I was once a dreamer, too
Just like the almost 1 million young people who are recipients of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—the so-called “Dreamers”—I began living in the United States when I was very young. It’s where I grew up, went to school, and built a career and a life.
In September, the Trump Administration set a deadline of Mar. 5 as part of their phase out of DACA, after which, if no deal is reached, the Dreamers’ future in this country is at serious risk. With that deadline imminent, I have felt forced to reckon with my own experience as a childhood immigrant and the life I would have lost had I been made to return to my country of origin as I entered adulthood.
I was born in Cuba in 1958 and have lived in the United States since I was three years old. In 1961, my father, mother and I were forced to flee Havana in the aftermath of the 1959 Cuban revolution. Like DACA recipients, it was thanks to an executive order that America’s doors were open to us. My family were among 500,000 Cubans who entered the United States as refugees between 1959 and 1973, benefiting from president John F. Kennedy’s Cuban Refugee Assistance Program (CRA). We arrived in Miami sharing just one suitcase between the three of us, all that was allowed for each family. We eventually settled in New York City.
I am sure that many of the Dreamers today have little to no memories of their countries of birth. According to a survey conducted by the Center for American Progress on over 3,000 DACA recipients, respondents said that the average age at which they arrived in the US was just 6-and-a-half years old. This is certainly true for me. Most of what I know of Cuba comes from my parents, who would reminisce about Cuba’s music, arts, food, and the warmth of its people. They had lived comfortably up until the revolution but that all changed under Castro.
Politicians, both Republicans and Democrats who support DACA, often tout the very young age of recipients to argue it is unfair to punish children for the lawbreaking of their parents. In my eyes, this framing of the issue does an enormous disservice to those parents. A decision to move as a family to the United States requires great sacrifice: for my parents it meant starting their lives over with limited means and few friends and family. But it is a sacrifice made willingly, purely for the opportunity it provides for their children to live a better life than their own.
Indeed, life for my parents in America was starkly different than in Cuba. My mother, who had come from a wealthy family in Hong Kong and had once planned to be a nurse, was only able to find work as a seamstress in a garment sweatshop. She worked 12-hour days, five days a week. I remember going to the “factory” after school every day with other kids, playing underneath the machines and in the clothes carts as we waited for the end of our mothers’ long work days. At the end of each day, my mother would carry me up six flights of stairs to our apartment.
While my mother toiled in the garment shops, my father worked long hours as a waiter in Chinese restaurants for our first nine years in New York City. I remember rarely seeing my father because he left before I got up and came home after I had gone to bed. With the help of a friend from Cuba, he eventually opened his own restaurant in Washington Heights in 1970. It was one of the first of the city’s Cuban Chinese restaurants—think fried plantains with dumplings. This new cuisine was quite popular for some time in New York City thanks to the large Chinese community in Cuba that emigrated after Castro. Its success eventually led to my father opening a string of 11 restaurants around the country, including in Washington, Boston, Miami, Raleigh, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
My parent’s endless hard work is what enabled me to go to college. This was an extremely important achievement for them as I was the first in my family to do so. I went to Parsons School of Design, which allowed me to embark on a long and successful career in the world of marketing and communications. I believe my family’s work ethic and motivation is a common feature among immigrants. The evidence supports this belief. According to a 2017 report by New American Economy, immigrants working both high and low-skilled jobs are 15.7% more likely to work “off” hours (very late in the evening or very early in the morning) and 25.2% more likely to cover weekend shifts than American-born workers of comparable educational, family and geographical backgrounds. The same is true for DACA recipients. According to the survey conducted by the Center for American Progress a massive 97% of all respondents reported being employed or enrolled in school.
Ironically, for the past decade I have worked at New York City’s Tenement Museum, which is dedicated to telling the story of American immigration through the personal accounts of immigrant families who lived in New York’s Lower East Side. I reflect daily on the parallels the museum draws between immigrants who arrived here in the mid-19th century and my family’s personal experience of adjusting to a new culture and language and building a new life from virtually nothing. I am now finding myself doing the same with the stories of Dreamers and their families. My parents often talked about what life would have been like if we never left Cuba. Like countless other immigrants throughout US history, they never forgot the opportunity that America provided in a time of great need.
Prior to last month’s government shutdown, US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tweeted a graphic that stated “Democrats have a choice to make” between DACA recipients and recipients of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), treating the lives of the hundreds of thousands affected by both programs as bargaining chips. This callous framing blinds us to the realities of those whose futures are caught up in this political push and pull. From Blanca Morales, a DACA recipient whose parents worked tirelessly picking strawberries in California so she could focus on her studies and eventually attend Harvard Medical School, to Cristian Solano-Córdova, a Colorado resident whose parents carried him barefoot across the Mexican border through a drainage ditch so as not to alert border patrol when he, like me, was just three years old, so much is at stake for people whose lives have been reduced to a mere number.
As the Mar. 5 deadline approaches, it is impossible not to see myself in young people like Blanca and Cristian, and to reflect on the opportunities I had and the similar opportunities that they will lose should they become eligible for deportation. If the story of my family teaches us anything, it is that America is made stronger by welcoming immigrants, who are often enormously grateful for the opportunity America provides, becoming some of our most patriotic and accomplished citizens as a result.
My life is testimony to the United States’ incredible power to enable those it welcomes to think of themselves as only American. We must remember this power is not just an aspect of our country—it is entirely what it means to be an American.