It’s been a long and contentious eighteen years since the first Dream Act was introduced in Congress in 2001. The issue of providing a path to legal status for the undocumented youth who were brought to this country as children and grew up here has become one of Washington’s most enduring stalemates. For some of the 1.8 million Dreamers, who have grown up in the shadow of uncertainty and the emotional strain of often over-heated—and sometimes ugly—political sparring, the waiting and hoping has become a burden too heavy to bear.
Many have given up hope. One of the untold stories of this failure to acknowledge the value of these young people and their contribution to American society is that it’s estimated that, since 2005, as many as 500,000 Dreamers between the ages of 18 to 35 have given up, left their families, their homes, and their American dream and returned to Mexico. Remember presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s musings about “self-deportation”? Sadly, those musings seem to be coming true.
To understand the pressures of living with the uncertainties of the vagaries of this political game of now-you-have-it-now-you-don’t, it’s important to take a look back to recall how hopes have been buoyed and then shattered in an unending cycle of dashed dreams. In 2001, even with the support of then-president George W. Bush, the Republican majority in Congress blocked relief for the Dreamers. In 2006, Democrats took back control of the House and Senate. Even with the support of George W. Bush, the Dream Act came up short. In 2010, a version of the Dream Act passed in the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate, with just five votes short of the necessary sixty votes to allow the bill to proceed to a vote.
In 2012, President Obama, his hopes dashed for a bill he could sign to definitively end the burden these young people had been forced to live with, created the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. DACA granted qualifying undocumented youth temporary permission—for renewable two-year periods—to remain legally in the U.S. and to legally be employed. 800,000 young people came out of the shadows and signed on.
In July 2017, another version of the Dream Act was introduced in the Senate by Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) and in the House by Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL). Let’s be clear. The reason the Dream Act and its various versions have been introduced as legislation so many times over the years is because the concept of granting legal status to Dreamers is supported by the overwhelming majority of American voters. Still, in September of 2017, Donald Trump—in yet another gut punch to majority opinion—announced that his administration was ending the DACA program.
Obama speaks out
Former President Obama couldn’t remain silent in the face of this latest in a long line of cruel reversals. Obama issued a stark and passionate rebuke to Trump’s spurious targeting of young people—young people who contribute to their communities, serve in the military, and prove through the lives they’re living that they have earned a path to legal status.
Here was Obama’s plea:
“These Dreamers are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents, sometimes even as infants. They may not know a country besides ours. They may not even know a language besides English. They often have no idea they’re undocumented until they apply for a job, or college, or a driver’s license.
Over the years, politicians of both parties have worked together to write legislation that would have told these young people—our young people—that if your parents brought you here as a child, if you’ve been here a certain number of years, and if you’re willing to go to college or serve in our military, then you’ll get a chance to stay and earn your citizenship. And for years while I was President, I asked Congress to send me such a bill.
That bill never came. And because it made no sense to expel talented, driven, patriotic young people from the only country they know solely because of the actions of their parents, my administration acted to lift the shadow of deportation from these young people, so that they could continue to contribute to our communities and our country. . . Some 800,000 young people stepped forward, met rigorous requirements, and went through background checks. And America grew stronger as a result.
But today, that shadow has been cast over some of our best and brightest young people once again. To target these young people is wrong — because they have done nothing wrong. It is self-defeating—because they want to start new businesses, staff our labs, serve in our military, and otherwise contribute to the country we love.”
Reflecting the views of the majority of Americans toward the Dreamers, Obama called on Americans to reaffirm their patriotic sense of decency:
“Ultimately, this is about basic decency. This is about whether we are a people who kick hopeful young strivers out of America, or whether we treat them the way we’d want our own kids to be treated. It’s about who we are as a people — and who we want to be.”
What Dreamers say
In the video below, we meet Dreamers who speak honestly about their sense of loss, their frustration, and their deep reluctance to give up on their American dreams. You’ll meet Joshua Casillas, an accomplished student who dreamed of becoming a doctor in his hometown of Houston, Texas, but instead left home to study medicine at a university in Mexico. For Joshua, the constant stress of the threat of deportation had become too much to bear. As he says, “the future I dreamed of was over.”
We also meet Daniel Arenas, who grew up in South Carolina but, at the age of eighteen, returned to Mexico and founded a non-profit to help other Dreamers pursue their education and find job opportunities.
We also meet Paola Morales, an honors student who reluctantly left her friends and family to go to college in Mexico.
When Dreamers like Joshua, Daniel, and Paola—young people with extraordinary talent, intelligence, drive, and ambition—leave America behind, they are not the losers. America is.