My encounter with Dreamers last month happened by chance. I was sitting in my local library when an employee tapped me on the shoulder, and asked in hush-hush please speak quietly in the library voice, “Darryl, do you know that in a few minutes there will be a presentation by the Dreamers?”
I could have had what turned out to be a memorable and touching experience earlier. I had missed several opportunities before to attend panel discussions featuring young people who have status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But life is life. I always had additional work and other chores or there was another unexpected family crisis.
I live in New Mexico, a state with a high percentage of undocumented immigrants from Mexico. I was aware of the young people called Dreamers, the undocumented sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants, but who are authorized to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation because of an executive order signed by President Obama in 2012.
There are roughly 800,000 Dreamers in the USA. Most of them arrived in the USA before age 5. They have no experience, much less memory of living in a country other than in the USA.
I was aware of these basic gathered from newspapers. The news that Donald Trump was ending DACA, creating controversy and political maneuvering in Washington and fear and anxiety among families, had me concerned. Many have until Oct. 5 to renew their status if they want to stay longer.
Yet, like many native-born Americans, I lacked direct or intimate contact with my local immigrant community. I assumed that the “immigrant community” was a simple, or visible, social marker.
It is those kinds of easy assumptions, however, that lead to bias. It is easy to assume the immigrant community must consist of a few people that you never see or do not know, or that the DACA program affects “others.”
The Dreamer event at my library had only been scheduled a few days beforehand. Democratic U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan was there too. Lujan is a familiar New Mexico political figure. He recently said, “Since 2012, the 9,000 Dreamers in New Mexico have not had to live in fear of deportation. I will oppose any attempt by the Trump administration to end DACA. Tearing families apart to achieve a political end does not reflect American values and will not solve our immigration problems.”
I had expected a mere handful of attendees. The meeting was a “pop up” event, but soon the room filled with sparkling young faces, who in my 50-year-old mind’s eye were kids. The sight of them, proudly telling their stories, brought home for me in an immediate way that the statistics, 800,000 Dreamers in the US, and 9,000 in New Mexico, tallied the anxieties of vulnerable youths at a sensitive age.
The majority in the room were still adolescents. Adolescence is a challenging experience regardless. Adults usually respond with sympathy to the tumultuous phase. For Dreamers, a challenging young adulthood has a new level of meaning.
“President Trump has tweeted that Dreamers shouldn’t worry,” Lujan told the attendees. “But we don’t believe him.” I think Lujan’s skepticism is justified when I see Trump’s willingness to display braggadocio or spread false information during his tweetstorms.
The success of DACA is high stakes. We need to pass a clean DREAM Act that allows these young Americans the opportunity to continue the lives they have built in this country. That was evident, as row by row, the youths in the room told their stories. Some were high school students now frightened that Trump and his deportation machine would separate them from their parents. Some talked about being ripped from the only home they have ever known as they navigated first jobs, first career choices, or first dates.
The college students included a 17-year-old wunderkind who was already a junior and studying business management with a high-powered summer internship lined up at an oil firm in Texas. Would she be able to go?
Who would not sympathize with the young mothers in their twenties? Would they be separated from their newborns? One young mother was married to a man who was also a Dreamer. She knew that she remained eligible to apply for a residency extension, but her husband’s DACA protections expired next year and he would not be able to reapply. Should she prepare to become head of a broken household?
How many Dreamers in the room do you think had their US residency jeopardized by individual misconduct, misdemeanors, or felonies? None.
In order to be eligible, Dreamers had to have a spotless criminal record, and (at minimum) be enrolled in high school.
No wonder Congressman Lujan joked, “Everybody in Washington wants a photograph with a Dreamer, even ones that don’t support you.” It’s hard not to be impressed by the Dreamers’ maturity. So many are high academic achievers. They have grown up knowing that they had to be “good kids” and met the challenge by becoming great ones.
I am encouraged though. Lujan said he was optimistic that Democrats and Republicans in Washington could work out an agreement restoring DACA protections that Trump could sign.
DACA is a program at the heart of this nation’s immigrant history. Yet today, Trump and his party are willing to play politics with the fates of families, children and adolescents. That’s unconscionable. Restoring DACA will also restore America’s conscience.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a communications fellow for the Center for Community Change.
This article first appeared on Huffington Post.