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Affected students open up about benefits of DACA status, fears for future

and | Friday, September 15, 2017

Since Sept. 5, when President Donald Trump and his administration announced plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a group of students at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s has been unsure of its future in the United States.

Trump gave the House and Senate a six-month deadline to pass legislation to replace DACA — a program that allows children of undocumented migrants in the United States to work and study. If the March deadline arrives and there is no plan in place to provide for those protected under former President Obama’s executive order, however, the over 800,000 DACA recipients in the United States will lose their legal status.

Notre Dame community members gathered to show their support for DACA students at a sit-in last fall.Chris Collins | The Observer

Notre Dame community members gathered to show their support for DACA students at a sit-in last fall.

Among these 800,000 people are members of both the University and College communities. The Observer spoke with four such students about living in America as undocumented immigrants, their fears about DACA being rescinded without a replacement and the responses from both campus communities.

Would if I could

Saint Mary’s sophomore Guadalupe Gonzalez, a DACA student from Mexico, said her status and the uncertainty surrounding her future have shaped her college experience.

“Because I’m undocumented, there are certain things I can’t do,” she said. “I have to have at least two jobs to pay for my tuition. I don’t have any scholarships or funding from the government because I don’t qualify for it.”

The impact, she said, does not stop there.

“I know there are some people who aren’t in the party scene, but specifically for me, I know if I go out and party, police might come,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t want to be in any sort of position where, as an undocumented student, I’m going to be arrested for some reason or another — even if it’s false accusations — because it can go into my file, and it can hurt me from receiving DACA. I just avoid any sort of situations that might get me there. So that means I don’t go out. I don’t have your regular college life where I party or do anything like that.”

Though she has encountered supportive peers, Gonzalez said she has also been exposed to tensions and judgment.

“When you read the comments on social media about people who support him, people who are against DACA, it does take a toll on you,” she said. “It does hurt you. You just learn to live around that fear, around that hatred. You try not to let it affect you as much as you can.”

She said this coping mechanism is not just helpful, but necessary — particularly in light of recent threats to the DACA program.

“I’m the first person in my family going to college, so I really have to learn the ropes myself,” Gonzalez said. “Once I heard that the odds were probably not looking good for DACA and especially that there’s going to be a six-month wait, I was mostly mad. I wasn’t emotional to the fact that I was crying because I’m worried or frustrated. I was crying because I was mad.”

Hasty generalizations and misinformed assumptions wrongfully denigrate the character of worthy DACA recipients, she said.

“A lot of the misconceptions are things that if you go on Google and just type DACA, you could find out, which is why it’s so ridiculous to me, and it makes me mad,” Gonzalez said. “One of the most common is that we don’t pay taxes, which we do. Even if you don’t have DACA, if you’re just an undocumented immigrant, we obviously pay taxes. And if you work, there are taxes being taken out of your paycheck without you even having a say. So yes, we pay taxes whether we want to or not.”

Another false belief she said she sees propagated involves DACA’s lack of a pathway to citizenship.

“You always hear people say ‘Why don’t you just become a citizen? You’ve been here for what, 20 years, and you can’t become a citizen? That’s your fault,’” she said. “No, sir, that’s not my fault. That’s the government’s fault. Because you’re not pushing an immigration reform, there’s really no way.”

She said the only way she can currently obtain citizenship is to marry.

“My status is tied to a man,” she said. “The only possible way that I can get any sort of citizenship right now is if I marry a U.S. citizen. Can you think of that? I’m 20, and if I get married right now, that’s the only way I can make my life easier. It just pisses me off that I have to depend on marriage, especially since that’s something I don’t want to think about at this age. I want to be independent. I want to go work.”

Gonzalez said she does not understand the move to terminate a program from which the nation benefits.

“All of the comments on Facebook that I see are like, ‘You’re just taking our money. I’m paying taxes, and you’re just taking them away,’” she said. “I would say, though, that we do get public education, which is why I don’t understand why you would want to kick somebody out from the country when they’ve already gone through the education system and used that money. … If you think about business concepts, that’s really bad.”

DACA students deserve the opportunity to bring their skills and talents to fruition, she said.

“You’ve already invested in us, and you just want to kick us out before we’re able to actually give back to the government in taxes and all the work that we do in labor,” she said. “That’s just really stupid to me, honestly.”

Gonzalez said DACA has given her a peace of mind that she fears letting go of.

“ … If it’s taken away … you don’t want us to break the law, but if we don’t have DACA, how are we going to be able to find a job legally?,” she said. “We can’t. We’re going to have to resort to what some other undocumented immigrants are doing, which is getting fake papers. We don’t want to do that. We want to do things right. But if you’re going to take the only thing that has given us some type of power here, a person has to live. A person has to put food on the table and support people, himself and [his] family.”

The idea of DACA students moving to a nation about which they know nothing startles her, Gonzalez said.

“Yes, I was Mexican, and I was born in Mexico, but I don’t know anything of Mexico,” she said. “If I were to decide where my allegiance is, I don’t know what Mexico is going to do with me. At least I know sort of what America is. America doesn’t really like me right now, but I know it. It’s all I know. If I could, I would become a citizen. It’s not that I don’t want to.”

Gonzalez said she hopes all Americans recognize the importance of staying informed about the issue and consider the implications this repeal could have on DACA recipients.

“If there were a way to become a citizen, there would be no undocumented immigrants,” she said. “I don’t really get why people don’t get that. Nobody wants to be called illegal. Nobody wants to be made fun of or dehumanized or work jobs that nobody wants to have because they can’t work higher paying jobs or because they can’t go to college to get that degree. Nobody wants that.”

Dispelling misconceptions surrounding the DACA program can help establish a more knowledgeable and inclusive society, Gonzalez said.

“They always say, ‘Why don’t you just get in line?’ and I’m like, ‘Sir, point it to me, and I’ll be right there,’” she said. “It’s lives. It’s actual human lives, not illegal lives that you don’t care about or somebody that you don’t consider American. We’ve been here for so long. We’ve worked here. We’ve contributed. We’ve created homes, families, communities. We are American. We just don’t have any papers.”

Hoping things work out

Kevin Perez, a junior DACA student at Notre Dame who was born in Mexico and emigrated to the United States when he was five years old, said his DACA status alleviates some of the worry associated with being undocumented.

“It was a huge relief, not having to worry about it day-to-day and being able to do things I couldn’t before — like get my driver’s license, get a job,” he said. “It was just a sense of relief for us.”

While Perez is concerned about the Trump administration living up to its word to protect those with DACA, he said he still has hope that Congress will create a feasible replacement for DACA.

“I’m just hoping things work out,” he said. “Up to this point they have with DACA and allowing us to get jobs, to get driver’s licenses, come to a college. So a lot of good came out of that, but we always knew that it was a temporary thing. And hopefully something permanent comes out of this, but this administration has a track record of not really living up to their promises.”

If the administration repeals DACA without any alternative in place, Perez said, Americans can expect a rise in the amount of discrimination and number of deportations.

“I think we’d see a lot of negative things,” he said. “Probably a lot of increased deportation and separation of families, because if DACA is not there then I feel like immigration services will be very empowered to do all that they can to work against undocumented people and be more active in trying to deport them and passing more laws — or trying to, at least. Like in Arizona where there was that law where you could be asked for your citizenship status based off nothing. I think you’d see a lot of increase in that.”

A common misconception about DACA recipients Perez said he hears often is that they are a “drain on the economy.”

“I know for a fact that I paid more taxes than some citizens last year through my internship, and then they taxed my scholarship and that kind of stuff,” he said. “So there’s a lot of misconceptions around that of people that say undocumented people and DACA people get all these free benefits and that could be going to citizens. I hear that a lot, which is not true because if you’re undocumented you’re not eligible for any benefits. So how could you be receiving them?”

While some commenters on news articles and Facebook have expressed desires to deport all DACA recipients, Perez said the reaction he has experienced at Notre Dame has been largely positive.

“Here on campus we’ve seen a lot of support — like with the call-in event,” he said. “That surpassed our expectations of attendance, and the people that came were very supportive. Also, generally, just from going on social media and new articles and stuff, there’s a lot of optimism [and] a lot of support for people in my situation. But there’s definitely that negativity, as well.”

The University administration, Perez said, has been particularly helpful to him and other DACA students throughout the process of renewing their DACA status.

“They’ve just been very supportive about it,” he said. “Which gives me confidence that if something were to happen in the six months where we have nothing like we do now — at least now we have social security, driver’s licenses, that kind of stuff. But if it came to the point where we don’t have any of that, I still feel confident that they’d do their best to help us finish our education here.”

Stand in solidarity

A senior undocumented student born in Mexico and enrolled at Saint Mary’s, who spoke to The Observer under the condition of anonymity out of concern for her safety, said she was overwhelmed by the supportive messages community members sent her in the days following the announcement.

“I really appreciate the faculty members who have posters outside of their doors that have the signs saying, ‘I support DACA’ because I know I’m welcome there,” she said. “These professors support me and students like me, and I know that if I need someone to talk to, I can walk into their office.”

The College’s welcoming atmosphere, she said, attracted her to the College.

“One of the reasons I decided to come to Saint Mary’s is because they accept undocumented students,” she said. “It’s a private school, so they don’t have those strict guidelines like state schools, where you have to have a social security number. I feel like they’re definitely more inclusive of foreign students, undocumented students, students from all over.”

Though she does not belong to the DACA program, she said the presidential administration’s decision to terminate it affects her on a personal level.

“Students like me have been here our whole lives in this country, so I think we deserve to have a career,” she said. “We’ve worked hard to obtain that, so I think we deserve to keep living without fear of being deported.”

Everyone has a responsibility to inform himself or herself of the realities surrounding DACA, which are often misrepresented or painted in an unfavorable light, she said.

“I see a lot of people saying, ‘These people are taking resources away from us,’ and they think that we can apply for social security benefits, Medicaid — all this that we really can’t because we’re not full citizens,” she said. “That’s something that really needs to be addressed. We’re really not stealing benefits. We’re paying taxes, and we’re contributing to these benefits that citizens can have, so we’re actually helping them, but we can’t receive the benefits ourselves. That’s something that a lot people don’t know.”

Only after learning about the program, she said, can individuals share their knowledge with others and enact change.

“I really think it’s important for our allies to educate people,” she said. “If their families don’t know what DACA is, maybe they should sit down with them and explain what it is and why they support it. There are disagreements that being informed can fix.”

She said concerned members of the community should also voice their disapprobation to policy-makers, which can not only influence legislation but can also foster an increasingly united society.

“If you call your representatives, they will definitely take into account what their constituents think is right, and that can have a push on their opinion,” she said. “It’s nice to not feel like you’re fighting this battle alone.”

Something to contribute

A junior DACA student born in India, who spoke to The Observer under the condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety, said he and his family came to the country legally on an “employment-based” visa.

“My dad had a job offer here,” he said. “He worked there for a while, but then his employer changed ownership. So another guy took over the company, and the new guy said that he wouldn’t continue my dad’s work visa. So we fell out of status that way.”

While his DACA status added “an extra level of reassurance,” the student believes he is safer than most undocumented people in the United States because it would be “bad optics” for the government to deport him.

“I don’t think anyone here is a priority for deportation. A lot of people in my status will tell you that they’re scared about that, but I don’t think that will ever happen,” he said. “That said, what it did give me was a sense of freedom to at least kind of maintain some sense of normality with my peers.”

This sense of freedom was strongest, the student said, in terms of his ability to work with DACA status.

“Without DACA I couldn’t work, and that’s the biggest thing for me,” he said. “ … I was able to intern last year. I would not have been able to find an internship if I didn’t have DACA. The company really liked me, I’m following up, I’m going to go back next year — it gave me a lot of freedoms that a normal citizen would have that I wouldn’t have regardless.”

This ability to work is particularly important to him, he said, because he views employment as “a means to survival.”

“I think without being able to use what I’ve learned here, and without even having the means to continue that, I won’t really have any purpose,” he said. “I would literally just be doing nothing or doing things that I think I can do a lot more than. I’d probably be doing manual labor or something, whereas I am confident — and I think a lot of other people would say this, too — that I can do a lot more than that.”

The student said the fact that he is at Notre Dame is emblematic of what he has to offer the country.

“I know that I have not worked or anything, but I think anyone would say, regardless of status or anything, that if you can get into a school like this you have something to contribute to society — whether that be economic, social, etc,” he said. “So I think, just out of the virtue of the fact that I am here and that I consider myself an intelligent person that has contributed and hopes to contribute, I have value and I should be given the right to share that value.”

Protecting DACA students, he said, is something that falls under the administration’s definition of a pro-life initiative, but that not all members of the Notre Dame community see it that way.

“I think this is an issue that’s very pro-life, and the University as a whole is very pro-life, and the definition of pro-life varies a lot among alumni and students,” he said. “I think you’ll find students that are very anti-abortion but will also say these people should get out. And that’s an interesting dichotomy.”

The student said there would be no reason for him to return to India, and he shouldn’t be held responsible for being in the country illegally as he simply “followed [his] mom” when he was five years old.

“I literally have all of my roots here. All of my friends are here, most of my family is here,” he said. “ … I want to stay here because everything I’ve known is here. And I had no control over that. I guess I grew up thinking that I was the same as everybody else, and I can’t help that. I don’t think that’s something a kid should have to worry about.”

Right now, the student said, becoming a legal U.S. citizen seems impossible for him.

“There’s no easy path to legalization in America,” he said. “I won’t say that I know everything about immigration here, but there are very few exceptions that would let someone of my status become a citizen easily. The most tangible way, I think — and most likely way if DACA doesn’t pass — is me marrying out. And that’s probably what’s going to be similar for most other DACA or undocumented people, too. So you can’t just get a green card. There’s no line, there’s nothing like that. It’s a very specialized and intensive process that requires a lot of time and a lot of money that a lot of people don’t have.”

One silver lining the student said he sees in the Trump administration’s deadline is that it forces Congress to seriously consider the DREAM Act — a more permanent alternative to Obama’s executive order.

“The DREAM Act has been around for a while,” he said. “I think the first iteration was back in 2000 or 2001 and Congress has attempted to pass that thing for a long time. And as ironic as it might sound, Donald Trump is the person that will probably bring it closest to being passed.”

The student urged those who want to stand by and help DACA recipients to call their representatives throughout the six months before Trump’s deadline.

“You need to maintain activism to make sure this thing passes,” he said. “That’s the best thing you can do right now. Keep up the pressure, make sure that during these six months, people don’t forget about it.”

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About Courtney Becker

Courtney is a junior from New York City majoring in film, television and theater with a minor in journalism, and currently serving as News Editor. She is a proud resident of Pasquerilla West Hall and a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

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Martha is a senior majoring in English literature and political science. She currently serves as Saint Mary's editor but still values the Oxford comma in everyday use.

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