis. There are 4,500 of them in PA alone. 91% of them are employed. DACA recipients pay 5.6 Billion dollars in federal taxes. Most of this is in the form of payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare. The money for these programs is used as we speak, so not having that source of revenue would mean immediate consequences.

Ending DACA would result in $41 billion in lost revenue for these programs over the next ten years. Those numbers are nothing to sneeze at, especially considering that they will likely never receive those benefits themselves. Dreamers are also able to take out housing and car loans, but ONLY if they’re Dreamers. The $24 Billion that they don’t pay in taxes goes towards consumption and investment. This money benefits entire communities. 56,000 of them own homes, resulting in over half a billion dollars contributed to the housing market every year. Those that don’t pay $2.3 billion in rent annually. 15k of them are teaching your kids.

Those numbers only include quantitative contributions. Fernando and many other DACA recipients contribute much more than that. They are worth much more than that. Even before DACA, Fernando has contributed in ways that really matter. In highschool, he was involved with organizing several charity events including Art for a Cause, March for Dimes, and charity drives for children with disabilities. Fernando has shown that he is willing to put in the time and effort to make positive changes in the lives of others, we are obligated to do the same for him. He’s not alone in his volunteerism. Many DACA recipients and soon to be DACA recipients have also contributed selflessly in a similar manner to Fernando, and they deserve contribution in return. They aren’t asking for charity, they aren’t asking for donations. They are asking for the chance to contribute further. They’re asking to be able to go to school, to work in this country, to raise kids, and to grow old here.

A more immediate consequence to ending DACA would be its impact on the nation's healthcare system. 30-40k Dreamers are in healthcare. Ending the program now would mean that those people would lose their jobs. Think about that, at least thirty thousand people who are currently on the front lines of Coronavirus, would lose their jobs. That wouldn’t just hurt them. That will hurt you too. These are people who have set themselves on a path to care and heal you for the rest of their lives. My mom is a nurse, and if they can do what she does, while at the same time dealing with the possibility that that their status will be revoked, and dealing with racist, xenophobic patients, they deserve to live in peace.

Ending DACA won’t just affect citizens in an economic and healthcare sense. Approximately 1.5 million people live with a DACA recipient, and there are tens of thousands of children whose parents are DACA recipients. And of course, there are millions who call Dreamers friends, including me. I am proud to call Fernando my friend.

So when talking about immigration policy, and you don’t have a face to put on the issue, if you don’t know any immigrants, think of Fernando. Think of the hundreds of thousands of people with nowhere to go, who’s fates are determined by whichever way the political winds blow. For them, these issues are a matter of life and death. It is for them that we need a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. DACA recipients can’t even get a Green Card.

We need teachers and social workers in our schools who are supportive of undocumented children. We need student services that equip those students with the tools and information to know their options and succeed. Almost every single application that is being obstructed by USCIS is that of a teenager.

Every day we hear news of ICE raids on workplaces and inhumane conditions at detention centers. I don’t want that to be the fate of anyone, least of all friends like Fernando. Such actions are immoral and unwarranted under normal circumstances, let alone times of recession and global health crises. Marginalized groups and communities are always the first to be left behind in times of crisis. Now, instead of simply being left behind, undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients are instead facing the increasing likelihood that they will be detained, possibly for months or years on end, and then shipped off to a land they don’t know, with a language they may not even speak.

America must do better. For Fernando, and countless others. In order to ensure that end, people like you and I must fight for minority rights, especially for those that cannot fight for their own.

I will leave you with a desperate message from Fernando, written back in 2018:

“Hi I’m Fernando and most of you know me. Well I’m Mexican, I was born in Mexico and then at age 3 I was brought to America. My parents wanted me to have a chance at life, something that I couldn’t get living in Mexico. In Mexico there is a lot of corruption, violence, and a failing school system. My parents brought me here so I could get educated, so I could live happily, and so I can be safe. Now my life is in danger. During the Obama administration a miracle happened, DACA. DACA is an act that lets children who were brought to America be able to work and to be able to have a life. Before DACA I didn’t have a Social Security Number nor could I work. Right now I am under DACA. I have the right to go to work and go to school. I was born in Mexico, but I feel like I was born here. I live my life here. I have my friends here. I have my work here. I speak the language of this country. I am from here. If DACA is revoked and nothing is passed that allows me to become the US citizen that I already feel I am then what am I supposed to do? Go back to a country that I don’t know? I didn’t ask to be brought here and to have this hardship in my life, but I love it here. I met the greatest people here that I love. I want to join the Army and fight for the country that became my home. I love America and I grew up knowing it’s values and history. I’m just like you.”

Again, feel free to share. There are too many people that remain unaware of the struggles that other Americans go through.

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