I could have been the perfect poster child. Brought to the United States from Ecuador at four years old, I learned English within nine months and became one of the first undocumented students to be accepted at Harvard, and one of the first in a doctorate program at Yale. I was grateful for DACA—the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order that President Obama signed in 2012. It provided renewable two-year reprieves for undocumented youth in which we would be able to receive work permits and, for the first time, legally work, drive, fly. We have contributed to the economy—rising wages mean higher tax revenue. Seventy-two percent of the top twenty-five Fortune 500 companies employ DACA recipients. Ninety-seven percent of us are currently in school or employed.
But I never identified as a Dreamer, which is what undocumented youth often call themselves and are often called. I couldn’t associate myself with a movement that asked for my legal recognition on the basis of my innocence, an innocence that depended on the culpability of my parents—that I was brought here when I was too young to know better. My parents brought me to New York, but I constructed my world out of nothing, just like they did. When I turned 18, I chose to stay. It is my migration, too. I have never felt comfortable arguing that I am somehow more deserving of a dignified life than my father because I got a high SAT score. (And I did, unlike Jared Kushner, fellow Harvard man, get a high SAT score.)
This week, the Trump Administration is likely to make a decision on whether or not to terminate DACA. Ten Republican states’ attorneys’ general have threatened to sue the government if they do not terminate DACA by September 5th. The President, though he has admitted to having a soft spot for Dreamers—in his inimitable tone, he has called us “incredible kids,” while also calling us “gang members” and “drug members”—is reported to be considering ending it. If he does not end it, he may have to fight his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who opposes the program, in court.
Some of his advisers, however—namely Ivanka, Kushner, and John Kelly—are urging him to keep DACA on the books and use it in exchange for legislation that seeks increased funding for private ICE detention centers, the famous border wall, and nationally mandating E-Verify, which would compel businesses to check their workers’ immigration status, and be fined if they don’t fire the undocumented. It is a devil’s bargain: will the lives of 800,000 immigrant youth be spared in exchange for those of their parents and elders?
This is the logical conclusion of the Dreamer rhetoric in the hands of a madman. Last night, I did not sleep, praying to a God I am not sure exists that DACA not be repealed, that hundreds of thousands of young people’s lives not end with the flick of a pen, but not at that price. My ex-therapist’s father wrote Sophie’s Choice, and I wondered if he would have understood. For the past few weeks, I have had nightmares of ICE badges, swastikas, and sudden death befalling my parents, and since the opposite of a nightmare is a dream, I wondered if I had at last become a Dreamer, hoping for something pure apart from the filth, praying to God to appeal to the better angels of a man I do not respect.
The accomplished young people who crowd our sympathies in the political theater are Americans, and we deserve legal recognition. In lieu of comprehensive legislation, DACA is our best recourse. But we did not come from nothing, Athenas born in full armor. We were raised by men and women who spilled sweat and sometimes blood for us, and I defy you to find a Dreamer who does not owe to their elders their lives and the work ethic you so admire. To use us as collateral against them is psychological torture, cruel and unusual, and it will destroy our communities.
One way or the other, such is the end goal of the Republican party. The administration’s decision on DACA is expected this week. Our parents will be watching, and so will we. As Caliban said to Prospero, in a text we read in our American schools, “You taught me language, and my profit on it is I know how to curse.”