I grew up without DACA—Dreamers shouldn’t be hostages to Trump’s wall

American Dreamers.
American Dreamers.
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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On the last Friday of 2017, President Trump announced that there will be no more DACA without a wall. By a wall, he means the one between US and Mexico he had promised during his campaign. With the recent Republican tax reform going into effect, it is unclear where the funding for this wall will materialize. All the while, 800,000 Dreamers go into the new year, having their fate undecided. Trump administration put forth March 5th, 2018, as an arbitrary end date for DACA, yet they do not seem in any hurry to come to a decision. It is estimated that 22,000 Dreamers will lose their protection while waiting.

That is the big picture, but what does this mean for the individual? And why should any law-biding citizen care?

I am an American citizen, but I grew up a child of illegal immigrants before DACA came into existence, so I know firsthand the fate that awaits many Dreamers. For the first two months in the US, my sister and I didn’t go to school because we weren’t sure that we could until, finally, a relative enrolled us. At school, I learned English and assimilated, but never fully. My mother always reminded me that I was not like the other kids; that our situation was precarious; that we only had each other. This meant I could not be too close to anyone outside my family in case I’d be found out and sent back. This meant my sister and I could not play rough or risk getting hurt in any way because a trip to the hospital might attract unwanted attention. This meant we were trying our best to build a new life while expecting it to crumble.

Eventually, excelling at school became a solace, but that too came haltingly. I was not like other Asian kids: I found math difficult; algebra especially gave me migraines. Still, I kept trying because I didn’t have a choice. For me, it was either school or working at my parents’ dry cleaners. When my mom told me she’d give me money not to go to college and help her out at work, I knew she was not being facetious. The cold reality was, without a green card, I had no assurance that any college would take me.

I prayed that my green card would come before senior year. It didn’t. I was only able to get a form of identification through an elaborate scheme that involved my pretending to be a student at a dance academy I’ve never set foot in. With that ID, I was finally able to obtain a driver’s license. But my driver’s license was not a green card.

My dream school put me on the waitlist on the grounds that I was an “international student.” I was considered an international though I’ve lived in US most of my life; there was no other way to explain my status. The admission committee explained they would offer me a seat only if my parents could provide a bank statement showing that they could pay a year’s tuition out of pocket. My parents didn’t have that kind of money.

Thankfully, I got into a college that was better than my dream school. But again, I could not apply for any kind of financial aid. Beginning of each semester, I’d find my account on hold. I couldn’t check out books at the library, eat at the dining halls, or register for classes until my tuition was settled. And each semester, my parents somehow managed to pay just before I’d get kicked out. They did that for first two years of college, until USCIS finally approved my application for permanent residency. In that time, my parents took out a second mortgage on their home and maxed out their credit cards to pay for my education.

If I had DACA growing up, my childhood would have been drastically different. I might have been able to go to the hospital without fear. I might have been able to drive myself to after-school activities instead of begging rides from strangers. I might have found the experience of applying to colleges merely stressful instead of traumatic. I might have even gotten some scholarship and in-state financial aid. I might not have lived in such fear and isolation.

Every child, whether here illegally or not, deserves to grow up with some measure of certainty, with at least a semblance of a childhood; because the psychological damage of growing up in constant fear cannot be erased. I know this firsthand; becoming a US citizen didn’t erase the inkling that I didn’t belong. There will always be a part of me that feels like I’m an imposter; like an illegal immigrant.

But if we cannot bring ourselves to care about the Dreamers out of empathy, we should care about them from a point of self-interest. Children of illegal immigrants do not live in a faraway colony removed from everyone else. Whether we know it or not, they are already an integral part of our community. Like my sister, they may be your kids’ teachers. They may be the ones you call when your kid is in trouble or when your kid needs a recommendation letter. And like me, they may be your doctors. They may be the ones you depend on when you come across the threshold of an ER, fighting for your life.