Those of us who have fought in the struggle for immigrant rights are accustomed to both stunning victories and crushing defeats. Here in Florida, we have won in-state tuition for undocumented students, stopped the construction of a large, private immigration detention center and halted a variety of draconian anti-immigrant bills, including an Arizona-style “show me your papers” piece of legislation.
Despite all of this, we have not seen meaningful federal legislation that would provide relief to undocumented communities. Failure to pass immigration reform in 2013 by Congress prompted then President Obama to take executive action to provide relief from deportation for undocumented immigrants.
The record-breaking number of deportations and raids that took place during the Obama administration also has left a legacy of broken families and shattered lives within the immigrant community.
After years of struggle, these hard-won victories are now under grave threat by a Donald Trump administration. Trump’s promise of repealing DACA, the executive action granting temporary legal status and work authorization to undocumented young people who were brought here as minors and have grown up in this country for most of their lives, is now being echoed at the state level.
A bill introduced by Florida State Sen. Greg Steube, for example, would repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students.
These attacks on students are particularly painful and personal for me, as I once was undocumented. When I graduated high school in 2009, I felt aimless. No college would initially accept me.
Once I finally entered in Miami Dade College, I had to pay tuition as an international student, which was prohibitively expensive. As a result, I enrolled in about one class at a time for years. I even dropped out at one point. These barriers slowed my education, and I am finishing my degree six years later.
As my friends received driver’s licenses and built careers, I felt stagnant and feared that I would never be able to fulfill my dreams. Add to that the constant anxiety that any police encounter, such as a traffic stop, could lead to deportation. I felt dread, sadness and isolated.
Although I was able to resolve my legal status when I married my girlfriend, it makes my blood boil when I look at the way undocumented students, also known as DREAMers, are treated in this country.
My Chilean friend, Adrian Escarate, comes to mind when I think of the many young people who have used DACA as a springboard to contributing to the U.S.
Before he received DACA status, Adrian told me how he would work odd jobs, where he was often taken advantage of and had no means to stand up for himself.
Adrian is now an assistant coach for the University of St. Thomas tennis team. He is also a tennis coach for the Biltmore Hotel in Miami. When he is not working at those jobs, he is pursuing his graduate degree in communications.
Another friend, Tomas Pendola, lived in a roach-infested apartment before gaining DACA status. Today, he is a chemistry teacher at MAST Academy, a maritime and science technology high school in Miami.
Tomas’ family sacrificed a lot for him to earn his chemistry degree, even selling their house in Argentina to afford the expensive international student fees.
After he graduated, Tomas considered going back to Argentina to work, but DACA gave him the opportunity to use his degree here and contribute to the U.S.
To this day, he is educating a new generation of kids in America.
Adrian and Tomas are two of the 728,000 undocumented young immigrants who are the reasons why Congress needs to come up with a legislative solution to protect the DACA program and do so permanently.
With a president who has used his anti-immigrant policies to make political gains, legislative solutions are our last and biggest hope. Bipartisan bills that would protect vital lifelines, such as DACA, similar to the one proposed by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, will be crucial if we want to keep people, including Adrian and Tomas, who contribute daily to this country safe.
Republicans opposed Obama’s executive actions on immigration by claiming that they were an overreach of executive power and authoritarian, demanding that a legislative compromise was necessary.
Now that the Republicans control both houses of the U.S. Congress, will they step up and do the right thing to help people who are making this country great?
Time will tell.
Thomas Kennedy is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change Action. He came to the U.S. with his parents when he was 10 years old. He became a U.S. citizen last year and voted in his first election. He is an activist and organizer who fights for the rights of immigrants, including his parents who remain undocumented. The top photo is by Anna Reed of the Statesman-Journal via AP