Photo credit: Maisy Claudio, Stony Brook College Democrats
Local Dreamers’ futures uncertain
Soon after the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was announced in 2012, Eliana Fernandez struggled with hesitation to apply or not. Trusting the government with information about her status as an undocumented person came with pros and cons. After discussing with close friends and family, Fernandez applied, knowing the pros — being able to attend college and get a driver’s license — would outweigh the cons. “It felt like coming out of the shadows,” she said, reflecting on the day she was granted DACA status.
A native of Ecuador, Fernandez first came to the United States with her parents when she was 14 years old. Though nervous on the journey, Fernandez put faith in her parents, having daydreams of the idyllic ‘American dream.’ She started school at South Ocean Middle School, eventually graduating from Patchogue-Medford High School in 2006. “At the beginning it was difficult trying to assimilate into a new culture and fit in,” she said. “But after a year or so, I got used to it. I made friends and really loved living [in Patchogue],” she said, adding that she had a great high school experience.
Now 29, Fernandez has ticked off one goal after another on her list, including St. Joseph’s College and becoming a homeowner. Two of her siblings, who do not have DACA status, are also college graduates and homeowners, something Fernandez credits her parents for. “They came here to give us a better future and, most importantly, a higher education — something they didn’t have,” she said. “Now they can see that their efforts and hard work have paid off.”
Hoping to help other Latino youth, Fernandez now works as a case manager for Make the Road New York, an organization dedicated to justice for Latino and working-class communities.
According to Fernandez, her DACA application was thorough. “I had to obtain a lot of documents,” she explained. To qualify for the program, applicants must meet several requirements, including completion of high school or being enrolled in school at the time of application and having never been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor.
A bill called Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, commonly referred to as the DREAM Act, was first introduced in Congress in 2001, but failed to gain traction. The program, announced by President Barack Obama in 2012, acknowledges that many among the nearly 800,000 undocumented youth nationwide have grown up American. Recent data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services show that at least 14,000 Long Islanders were included in that figure.
“These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” Obama said in a speech announcing the executive action in 2012.
The executive order drew immediate criticism, and last week President Donald Trump moved to end the program. Announcing the program would be rescinded, attorney general Jeff Sessions said, “The nation must set and enforce a limit on how many immigrants we admit each year and that means all cannot be accepted. This does not mean they are bad people or that our nation disrespects or demeans them in any way. It means we are properly enforcing our laws as Congress has passed them.”
Those affected will not be deported overnight, Sessions noted. Some are able to keep their deportation protections through 2019. It’s not up to Congress to act on possible permanent protection, leaving many Dreamers to worry about their future: jobs, school and where they will be living.
Visiting Ecuador a few years ago when her grandmother fell ill, Fernandez realized that America is home. “It’s a very different lifestyle. I didn’t feel like I belonged,” she said. “While I was there, I just wanted to come back home.”
Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1) released a statement after the announcement last week in support of ending DACA. “If you want to come to America and pursue the American dream, follow the rules. If you commit a crime and are deported, don’t come back,” he said in the statement. “It is great to pursue the American dream and to consider yourself a ‘dreamer’ and everyone in the United States legally should consider themselves ‘dreamers,’ but you have to follow our laws.”
Zeldin agreed that the situation is challenging because many are minors who came here involuntarily. “What I struggle with the most is how you can possibly allow someone illegally in our country to be given preference over someone who is not in our country solely because that individual abroad is following the rules and respecting our laws and as a result they are not yet here,” he said in the statement, adding that he was open to working with Congress towards stronger immigration laws.
Fernandez, who is raising two children now, has been shattered by the news. “I cried when the news first broke,” she said. “But I’m trying to put myself back together and think about all the things I have been able to accomplish because of DACA. It’s something no politician can take away from me.”
She hopes to see elected officials work in Congress to come up with a solution that helps families stay together. “A piece of paper does not define us as people. We’re here and we want to be a part of the community. I’m happy to contribute to this country,” Fernandez said, frustrated at the misconception that undocumented Dreamers do not pay taxes. “I’m happy to pay taxes and see that money used in schools because I have received so many opportunities from this country,” she said. “And now I want to provide a better future for both of my kids.”
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