‘Dreamers’ urge compassion for families, children at US border
Amid an increase in migration at the US-Mexico border, DACA recipients relive their own journeys to the US decades ago.
Washington, DC – Angelica Villalobos still remembers the bumpy, 16-hour bus ride that she, her parents and her four siblings took to reach the United States border 25 years ago.
The family, originally from the Mexican city of Guanajuato, waded through the Rio Grande River to finally get into the US, where they hoped to begin a new life with better opportunities. She was 11 years old and didn’t know how to swim.
“It was scary,” Villalobos, now 36 and with five children of her own, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview from Oklahoma, where she now lives with her family. “Once we started walking in the river, I couldn’t reach the ground, so I pretty much just had to hold on to another person who dragged me through.”
Villalobos got legal status in the US eight years ago under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, an Obama-era policy that gave her the right to legally stay and work in the US, but not gain citizenship.
Often referred to as Dreamers, DACA recipients – who currently number more than 640,000 across the country – have become active and vocal advocates for social justice and immigration reform.
Now, as thousands of migrant families and unaccompanied minors – many fleeing poverty and gang violence – arrive at the US-Mexico border in search of protection, Dreamers say the harsh welcome these migrants have received stands in stark contrast to the support they now enjoy.
“They’re fleeing violence and a lot of these kids are missing their parents,” Villalobos said. “We’re no different than those unaccompanied minors. They’re putting us in a different class of people because they are new arrivals, but we’re no different.”
When US President Joe Biden took office, he took immediate steps to try to overhaul the nation’s immigration system and overturn some of Donald Trump’s most anti-immigration policies.
In February, Democrats introduced a Biden-backed immigration bill that would create an eight-year pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, as well as an expedited citizenship programme for the Dreamers. Trump had tried to end DACA before the US Supreme Court ruled against him.
But the recent surge in the number of migrants arriving at the US’s southern border has put the Biden administration under scrutiny – and his plans for wide-reaching immigration reform appear to be stalled. In March, US authorities apprehended more than 172,000 migrants along the US-Mexico border, the highest tally in 15 years.
During a recent speech to Congress, Biden suggested tackling separate elements of his bill that are more likely to pass in the US Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority and a minimum of 10 Republican votes are needed.
“Now, look, if you don’t like my plan, let’s at least pass what we all agree on: Congress needs to pass legislation this year to finally secure protection for Dreamers – the young people who have only known America as their home,” Biden said during his address on April 28.
But there have been recent signs that bipartisan support for the Dreamers may be fraying. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently said Republicans are unlikely to support a separate bill for DACA recipients, without imposing tougher restrictions at the border.
“Well, all I can tell you is that everybody is sympathetic with the DACA issue,” McConnell said, as reported by US news outlet The Hill. “I can’t imagine that we would take up an immigration-related bill, no matter how worthy it might be … without insistence on our part that we address the obvious crisis at the border.”
The link Republicans are making between the Dreamers and the politically-loaded situation at the US-Mexico border comes as the US public opinion on the two issues differs widely. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center last year found that 74 percent of Americans support giving Dreamers permanent legal status in the US, while a growing percentage of Americans are concerned about the arrival of migrants at the border.
Elise de Castillo, executive director of the Central American Refugee Center, a refugee support group in New York state, attributed the difference to the fact that the Dreamers for the past decade have done a “fantastic job” advocating for themselves.
The Dreamers have shown the US public “the ways in which they contribute to our country and our society and economy”, de Castillo told Al Jazeera, pointing to demonstrations, marches and social media campaigns.
“That is why that population is as compelling as it is and has the support that it does on both sides of the aisle,” she said. “The folks at the border have not had that opportunity yet.”
Karen Herrera, a 29-year-old DACA recipient from Berkeley, California who came to the US from Mexico with her parents when she was three, attributed support for the Dreamers to the widely-held belief that they were innocent children brought to the country by adults who broke the law. That idea does not necessarily translate to other categories of migrants, she said.
“For some reason within the Dreamer concept, there’s a deflection of responsibility onto our parents, our caretakers. There’s a sort of a scapegoat mechanism going on,” Herrera told Al Jazeera. “I think that’s why the Dreamer narrative is so palatable.”
Diana Sanchez, co-founder of the Yonkers Sanctuary Movement and a former DACA recipient, said for the programme to pass under former President Barack Obama, the narrative had to be framed around the idea that “it was our parents who committed the crime”.
The 34-year-old said this argument had a profound effect on migrant communities: parents of DACA recipients were left out of the programme and remain undocumented.
It also promoted the idea that new migrants must live up to a certain standard before they are worthy of support, Sanchez said. To qualify for DACA, applicants must be below the age of 18 when they got to the US, live in the country continuously since their arrival, have no criminal record, and hold a high school degree or equivalent.
“Our parents were criminalised and new migrants are criminalised now partly because with DACA there is a need for perfection: students, people who are young, people who can contribute to US society,” Sanchez told Al Jazeera.
Nevertheless, despite calling the US home for years, many Dreamers still face challenges in the country, including the fact that they still have to renew their status every two years.
Luz Ochoa was 10 when she arrived in the US with her parents from Colombia. The 31-year-old said there is a constant worry that DACA could be rescinded, making her feel uncertain about the future. “There’s the fear of being illegal again, [that] at any point we can be raided and sent back to a country that I haven’t been to since I was 10 years old,” Ochoa told Al Jazeera.
She added that although every migration story is different, in many ways the journeys are familiar.
“I do remember coming here with just a backpack and that was everything I owned that was in there,” she said. “You’re leaving everything behind, and you’re really just trusting that the place you go is going to be better than the last.”