Looking for Citizenship in The City upon a Hill

By Ana Gabriela García

 

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Quote from, Tito, one of the Dreamers interviewed in this story.

“Five years ago, we as a country told 800,000 young people who came here when they, on average, were six years old: ‘Come out of the shadows, allow us to fingerprint you, allow us to take the picture, give us your address, tell us where your parents live.’ said Vanessa Bravo, assistant professor of communications at Elon University.

We told them: ‘Come forward, get out of the shadows, give us all the information.’ Now we are telling them: Just joking, and we can deport you.”

On January 2017, president Donald Trump re-ignited the discourse on immigration reform, when he issued the executive order for ‘Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.’ This order rescinds Obama’s 2012 executive order for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

The rescinding of DACA surfaced issues related to the human rights and privileges of Dreamers, those protected under DACA, the powers, policies and capabilities of U.S.’s immigration law and the capacities of immigration enforcement agents.

“I think as a country, that’s not who the United States is supposed to be,” Bravo said.

What is DACA?

DACA uses deferred action to give illegal aliens who came to the U.S. before the age of sixteen certain benefits that had otherwise been denied to them by law, such as the eligibility to request employment authorization. Deferred Action means that prosecutorial discretion is to be applied only on an individualized case-by-case basis.

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Information sourced from the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services Website

A person whose case has been deferred cannot unlawfully reside in the United States, nor can deferred action give an immigrant lawful status.

DACA Recipients

National Numbers

“I always grew up, with the basic knowledge of the fact that, ‘hey, you’re not a regular person. You are a quote-on-quote ‘illegal’. People don’t think of the psychological toll that puts on people.”

“I always grew up,” Tito, a 20-year-old Dreamer, and activist, says, “with the basic knowledge of the fact that, ‘hey, you’re not a regular person. You are a quote-on-quote ‘illegal’. People don’t think of the psychological toll that puts on people.”

The United States’ immigration population is 40.7 million people, according to a report by Nolan G. Pope. It is the largest immigrant population of any nation in the world. The U.S. also has four times as many foreign-born residents than any other country, and many of it’s immigrant youth and former DACA recipients came to the U.S. around the age of six.

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Information sourced from the Pew Research Center

Many experts, immigrants, and citizens alike claim that DACA recipients and Dreamers, having grown up in the U.S. for the majority of their life, are just as American as native-born citizens. Carla Mena, a 27-year-old Peruvian-born Dreamer and activist who grew up in North Carolina says that she is a southern-bred American, who even knows the colors and the design of Raleigh’s flag.

“We have all these things that we grew up with, that are so ingrained within ourselves.” Mena said. “We’re so loyal to this country that is so not loyal to us. And that is so wrong.”

Bravo’s beliefs align with Mena’s. She says,

“These [DACA recipients] are Americans, it’s just that they weren’t born in the United States. But by any other mean, they consider themselves American. They grew up in this country.”

“I think it’s about human dignity,” Carla says, “and I think we have been so removed from that at this point, and I hope that a Dream Act passes or a comprehensive immigration reform passes. We have done so much and I think it’s time for us to be recognized and be elevated, instead of being told we’re not wanted here.”

DACA in North Carolina

In the last three decades, North Carolina has experienced one of the fastest growing immigrant populations in the U.S. In 2000 this population rose to 7.6% from 5.3% in 1990. In 2015, the American Immigration Council reported that 7.9% of the population (794,684 people) were immigrants.

A 2013 fact sheet produced by Noth Carolina’s Budget & Tax Center found that in Alamance County, specifically, 7.3% of the residents are immigrants.

In fact, according to a study by The Latino Migration Project University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC was the state that sent the highest number of DACA applications in 2012 and 2014. 75% of an estimate of 26,000 eligible unauthorized immigrants in the state applied, and 21,389 of those applications were accepted.

Despite the growing numbers of immigrants, some of which are recruited by industries looking for foreign-born individuals, the legal means of entering the country, ergo the state, have diminished. The percent of unauthorized immigrants in this state is nearly double that of the national rate, 26%. It is estimated that in 2012 about 44% of the immigrant population in North Carolina (350,000 people) did not have legal immigration status.

DACA’s impact on the state was significant not only because of it’s large population but also because it helped stop the state from almost consistently passing restrictive legislation aimed at immigrants. The 2006 North Carolina Driver’s License Law, for instance, which barred immigrants from obtaining a driver’s license, was replaced soon after DACA in 2012 when the state passed a law that enabled recipients to apply for driver’s licenses.

Economic Breakdown

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Information sourced from the Pew Research Cente

The Nolan G. report found that 3.6% or 11.4 million of these immigrants have no lawful legal status within the country — and therefore suffer greater economic challenges than other residents. 

Moreover, immigrants contribute greatly to North Carolina’s economy. The same 2013 fact sheet produced by North Carolina’s Budget & Tax Center reported that immigrants make up both one in ten laborers ages 18 to 64 and one in ten of the state’s small business owners.

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Information sourced from New American Economy

 

The Powers & Limitations of DACA

DACA’s impact on immigrant communities in the U.S. was, for the most part, a positive one. It was successful in that it integrated immigrants further into the American economic and social spheres that were once prohibited to them, for lack of basic facilities and tools, such as driver’s licenses and social security numbers.

For instance, while Mena was getting her undergraduate degree at Meredith College, she only used her car for basic necessities: work and school. And she never drove at night, for fear of being pulled over.

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Carla Mena and Tito address a DACA panel hosted by Elon University. Sourced from ENN.

“I turned 21 reading for my organic chemistry class,” Mena said. “There was no partying in my life that really happened because I was too scared to drive. And I had to be okay with that. Because that was my reality and I had one goal: I needed to graduate from College and that’s all. So I did.”

While DACA did help her get a job after college and advance in her professional and personal life, both she and Tito knew that the program was still not representative of comprehensive immigration reform. Tito states that,

“Something like DACA… we all know is not a solution, we also know that it did not even offer a pathway to citizenship or anything like that, it just offered the basic ability to own a driver’s license, and to work and to go to school. The fact that we’re fighting so hard for just this, it says so much.”

“The fact that we’re fighting so hard for just this, it says so much.”

In addition to DACA not providing Dreamer’s with a pathway to citizenship, it also could not work as a replacement for a VISA.

“People who had DACA had to pay an additional three hundred and sixty-some additional dollars, whatever it was, to ask for permission to leave this country,” Mena said. “And then on the way back, we would have to pray and hope that the immigration agent will let us back in.”

Tito remarks on the frustrations that this misconception brings him presently when he lobbies.

“One of the most frustrating things ever is every time I go lobbying or try to talk to my representatives, they look at me straight in the face and they’re like: ‘Why haven’t you become a citizen yet? I’m trying to explain to them that I can’t even get a driver’s license and they’re over here asking why I’m not a citizen.”

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Information sourced from the Pew Research Center

 

When DACA was implemented, there was no government-sponsored or funded legal infrastructure to assist immigrants in the process of applying for DACA. Immigrants heavily relied on non-profit organizations, like the North Carolina Justice Center (NCNJ) based in Raleigh, to help them in circumventing obstacles, like the affordability of legal assistance, when enrolling.

Many immigrant communities, who were out of reach of non-profits, were targeted by ‘notarios,’ unlicensed individuals who practiced fraudulent law.

Money played a big role in being able to enroll in DACA. It cost close to five hundred dollars to apply to be a DACA recipient. Mena was one of the thousands of unauthorized immigrants who worried about not being able to get the money to apply.

“They were two of us, my brother and I,” Carla said. “That’s almost a thousand dollars. And we all know, as people of color, we don’t have money laying around.”

What was most baffling to her about the DACA enrollment process was that she needed to write an essay explaining why she needed to work and then pay additional for that in order to apply for work authorization. The total application ended up costing Mena close to five hundred dollars.

“You need to pull money from the places you don’t have,” Mena said. “And then help your community, to make sure no lawyer, no ‘notario’ was making money off of the backs of people that had been suffering for years.”

One of the biggest obstacles Dreamer’s faced when enrolling for DACA, other than the ‘notarios,’ was providing the government papers that proved they had come to the United States as early as 16, lived there ever since and were living in the U.S. at the time of the announcement of DACA’s implementation.

 

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Information sourced from the Pew Research Center

This was a difficult request for the immigrant community. Undocumented immigrants, for evident reasons, avoid interactions with institutions and agencies that provide them with any document or indication of their unofficial presence in the United States.

Mena herself remembers running to Bank of America to make a deposit when she learned of this criteria. This bank account was the first receipt, the first tangible piece of evidence that she had been living the U.S.

“I had to prove to America that I had been here,” Mena said. “Because at some point I was trying to be under the radar, and at that moment, I had to prove that I had been here.”

 Waiting in Line

For Tito, “The biggest misconception of all is people’s concept of the U.S. immigration system. It does not work in a line, it doesn’t even work in general. It takes like twenty years for someone to even be considered for residency.”

 Perhaps the reason why dialogue surrounding immigration offers very few or unsatisfactory solutions is because it is convoluted and misinformed. The conversations that seem to be suffering most from this lack of understanding are those regarding the attainment of citizenship and the attainment of visas or green cards to enter the country legally.

“The great myth around immigration is that you could just get in line and wait for your turn to come.”

“The great myth around immigration is that you could just get in line and wait for your turn to come,” said Heather Scavone, the director of the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic.

Very few immigrants have neither: the strict requirements to attain a visa or green card, which include having excellent credit, owning property and a business, and which vary depending on the country they come from. Nor the avenues to obtain the status of permanent residency and then citizenship.

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Infromation sourced from Pew Research Center

 

Citizenship status is in fact mainly given to people as a result of a very specific circumstance. Including, familial or professional relationships, or misfortunes, like being a victim of a serious crime or being persecuted for one’s religion or race in one’s country of origin.

Bravo concurs with Scavone on this.

“There is no back of the line. If you don’t qualify for those few categories, you just don’t qualify.”

Additionally, where there is a line, it often tends to be too long.Heather recalls her own experience with “line,” specifically the one in immigration courts.

Scavone recalls her own experience with “line,” specifically the one in immigration courts.She was representing a Guatemalan woman with a group of Elon Law students in March of 2015 and found out that the only time available to calendar a hearing for the woman was in November of 2019.

Scavone argues that these extremely strict and specific pathways to becoming a citizen are the main reason why the United States needs to rethink its legal immigration structure through comprehensive reform.

“For 99 percent of the world’s population there is no line to get in.” Scavone said.

Doing it Right

Debates on immigration often include the rhetoric of ‘if you’re going to get your papers, or going to enter the United States, do it right.’ This rhetoric steers the conversation away from the true and more important question underlying debate on immigration: Is there a way to ‘do it right?’

“There is no right way, because it’s under the discretion of a person, however they feel at that moment.”

– Carlos

 It took Carlos, the pseudonym of a former DACA recipient, Elon student and Marine veteran, the majority of his teenage years to fight to attain his social security, work permit and then, finally, his residency.

Ironically, if ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents and the police had not threatened to deport his mother, their family would never have been able to claim their status as residents. Because after she was stopped by ICE, his mother was forced to fight a tormenting and lengthy legal battle to achieve political asylum.

Yet, while took Carlos years to attain his residency, the process to get his citizenship lasted only three days. It was all thanks to the first sergeant of his platoon in the marines, who began the procedure to get Carlos his citizenship the very same day he found out Jorge was only a resident.

“I was chilling in my room… I had my camouflage pants, my socks with my chanclas on, my t-shirt, playing my FIFA game,” Carlos said. “And then all of a sudden I hear somebody calling the first sergeant and asking for me. I jumped out of my couch and ran.”

Carlos was already a seasoned marine and had just signed up for his four-year contract as a team leader, overseeing three marines. He had completed his boot camp at Paris Island, done his AP Hill training and went to the Majove Viper desert in California.

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Is this what it means to ‘Do it Right?’ And if it does, why does his path to citizenship, substantiated with the credibility of legal battles and military service, feel like a circumstance of luck?

Had deployment to Afghanistan not been around the corner, would the sergeant have checked his papers and found out he was undocumented?

Had his mother not been stopped by ICE, would he had ever gained the residency status that allowed him to join the marines in the first place?

“Let me tell you about doing it right,” Carlos says. Next to him are Tito, Mena and Christina, three undocumented young people who were discussing immigration policies, officers and their experiences.

“It’s not true,” Tito says before Carlos can continue speaking. But it doesn’t matter that Jorge was interrupted because it’s true and everyone at the table knew it.

“The credentials for you to come here varies,” Carlos says, “according to the country you are from.”

“The poorer your country is, the less likely you are to come here,” Tito says.

Mena argues that the likelihood of entering the united states and gaining citizenship varies depending on the day and the immigration officer attending the specific case.

When Mena and her family first went to apply for their visas in the American embassy in Peru, they were told ‘not today’ by the immigration officer.

Then, after finally getting their visas in Peru, one of ten years for her mother and two of five for her brother and herself, an immigration officer at Miami International, changed their visas to last three months each.

Mena still hasn’t been able to get her citizenship, and now with the rescinding of DACA, her situation is more precarious than ever. Yet, her argument on the power of immigration officers is resounding, and everyone at the table nods.

“There is no right way,” Carlos says, referring to coming to the U.S. legally, “because it’s under the discretion of a person, however they feel at that moment.” Immigration officers have too much power, Carlos believes, and act like persecutors and judges. Jorge also makes the comparison to the current issues that law enforcement has with abusing their power.

Immigration officers have too much power, Carlos believes, and act like persecutors and judges. Carlos also makes the comparison to the current issues that law enforcement has with abusing their power.

“It’s kind of like what’s going on right now with the police force. They have three or four jobs. They are ICE agents, they are persecutors, they are judges.”

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TAKING THE FIRST STEPS FORWARD AFTER THE RESCINDING

Tito clears his begin speaking at Elon’s DACA panel.

“My name is…” And he pauses.

“…one of the illegal aliens that y’all hear about all the time, because that’s who we’re known as.”

His dry and sometimes dark wit is not fully understood by all the audience members. His point, however, comes across clearly.

“We’re in this room,” He says, “because of lack of basic, mutual, human understanding. The reason why we have to sit here and explain to y’all why our existence matters or why our lives are important or why we deserve to have basic human rights, and to be valued and to be allowed to own a drivers license or be able to work is all because of the dehumanization and criminalization of our community.”

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How do citizens work with their communities to bring back basic, mutual human understanding? Jessica Carew, assistant professor of political science at Elon University, believes that we should be working to eliminate certain harmful narratives surrounding immigrants. The diction used in immigration discourse can affect the way we think about individuals who might seem to be in violation of the law.

“It is really important that we are working to say, hey, those individuals who are on DACA are hardworking and they are contributing to society.” Carew said.

“However,” she says, “[…] we’re setting up this strange dynamic in covering it this way, as our public discourse regarding DACA enrollees, and that’s because if you say these DACA individuals are the good people, then we set up for ourselves in society the idea that any other people who are undocumented are not the good people.”

“… if you say these DACA individuals are the good people, then we set up for ourselves in society the idea that any other people who are undocumented are not the good people.”

Taking Action

For Mena, what allies should be doing is actively finding out, on a person-to-person basis, the way DACA has affected her and the larger immigrant community. The humanity of it, the clear and palpable distress and pain that lack of immigration reform has caused, will motivate allies to protest and work alongside Dreamers to attain reform.

“You need to make sure you find out what I’ve gone through, what he’s gone through, what all my other friends have gone through because that will enrage you,” Mena said.

Heather also believes that citizens are instrumental in the fight for comprehensive immigration reform, and should physically and visibly support non-citizens. Since, she believes, that citizens are protected in a way that non-citizens are not.

“If you think about it, non-citizens, in terms of their advocacy abilities, have more to lose and more to risk by going out in the open and protesting and being politically visible,” Scavone said. “So visibly supporting non-citizens is one thing that can do. And doing that by supporting legislation that’s going to help individuals with an outcome akin to the Dreamer legislation.”

 For Carla and many other Dreamers, the rescinding of DACA didn’t put an end to the fight for comprehensive reform, it re-ignited it.

“There’s no reason to stop fighting.” She claims. “Yes, maybe there will be deportation procedures. From now until those six months we got a lot of work to do so that we’re not in deportation procedures.”

“There’s no reason to stop fighting.”