Five years ago, I was sitting at my college graduation ceremony, undocumented, uncertain what my future would look like and how I would continue contributing to the country where I grew up. I was 22 and paralyzed by the prospect of graduating into a world where I had no work permit and, thus, no ability to give back to my community.
I’d been feeling that anxiety escalate for the previous year and a half, since I first found out about my undocumented status. I learned I was “less than legal” during my junior year at Northwestern University, when I received a letter in the mail from the Department of Homeland Security. It was a Notice to Appear in immigration court, the first step in the deportation process.
The letter revealed that I had unknowingly overstayed my visa and was now subject to eviction from the country I consider home. The news was a sucker punch. I was dumbfounded, blindsided by the prospect that a life that felt so secure was now being shaken.
In an incredible stroke of luck, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was announced on the same day as my college graduation ceremony in 2012. I finally felt at ease here again. But this week, that sense of security was stripped from me anew, after President Donald Trump made the cruel decision to eliminate the DACA program and possibly make 800,000 hard-working young Americans like myself a priority for deportation. DACA has been a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of other young immigrants like me, giving those of us who came to the United States as children a chance to live and work legally in the country for two years at a time on renewable permits. The Trump administration’s decision to end the program without first having a plan in place to ensure that “dreamers” can continue living and working here legally will thrust us all back into legal limbo.
My family moved from Canada to San Antonio in 1996 when I was 6. We had a visa, and my parents worked to change our immigration status for as long as I can remember. We spent decades playing by the rules, but one time our immigration attorney filed our paperwork late, and another time our sponsor sold his business, forcing us to restart the entire application process. For more than 20 years, we attempted to navigate the broken immigration system, an emotionally exhausting and financially draining process. Suffice it to say that I am not undocumented for lack of trying.
Growing up in Texas, I had always felt like an American — because in every possible way, I was. I went to elementary, middle and high school in San Antonio, enrolling in Girl Scouts and spending my summers playing league basketball. I volunteered at the local food bank, took far too many AP classes and worked behind the cash register at the neighborhood grocery store. In 2008, I left for college. Four years later, I graduated, and, thanks to DACA, I was suddenly eligible for relief from immigration worries.
To qualify for DACA, young people like me had to register with the government, pass a background check (including fingerprinting), share our family’s full names and contact information, meet certain educational or military requirements and pay an application fee. We also had to meet residency requirements — which is why, as of today, every dreamer enrolled in the DACA program has lived in the United States for at least a decade.
DACA has helped me become the person I am today. Because of my work permit, I’ve been able to buy a home and a car and pay off my student loans. I launched a small business helping U.S. citizens with their résumés so that they can get jobs. I have a meaningful job and pay state and federal taxes. I pay rent to live in my apartment in Washington. I eat at local restaurants, shop at local stores and pay for public transportation. All of the dollars that I spend — and the dollars that 800,000 people like me spend — are reinvested back into the community and help improve the lives of our U.S. citizen neighbors and friends.
Over the past five years, the DACA program has been an incredible success, enabling its 800,000 recipients to add billions of dollars to the U.S. economy and create jobs along the way. Roughly 6 percent of us are entrepreneurs and job creators who employ U.S. citizens. Others are health-care workers who take care of the elderly, teachers who educate the next generation of American leaders or engineers who build bridges and hospitals in the heart of our nation. We are your family members, classmates, neighbors and friends.
But all of that promise has now come to an end. Trump made the decision to use dreamers as political pawns — a decision that will have far-reaching economic and moral consequences, both for his party and our nation, in the years ahead. The president’s decision to eliminate DACA slams the door of opportunity on hundreds of thousands of young people like me. It means all 800,000 of us can be priorities for deportation, and we could lose our jobs when our work permits soon expire.
Today, and every day that DACA renewals are placed on hold, 1,400 hard-working young people will be ripped away from the American workforce. We will lose our ability to work, pay rent and mortgages and legally drive, in most jurisdictions. We will no longer be allowed to be American taxpayers or to utilize the skills we developed in the United States when we moved here decades ago.
Without the protections afforded by DACA, college students could be evicted from classrooms and deported to countries they have no memory of. Families will be torn apart, and U.S. citizen children ripped from the hands of their mothers. Employers will lose skilled workers, and our economy will take a hit of $280 billion in GDP loss over the next decade. It’s a heartless approach for someone who said he wanted to “find a solution” for dreamers and deal with us with “heart.”
We need every single member of Congress to support bipartisan legislation that will allow us to stay in the country we’ve called home for decades. Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, and Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, took the first step with the reintroduction of the Dream Act in July. This bill offers a lasting solution for dreamers to be able to work and live legally in the United States and continue contributing to our economy. It would benefit all of us — immigrants and Americans alike.
Leezia Dhalla, a Canadian-born “dreamer” who immigrated to Texas in 1996, is a communications associate at FWD.us. From the Washington Post.