For immigrant 'Dreamers,' an uncertain future

Allison Brady's parents brought her to the United States as a child. While she's been able to work legally under Obama's deferred action program, she is among the 740,000 so-called 'Dreamers' who feel thrust back in limbo by Trump's election promises.

Nam Y. Huh/AP/File
Nancy Villa stands in front of Harold Washington College in Chicago in November. Ms. Villa was brought to the United States illegally from Mexico while a child. She has a work permit through a 2012 federal program started under Obama's administration and works at a Chicago child-care center and attends college. She and three siblings have DACA, while two siblings are US citizens.

Allison Brady was thrilled last October when she received her second temporary employment authorization card, along with another two-year reprieve from possible deportation.

Her family brought her to the United States 20 years ago when she was just 10 from the Dominican Republic. She’s lived in New York City ever since. And like some 740,000 other “Dreamers,” she qualified for President Obama’s controversial 2012 executive immigration order, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

But less than a month after getting her DACA renewal, Ms. Brady, a math teacher with New York City public schools, was one of the hundreds of thousands of such Dreamers gripped with a troubling sense of uncertainty after the election of Donald Trump.

“I’m definitely worried now, not only for me, but for other people in my shoes who are in the situation I was in a few years ago,” says Brady, who is now married and is pursuing a master’s degree in education from Brooklyn College.

Indeed, with President-elect Trump and Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress vowing to undo a host of Mr. Obama’s policies, Democrats and immigration advocates have been fretting not only about the future of those undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, but also the personal data the federal government gathered from DACA enrollees and their families.

“If any new applicants are coming in now to apply for DACA, we tell them not to,” says Angela Fernandez, executive director of the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, which has helped more than 300 young people get their temporary work permits. “We don’t want the government to have their information.”

A softening by Trump?

As a candidate, Trump’s signature campaign issue was his hard line on illegal immigration, saying repeatedly that he would end the DACA program and possibly deport its participants along with an estimated 11 million others living in the country without documents. As president-elect, though, Trump has begun to soften his tone, saying he wants to “work something out” for the so-called Dreamers.

“They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here,” Trump told Time when he was named the magazine’s Person of the Year. “Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud.”

Republican members of Congress, too, have been working with Democrats to find a way to replace Obama’s executive order with bipartisan legislation creating a similar program.

“[I] do not believe we should pull the rug out and push these young men and women — who came out of the shadows and registered with the federal government — back into the darkness,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R) of South Carolina, who joined Sen. Richard Durbin, (D) of Illinois, to introduce the “Bridge Act.” Like Obama’s executive order, the bill would provide a “provisional protected presence” for law-abiding Dreamers, deferring deportations for three years and also allowing them to work.

Yet many Democrats have urged Obama to grant pardons to the illegal immigrants who came to the country as children – an action the White House has refused to do. Democratic lawmakers, too, have been urging the president to shield the names and personal information of DACA enrollees.

There is much at stake, too, for undocumented immigrants like Brady, who have grown up, gone to school, and struggled to make sense of their futures.

“I was just a kid when I came, and I really didn’t know what immigration status really meant,” says Brady, who grew up and attended public schools in Washington Heights, which New Yorkers often call “Little DR” because of the many Dominican immigrants who live there. “I wasn’t really worrying about it until my senior year in high school when I had to start thinking about colleges.”

“But when I started to really understand what my life was going to be like, I started freaking out, I started to panic,” she continues. “Why was I going to school? What is the point of going to college if I couldn’t get a career if I was an illegal immigrant?”

She pressed on, doing what a lot of low-income New Yorkers do. She volunteered at a home for the elderly, she attended summer academic programs, she made her high school honor roll and tutored younger peers.

And after getting accepted to John Jay College of Criminal Justice, she worked long hours as a bartender, off the books, to pay her way. It was overwhelming, she says, until she got a scholarship from a local civic group. “I was over the moon, full of joy and crying and happy after getting it,” she says.

She loved her days tutoring and eventually decided to become a teacher.

“As cliché and corny as this sounds, it’s like some people just have their calling,” the graduate student now says. “It took me a while to figure it out, but it truly makes my heart happy.”

Yet she still felt that she was “living in the shadows, being a part of something, but not really,” during her 20 years coming of age in the United States. Now married to a US citizen, she says Obama’s order finally helped her become “DACA-mented,” as many Dreamers call it, and be authorized to teach math in New York City public schools. [Marriage can help gain citizenship for the undocumented like Brady, but there are many pitfalls.]   

Immigration hard-liners  

Brady's and others' futures also remains uncertain because of the current political climate, says Ms. Fernandez of the immigrant rights coalition.

Many of Trump’s supporters have steadfastly stood against a path toward citizenship, punishing Republican lawmakers seeking immigration reform. And many of the president-elect’s cabinet picks, such as Jeff Sessions, his nominee for attorney general, have taken a hard line on illegal immigration.

“But we need to sit down and talk to the people who view immigration and immigrants as a threat to their well-being,” Fernandez says. “Not everyone who voted for Trump is racist, not everyone who voted for Trump is afraid of immigrants,” she says, noting that there were actually a number of legal immigrants who voted for Trump in November.

The key to changing the current political climate is “face-to-face relationship building,” she says. “But that’s the harder part. That’s what takes longer. But it has to be done. It’s critical.”

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