Tonight, Luis is sharing his story.
At Morley Library in Painesville, he’s seated at a table as part of a panel discussion on immigration hosted by Ideastream’s Sound of Ideas.
Luis is a young man with a thin mustache and scruffy beard. He wears khaki pants and an olive sweater over a white shirt. He’s asked for his last name not to be used. As a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program instituted by former President Barack Obama, he speaks to a largely white, middle-aged crowd of nearly 200 that sits in a makeshift auditorium between the stacks.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty out there,” says Luis, his eyes scanning the crowd. “The laws could change — ”
He snaps his fingers.
The snap is sudden but prompts little reaction. In many ways, it epitomizes the situations young men and women face as DACA recipients. Their legal status could be upended with one Supreme Court ruling. Yet the nation, caught up in daily political drama, seems unable to keep up with their plight.
Set up by executive order in 2012, DACA provided renewable two-year protections for anyone illegally brought by their parents to the U.S. as children, or whose legal immigration status expired before the program was announced in 2012. It was meant as a temporary solution that gave opportunity to a unique group of individuals. Those eligible for DACA needed to be younger than 31 when the program was created, had to prove they had lived in the U.S. continuously since June 15, 2007, and had to be younger than 16 when they arrived. Other requirements include no felony convictions, being enrolled in or graduated from high school or college or serving in the military.
Luis’ parents brought him to this country when he was 3. He is now one of an estimated 669,000 DACA recipients nationwide, nearly 4,000 of whom are in Ohio, according to the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Though specific breakdowns for Northeast Ohio are not available, the Institute estimates that approximately 500 DACA recipients are in the Cleveland area.
The risk of what may happen if DACA is rescinded makes many DACA recipients unwilling to share their stories, but for this panel, Luis is willing to represent those who came to the U.S. as children and who, for all practical reality, grew up as U.S. citizens. He understands the climate regarding immigration. His aunt was deported after a traffic stop. His uncle had a legal green card and is on a path to citizenship, but his wife is now on a several-year waiting period before she can return to the United States. Their five children, all U.S. citizens, went to Mexico to be with their mother.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Luis.
He speaks directly into the microphone, but not forcefully, and without anger. He describes life before DACA, when he knew he couldn’t go to college or get a job because he was living in the country illegally. As a result, there was little incentive in high school. With DACA, he can work and further his education. The program provides immigrants with a social security number, a work permit and the ability to go to school.
“Without DACA,” he says, “I honestly do not know what I would be doing right now.”
As he talks, he fields questions on criticism of immigrants and the rule of law. In September 2017, President Donald Trump rescinded the DACA program, stating, like
many Congressional Republicans, that Obama’s action was unconstitutional executive overreach. Trump delayed his action by six months to give Congress time to act, but the courts stepped in, ruling Trump had to accept DACA renewals, but not new applications. Trump’s administration has appealed, and the case has gone to the Supreme Court, which plans to hear arguments in October. That means the court could make a decision by early next spring.
Though the land of the free and home of the brave has not completely shut its doors to immigrants on the southern border, a clear path toward U.S. citizenship and refugee status for immigrants has become far more difficult under Trump’s administration. Trump has talked extensively about building a wall between Mexico and the United States — at times offering to trade wall funding for DACA protections.
According to The New York Times, deportations with the help of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have increased by 13%. During the 2018 fiscal year, the Trump administration deported 256,085 people.
When Luis is asked what he thinks of the tensions surrounding DACA and the criminalization of immigrants who brought their children to the U.S., he doesn’t argue, even when he’s told some people believe his parents should be deported.
“I understand where they’re coming from,” he says. “But at the same time when you’re living in a poor country and you can’t provide for your family, you do whatever it takes to provide for your family and lead them to safety. My parents are not criminals in my eyes, even though in the eyes of American law, they are criminals because they crossed the border illegally. They’re my saviors.”
Luis has two younger siblings who were born in the U.S. who are legal citizens, but his legal status and that of his older sister are dependent on DACA’s survival. It is one of the cruel ironies of the immigration debate. Children too young to remember being brought to this country face the possibility of being separated from their citizen brothers and sisters who were born in the U.S.
In June, the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019 — which grants DACA recipients and other young immigrants without documentation a path to permanent residency and citizenship — passed out of the Democratic-led House of Representatives. Hopes that a Republican-controlled Senate will even consider the bill are not high. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said publicly he will “probably not” allow the bill to come to a vote. The Trump administration has also stated they would veto the bill. Until Congress agrees on and passes an immigration bill, or the Supreme Court rules on DACA’s constitutionality, DACA recipients are left in an eerie state of limbo, wondering about the future as they ponder a past most of them never knew.
To hear the stories of Cleveland-area DACA recipients is to understand why they were brought to the U.S. It is to know what they’ve done since they arrived. And it is to tangibly feel the uncertainty that, in some cases, keeps them up at night in fear of what might happen to their families and their future.
“I believe that there [are] better things we can do in order to improve our immigration laws and our border security,” says Luis. “But let’s not toy with people’s lives here.”