"But they choose to come here."
It's a common argument one hears in the ongoing debate about immigration—that because immigrants choose to come to the United States, they deserve to deal with the results of that choice.
But what if they didn't have a choice?
The Immigration Policy Center estimates that there are 1.4 million immigrants currently under the age of 30 who were brought to the United States before the age of 16; have lived continuously in the country for at least five years; have not been convicted of a felony, a "significant" misdemeanor or three other misdemeanors; and are currently in school, graduated from high school, have earned a GED or have served in the military.
These are the "DREAMers"—young immigrants named for the DREAM Act who were brought here as minors and who dream of one day becoming U.S. citizens. Often, DREAMers go unnoticed. Many do their best to keep their undocumented status secret for fear of being deported. Many have lived and worked in their community so long that their citizenship isn't questioned. And although some were brought to the United States as young as one month old, they have no way of applying for citizenship here.
After the DREAM Act failed to pass the Senate, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in June, 2012. The program prevents DREAMers from being deported and allows them a work permit and, in some cases, a driver's license. The catch? An application for Deferred Action costs $465, requires a massive amount of paperwork, takes roughly eight months or longer to be processed, and, if approved, expires after two years. While the program does help DREAMers buy time while Congress continues to debate Comprehensive Immigration Reform, it does not alter one's immigration status, nor does it provide a path to citizenship.
There are untold numbers of immigrant youth in Sonoma County who keep silent about their families. But because of Deferred Action, and due to "Coming Out" advocacy efforts nationwide, more and more DREAMers are breaking that silence. Here are some of their stories.
Xisamena, a 19-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College student, has always known she was undocumented, but she felt it the hardest after turning 16. While others were taking driver's ed and applying for jobs, she says she realized, "Oh—I can't get that."
Xisamena arrived in the United States at the age of three, and she quickly adapted to American culture. Although Xisamena wasn't born in the United States, she says, "I feel like I'm legal, even though I know I'm not." She's proud of her roots and what her struggles have taught her, but, she says, "I don't remember anything about Mexico. I should say I'm Mexican, but what is my true culture?"
It's not easy for Xisamena to tell others about her story. One of the first times she did was during a school assignment that required her to write her own constitution. In it, she gave herself freedom from her legal status by assigning herself and her family Social Security numbers. When she turned her project in, she had a moment of remorse. "I didn't know what to do, I was in shock that I basically just told [my teacher], 'Yeah, I'm illegal.'" Though no harm came from it, Xisamena didn't feel safe sharing again—until now. "It's taken me a long time to accept it," she says.