When I heard the news, I wept.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in the middle of announcing his decision to rescind DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the Obama-era program that has provided 800,000 young immigrants the opportunity to work and pursue an education without exposing themselves to the risk of deportation.
My tears fell for the hundreds of thousands of young people whose horizons abruptly shrank with the administration’s decree. How many would be forced to return to lives of hiding, fear, and missed potential? Brought to the United States as children – sometimes as babies in the arms of their parents – how many would now be separated from family members, deported to countries they barely know?
As I mourned the dreams of these young people, I was also crying for myself – not the successful professional, not the mother and grandmother of an American-born family thriving on U.S. soil, but for the 13-year-old new arrival I still carry inside me; the scared little girl whose voice speaks through mine.
Although I was lucky to have documentation when I came to this country, there are many aspects of the “DREAMer” experience to which I can relate. (DREAMers, of course, are named for the DREAM Act, a legislative effort to protect young immigrants that Congress has failed to enact.)
I was 13 years old when my family fled political turmoil in Nicaragua. Caught up, like DREAMers, in political tailwinds beyond my control, I spent my first year at the home of a half-brother I barely knew, separated from my parents and all but one of my siblings.
I know what it’s like to live with deep uncertainty. I know what it’s like to feel totally lost, to be mocked by my classmates for having the wrong shoes. You try to find the space where you will be least noticed so you can get through the day in one piece. That is a feeling that never entirely goes away.
More than anything, I relate to the fear so many are feeling in the wake of the administration’s DACA announcement – the primal fear of being separated from your family, the parents who gave birth to you, the people you trust most. Bureaucratic issues and the size of my family made it impossible for all of us to come here together. I arrived with one sister, unsure when I would see my parents again – if ever.
I remember how tightly I clung to my sister when the time came for us to go to separate classrooms at school. We were so inseparable people thought we were one person. The truth is, we were terrified of losing one another.
I was lucky – my worst fears were not realized in the end. After a year that felt like an eternity, my parents arrived, with documents that offered reassurance against future separation. But children are marked by these early experiences. The fear and uncertainty you feel when your family bond is threatened never fully go away.
This is why I weep for the children of DACA. The attorney general has yanked the rug out from under them, and the president has challenged Congress to reweave it. Perhaps that will happen.
But even if protections are eventually restored, these children will be marked forever by the frightening limbo into which they’ve been cast.
Several years ago, I returned to Nicaragua for the first time. The trip was a shock. As much as I wanted to feel part of the country of my birth, the truth was that I no longer belonged there. The displacement hurt.
For the young people made vulnerable by the decision to terminate DACA – many of whom remember no country but America – deportation would be tragic. I try to imagine what it might be like for them, thrust into an unfamiliar environment, perhaps not even speaking the language, and all I can imagine is terror and despair.
At Marguerite Casey Foundation, we are dedicated to comprehensive immigration reform. It’s a key part of our commitment to all families who feel pushed to the outskirts of the American mainstream by income, education, where they live, or where they come from.
Because I understand what it is to live in fear, the DREAMers themselves have my deepest admiration. This generation knows how to fight for its fundamental right to family in a way I could not have imagined as a teenager. When I see them in action, protesting, organizing, speaking out in public – asserting not only their rights but their fundamental humanity, despite very real personal risk – they restore my faith in the promise of democracy. This, of course, is the same promise that draws generation after generation to these shores.
In the midst of what I know must be profound confusion, facing the threat of terrible consequences, the DREAMers find the courage to speak truth to power. They remind me that we are all human beings and contribute to the American economy, whether or not we have papers to prove it. Together, we have the ability to bring that humanity to its greatest fruition, and to demand others respect it.
Luz Vega-Marquis is president and chief executive officer of Marguerite Casey Foundation. Equal Voice News is a foundation project. Her blog posts are featured on the Marguerite Casey Foundation website and in The Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter: @LuzVegaMarquis.
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