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Life in limbo: Dream Act of 2017 renews hope in young immigrants

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Luis Valdez, a 20-year-old student at Cal State Northridge, fears he will someday be forced to leave his home and family if DACA is phased out and the new Dream Act fails in Congress. (photo/VICTOR ALEMÁN)

Jorge Padilla, 25, is a student, pizza restaurant manager … and an undocumented immigrant. The day after the Nov. 8 election was, without a doubt, “one of the hardest days of my life.”

“I was [just thinking], ‘OK, so what’s going to happen next?’ ” recalled Padilla, who came to the United States with his mother from his native Costa Rica as a child. “If I have to go back to my country I’ll feel like a complete stranger there, because I came to this country when I was 12 years old, so for most of my life I’ve been in the United States. What am I going to do if I go back?”

Padilla, who recently earned his certification as a paralegal, said he hopes to continue his education to earn a bachelor’s degree. As an undocumented resident, he lived in the shadows for many years. Padilla finally obtained the opportunity to start working legally while pursuing his studies thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which gives him and about 800,000 others like himself interim relief from deportation — for now.

Since the election, President Donald Trump has seemingly reversed (or at least not yet acted upon) his campaign promise to “immediately terminate” President Barack Obama’s DACA program, which was implemented via executive order.

But now there’s a joint bipartisan effort on the table that is providing renewed hope for a possible permanent legislative solution for undocumented young people like Padilla and other “Dreamers” — the Dream Act of 2017.

 

The future of DACA and the 2017 Dream Act

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) introduced the Dream Act of 2017, S. 1615, in the Senate on July 20. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-California) introduced a companion bill — the Dream Act, H.R. 3440 — in the House six days later.

Unlike DACA — which was launched five years ago this month, on Aug. 15, and continues to provide work permits and temporary protection from deportation for eligible undocumented young adults enrolled in the program who were brought to the country as children — the new bipartisan Dream Act would take it a significant step further: providing a path to citizenship for Dreamers.

“I think that there’s been some positive attention [since the new Dream Act] was introduced,” Ashley Feasley, director of policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), told Angelus News. “The bishops welcome this and immigration advocates welcome … this bill, both in the Senate and the House. … We’re also very happy to see that it’s a bipartisan bill, [which] is really helpful. … We really want a legislative solution to help these kids … who have already contributed so much and are real leaders in our communities.”

Currently pending in Congress, with no specific dates yet designated for debate or voting, the latest iteration of the Dream Act would benefit those who arrived in the U.S. before age 18; are here unlawfully or have DACA or Temporary Protected Status; and have been continuously present in the U.S. for at least four years when it becomes law. The bill also contains certain educational requirements and those who have committed certain criminal offenses would be ineligible to apply.

Though no dates have been announced concerning the Dream Act, the timing may prove crucial for DACA recipients: In a July 29 letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, 10 state attorneys general requested that the phasing out of DACA be announced by Sept. 5. Failure to do so will result in the attorney generals going forward with a pending lawsuit challenging the program in the Southern District of Texas.

“We are at a moment, in the sense that there is pressure now in relationship to DACA, and we’re really hopeful that this administration can signal support for DACA [in response to the letter from the state attorneys general],” said Feasley. “Eighty-seven percent of people … polled do not have a problem with DACA youths, their work and their contributions to this country. We’re seeing more support, but it’s so [necessary] that we continue to voice how important this is.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and 19 fellow attorneys general from across the country did just that, by sending a letter to Trump July 21 urging his administration to “not only continue DACA, but [to] defend it,” they wrote. “The cost of not doing so would be too high for America, the economy and for these young people.”

“The bishops see every day the fear that people have about what’s [happening],” said Feasley. “They want a larger reform to the entire immigration system, but they would like a [timely] solution for the Dreamers. … It’s really important that we urge our congressional leaders to move forward on legislation.”

Archbishop José H. Gomez released a statement describing the proposed new Dream Act as “an important first step in the immigration reform our country needs,” adding, “This is the right thing to do and the compassionate thing to do.”

“It would permanently lift the threat of deportation that right now hangs over the heads of more than 1 million young people,” stated the archbishop. “We are talking about people who have grown up in this country since they were young children. America is all they know. Right now, they exist in a kind of ‘limbo.’ ”

What’s next?

Luis Valdez, a 20-year-old student at Cal State Northridge, where he is currently majoring in theater, has lived in the U.S. for more than 11 years. A native of Chihuahua, Mexico, he initially crossed into the U.S. illegally with his grandmother, who was a resident. The family goals were for little Luis to learn English — and to get away from the growing violence in their hometown.

“Things weren’t looking so great in our town where we lived during that time,” Valdez recounted. “We started seeing a lot more violence, even at church.”

Once during a catechism class at their local church, Valdez and his classmates were unknowingly sequestered as their terrified parents waited impatiently while police followed a narcotics criminal trying to find refuge in the church. The confrontation ended in a shootout (a fact Valdez didn’t find out until years later).

A few months after his arrival in the U.S., his mother, father and younger sister joined him and his grandmother. In high school Valdez learned the extent of the obstacles he faced as an undocumented student, not least of which being the fact that he didn’t qualify for many educational scholarships due to his status.

“I felt very bad; I felt very discriminated against,” said Valdez. “And as soon as [Trump] got elected, I felt a lot of fear, wondering, ‘What’s next? What if I can’t stay here anymore? What’s going to happen?’ ”

In response to all of the uncertainty and “what-ifs,” Valdez said he started staying home more often and saving up his money in case he is someday forced to return to Mexico — which he fervently hopes never happens, because he feels he would lose his family, lose his plans for the future and lose his “home.”

“I do love my [native] country and I do want to go back to visit someday, but I don’t see myself living there anymore,” said Valdez. “[The U.S.] is my home.”

 

‘In God’s hands’

For now, Costa Rican Dreamer Padilla has good days and bad days as a student and restaurant manager. On the bad days, he wakes up extremely fearful, wondering, “Will this be my last day in this country?” or “Will this be the day somebody calls me to say, ‘[I.C.E.] picked up your mom’?”

Back in 2007, when there was a proposed bipartisan bill seeking comprehensive immigration reform, Padilla remembers crying and feeling devastated when the effort was shelved. Looking back, he still vividly recalls his mother telling him, “That’s why I didn’t want you to get your hopes up.”

This time around, as Padilla and so many others await the fate of the Dream Act of 2017, he is taking a wait-and-see approach and “leaving it in God’s hands,” said Padilla, who is a parishioner at St. Patrick Church in North Hollywood.

“If God wants it to happen, I will be happy; it’s not in the politicians’ hands, it’s in God’s hands,” he said. “Without faith, I don’t know what I would do. Faith has helped me a lot, to face my fears, to be patient. God has some purpose for me, for my mom and for everyone else.”

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