While New York City’s Dreamers have obtained the benefits of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals for four years now, many are anxious about the altered dynamic of their community of undocumented immigrants and the uncertain future of their status.
Some Dreamers are experiencing a kind of survivor’s guilt, lamenting that not all Dreamers qualified for the program.
“We have to remember that because we have DACA, that gives us a privilege among other undocumented students,” said Diana Chacon, 21.
Chacon is very active in the undocumented community, having previously volunteered in Make the Road New York and now part of the Social Justice Project, a student-led organization at John Jay College that educates communities on social justice issues and implements on-the-ground approaches. She specifically reaches out to those who don’t have DACA to offer information on financing their education, food stamps, Metrocards and accessing financial aid.
“Having DACA is a huge privilege,” said Chacon. “I am able to have more opportunities than those who can’t. I always put myself in check when we are in an environment with undocumented folks.”
As she types away at a café responding to emails and researching human rights, a tattoo on her arm is clearly visible: “turn words into wisdom,” it says.
It’s fitting when considering how much she has educated herself on the rights of the undocumented community and the oppression their legal status represents. She conducts research for the Latinex department at John Jay and does community work for the Gender Justice Advocacy program, an internship she became eligible for after receiving DACA.
“The programs I’m in are very rewarding in the sense of what we do, underground community work,” Chacon said. “I haven’t been as happy as I’ve been when I’m in an environment like that.”
And so Chacon and other Dreamers are receiving small glimpses of the life they could only begin to imagine for themselves after the president’s executive action.
But the country’s path toward immigration reform remains uncertain. With a presidential election that has revealed the country’s polarization over immigration policy and with the possibility that a future Congress can easily end Obama’s executive action, many of their accomplishments can be taken away.
“There’s always that fear with DACA,” said Raymi Echavarria, 21. “But the benefits outweigh the risk.”
For Echavarria, the benefits also have to do with the professional fulfillment of community outreach and advocacy. She works at Cypress Hills Local Development Association, a community-based organization where she provides educational resources to Dreamers and first-generation students.
“I care a lot about the work we do,” said Echavarria. “I am really passionate about education and helping my community be able to move up.”
And before that she interned for a nonprofit where she evaluated the impact of educational programs on social policy.
But just like Chacon, Echavarria is conscious of her “exclusive status” among others in the community who did not qualify for DACA.
“It’s like I am disadvantaged within the [more] disadvantaged,” said Echavarria. “There are more opportunities for DACA recipients but everyone else stayed the same. It’s what all dreamers used to previously feel.”
These dreamers are united in their simultaneous gratitude and critique of the system. They feel as if DACA was an imperfect solution by the Obama administration that left many behind.
“Instead of, for example, comprehensive immigration reform or something more long lasting, this is like a band-aid for the meantime,” said Echavarria. “It can make people or policy makers more conformist about the issues that need to be dealt with within immigration.”
Echavarria resents the details of eligibility that make the larger picture of “giving opportunities to those who came to the United States as children through no fault of their own” elusive to many. For example, if a dreamer was above the age of 31 when DACA was implemented, he or she is ineligible, despite having arrived to the United States as a child.
“There are some that don’t fit eligibility criteria of dreamers who are very much dreamers,” said Echavarria.
Chacon is resentful of the conditions with the law that can disqualify someone from DACA or have it revoked, like those who have been convicted of a felony, had a significant misdemeanor, or three non-significant misdemeanors, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“Those undocumented students who protested for DACA and got arrested [may have] lost their chance at DACA,” Chacon said flatly. “It’s respectability politics. You have to be the person they want you to be. On a macro level, the way you portray yourself in society is important when you are on a thin line.”
As Chacon finishes up her research, her friend Gustavo Madrigal walks in exclaiming he has just received DACA. And now he can accept an offer for a paralegal position that had been stalled while he awaited his work authorization.
Now, with DACA, he wants to go to law school after a few years of working: “Plans for my life hinges on being here [in the United States].”
However, at the thought of his opportunities being overturned along with DACA if immigration policies take a tougher stance, he is not distraught.
“I am lucky to have DACA and this job now,” said Madrigal. “If I lose DACA and this job, that sucks. But there’s a fight that’s more important to fight.”
That’s the fight for immigration reform. He gets loud and his speech quickens when he starts listing ways people can find to stay. He points to the “timeless” method of getting citizenship through marriage. He says getting legal status in a serious way is through organizing.
“We can make our own immigration reform,” Madrigal said.
Chacon agrees because she said if DACA takes everything away from her, there’s nothing to lose.
Chacon and Madrigal acquired a sense of empowerment to advocate for the immigrant community after the small window of opportunity that DACA granted them.
“Knowing our rights is important,” she said.
But the reactions among Dreamers exist on a spectrum, where not everyone is on the end of enlightened advocacy and newfound strength in potential reform.
Chacon’s older sister, Carla, 25, for example, took a quieter approach by taking advantage of what she sees as a huge opportunity through DACA. But this inspired her to instead remain on the margins of the US’ unfolding trajectory toward immigration reform.
“A lot of people got motivated like my sister who became an activist,” said Carla. “I took advantage of it instead of being motivated. I got my license and I applied for a job right away. My sister didn’t get her license but got really motivated in her activism. There are people who are going to be fighting and representing me, and many of us. I’m with them. But it’s hard.”
And this is because she isn’t very hopeful at all that more opportunities will be provided to immigrants.
“A reform is not going to happen, I am being realistic,” said Carla. ”It was ahuge win for students and young people. Believing in reform is like believing in Bernie. It’s magical but this is the real world. It’s not going to happen.
If the Chacon sisters are on opposite ends of this spectrum, Echavarria is somewhere in the middle, who represents Dreamers wanting to stay in the only home they’ve really known.
“I don’t see myself going back to the Dominican Republic…voluntarily,” Echavarria says while laughing. “I don’t know what it’s like. I can’t even come up with specific reasons because I don’t know what life there would be like for me.”
Although immigrants, these Dreamers have developed a stronghold to the United States rather than the country they were born in. While DACA reinforced that grasp in some ways, their futures remain arbitrary.
“I wrote the “end of the world” on my calendar on election day,” said Chacon.