According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word dreamer has two definitions. The first, “one that dreams.” The other describes “one who is unpractical or idealistic.” But the term dreamer has taken on a new meaning, one riddled with emotional, political and controversial subtext not so easily explained away by a definition that trivializes those it describes.
One of those people is Armando, a Muhlenberg College student who asked that we not include his last name. Despite his contributions to the college and Allentown community, he has been delegated to the largely anonymous population of immigrants known as Dreamers. For Armando, the Dreamer narrative is problematic; for him, and so many like him, there’s a lot more issues behind the term.
“It says that some immigrants are more deserving than other,” said Armando. “Questions that focus on Dreamers feed into this narrative of good immigrant versus bad immigrant. The DREAM Act was introduced in 2001 and it’s upsetting that we are still debating if it should become law in 2018. The DREAM Act should’ve been passed years ago and we should be focusing on giving legal status to the people who don’t qualify for it.”
The people called Dreamers get the all-encompassing nickname from the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, a piece of legislation introduced but never passed that would provide its recipients a path to citizenship. Beneficiaries of the proposal would have to complete a series of requirements in a span of six years to be granted permanent residency.
Because of the failure to pass the DREAM Act, President Barack Obama introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy in 2012. DACA shares many similarities with its predecessor, allowing individuals who meet all the requirements a two-year period of deferred action from deportation.
Some of the guidelines for those enrolled in DACA include: came to the United States before their 16th birthday; have continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007; are currently in school; have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion, or have served in the military; and have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors.
According to figures from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, close to 800,000 people have been approved for DACA since its inception. However, 689,800 people still had DACA status when President Donald Trump rescinded the policy in September 2017. From those almost 700,000 immigrants, nearly 6,000 are in Pennsylvania alone.
Out of that number, there are some at Muhlenberg.
Armando came to the United States when he was two years old. His journey began with his mother who, in his words, risked it all and gave up her life in Mexico to give her children a better future. He, like his parents, worked various jobs to make ends meet — all while dealing with the frustrations of not having the ability to obtain a driver’s license or legal work.
Armando takes classes at Muhlenberg and works to offset the cost of tuition since undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal aid, whether or not they are a DACA recipient. He hopes to become a lawyer.
And while Armando is involved in the place he’s called home for over 20 years, he wants people to recognize the bigger issue.
“I understand that allies want to state our achievements to persuade Americans to support our cause, but I don’t think it’s helping,” said Armando. “Having a high GPA or being highly involved in the Allentown community and school should not matter. We all deserve a path to citizenship. We all deserve to have basic human rights.”
Darling Cerna ‘17 came to the United States with her parents when she was five years old. She found it difficult to adjust to the lifestyle here, made only more difficult because her entire family remained in Guatemala. She’s missed the opportunity to spend countless holidays with extended family, many of whom have since passed away, with Cerna unable to say goodbye. While her parents have found it hard to obtain the American dream without the ability to buy a home or take out loans, they sacrificed everything they knew and had to give Cerna and her sister better opportunities.
As a DACA student, it was challenging for Cerna to find a way to pay for a college education. Because of that, she feels like Muhlenberg chose her, not the other way around.
“When you’re a DACA student, it’s even more difficult to find scholarships and grants that do not involve federal aid,” said Cerna. “Muhlenberg was the only school that admitted me due to this reason. Sure, I would’ve loved to get ten acceptance letters and then pick the school I liked the most, but at the end of the day Muhlenberg was really the right fit for me. They paid for a large majority of my tuition, and I was extremely thankful.”
For four years, Cerna took classes and held a work study position. On weekends, she would drive an hour and a half each way to her job back home in New Jersey. After graduation, she got a job as a human resources coordinator for S&S Activewear, helping to facilitate communication between employees and management. She hopes to go back to school for her master’s degree in the fall, but with everything happening right now, she’s going to work for as long as she can.
For Cerna, she wants those opposed to DACA, and any path for immigrants to obtain legal status, to educate themselves and check their ethics. She wants to remind people that DACA recipients are everywhere.
“They go to school with your children, they go to work with you, they graduate college with you, they shop at the same supermarket as you and dream just as much, if not more.”
According to the Pew Research Center, there are approximately 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. With such a small percentage of those people benefitting from DACA before it was rescinded, policies like it still leave behind a majority of undocumented immigrants. While DACA helped Armando secure an education and put him one step closer to becoming a lawyer, it does nothing to help anyone who is ineligible or doesn’t fall into the guidelines, like his mother.
“We don’t want to leave anyone behind this time,” said Armando in a separate interview with the Morning Call.
Armando and Cerna are just two examples of the opportunities that DACA can provide for undocumented immigrants. Without it, they lose the ability to do things like own a car and pay for the insurance or work in the United States, things citizens take for granted every day. For them, and the innumerable other human beings policies like this would help, losing these protections also means forcible deportation from the country that is their home.
“To me, it doesn’t make sense to tell someone to go back where they came from, especially when most DACA students, including myself, were only a few years old when they came to this country,” said Cerna. “I am 22 years old and I only spent 5 years in Guatemala. If you do the math, that means I have spent 17 years of my life here. I am not an American on paper, but I am more American than anything else.”
Photo credit: “Philly DACA march” by Joe Piette September 5, 2017