Isabel and her family do not discuss how they came to America -- neither the first ill-fated attempt nor the second successful one.
The first time was more than 20 years ago. After she and her family made their way to Mexico from Argentina, her father paid a professional human smuggler (they’re called coyotes) to escort them across the border. They were apprehended by authorities, detained and sent back.
Isabel (not her real name; she requested anonymity) was only seven years old, so her memory of the ordeal is murky. But she can remember a few things: Isabel’s mother trying to quiet her younger sister, who was snoring as she dozed in the shelter of some bushes; a bus driver ignoring their entreaties to stop for water; and the lights of San Diego shimmering in the distance.
“We could see America,” she says.
The next attempt, a few months later, was better planned. Isabel’s family traveled to the United States on a tourist visa -- they visited Disney World en route to New York City -- and never went home.
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A big part of the reason that Isabel’s family doesn’t talk about either journey with her is that she is angry about both of them, furious because she had no say in a decision that has profoundly shaped her life, altered her career and dictated her freedom of movement.
“I’m mad at every single aspect of their decision to bring us to the States,” Isabel said. “There was no sit-down as a family to discuss what we were doing.”
That’s not to say Isabel would prefer to live in Argentina rather than the United States. She only knows the South American country through dim recollections of childhood, and she has a built a relatively happy life in the U.S. But she wishes she could live a life unencumbered by the secret that she is in the U.S. illegally and that she did not have to constantly mislead her employers at the job she has held for a decade.
“I’m going to be 30 years old and I’m still in this limbo where, I don’t know, should I go back to my homeland?” Isabel says, adding that Argentina is “a foreign country to me.” “Should I stay here and wait until I marry someone?”
Recently, in honor of Isabel’s ten-year anniversary at her job as a photographer, Isabel’s boss bought her a ticket to Mexico for a vacation. She couldn’t tell him that she cannot travel out of the United States, so she acted pleased and improvised, saying she wanted to wait until she had found someone to travel with.
“It’s exhausting,” she said.
The plight of immigrants in Isabel’s situation -- young people who arrived in the United States before they were old enough to influence their family’s choices and were raised on American soil -- has taken a central role in the intractable debate over immigration in the U.S. In many ways, these illegal immigrants represent the most politically workable aspect of a much larger problem: what to do with the some 12 million immigrants living unlawfully in the United States, many of whom are no more likely than Isabel to uproot their American lives and return to the home countries they forsook in search of something better.
Immigration advocates view the DREAM Act as the best hope for a resolution. The bill would open a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who have stayed out of trouble, lived in the United States continuously and have pursued an education or military service. That bill made it out of the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives in 2010, but it was stalled in the Senate by opposition from Republicans.
In June, Obama found a way to act without Congress’ consent. He unveiled a program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (or DACA), that lets young immigrants apply for two-year immunity from deportation and, having received that reprieve, a work permit. It’s like the DREAM Act without the promise of citizenship -- or for that matter, any permanent legal status.
Livid Republicans said Obama had circumvented Congress in an attempt to shore up his Latino support in an election year. Whether that was his plan or not, Obama carried a commanding two thirds of the Hispanic vote across the country, and a record number of Latino voters helped build his margin of victory in swing states.
DACA’s existence testifies to the growing clout of the advocates for immigration reform, said Kamal Essaheb, an immigration policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center.
“The DREAMer movement was successful,” Essaheb said. “DREAMers organized and lobbied on behalf of themselves and their family members and were able to get the attention of the American public and the administration, and that’s how we got deferred action.”
And now the movement appears to also have the attention of Republican leaders. Last week, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) joined two outgoing Republican senators to unveil a GOP version of the DREAM Act, the ACHIEVE Act, that would be restricted to immigrants who have served in the military or gone to college and would offer only permanent legal status, not citizenship. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), a young Cuban-American lawmaker who is pushing his party to rehabilitate its image on immigration, also stopped short of offering citizenship in an alternative DREAM Act he pushed last year.
Creating a route to citizenship, conservative critics argue, would enable “chain migration,” in which immigrants use their new citizenship to bring family members over. DREAM Act advocates dismiss that argument as fear-mongering and insist that anything short of citizenship is unacceptable.
“There’s no question that immigrant communities won’t stand for anything less than a path to citizenship,” said Jacqueline Esposito, director of immigration advocacy for the New York Immigration Coalition. “We’re not going to accept second tiers of access to services and education and health care. That’s not what immigrant communities have been fighting for.”
Max Ahmed didn’t know that he was in the U.S. illegally until he won a scholarship he could not claim.
Ahmed’s family had traveled to the United States from Dubai when he was 11 to seek treatment for his older sister’s medical condition (they had settled in Dubai after fleeing the violence in Peshawar, Pakistan, Ahmed’s birthplace). He enrolled in high school in Massachusetts and won the prestigious John and Abigail Adams scholarship, which is given annually to the state’s highest achieving students.
But when he went home and excitedly told his parents about the award he had received, Ahmed was dismayed to encounter sadness and resignation instead of celebration. He learned that his father had overstayed the business visa that allowed the Ahmeds to move to the United States. Ahmed was in the country illegally and could not accept the scholarship.
“Of course I didn’t understand the immediate ramifications beyond the fact that college might be inaccessible, and at the same time I couldn’t say anything and I couldn’t even change that decision if I wanted to because the issue was that we didn’t sort of come here for any other reason” than his sister, Ahmed, who is 23 now, said. “We left everything back home just so my sister would have a chance at life over here, so if I had to do things differently I don’t know if I would have chosen a different path.”
After mulling the idea of skipping college, Ahmed moved to New York City and enrolled at the City University of New York. He struggled to pay the higher tuition international students are charged, and until DACA was announced, his plan was to take the skills he had gained in the United States elsewhere.
But DACA has changed his outlook. He has been approved by U.S. immigration authorities for a waiver and a work permit, and he is optimistic that the Obama Administration’s plan is the first step in the right direction for undocumented young immigrants in the U.S.
But not all people in Ahmed’s shoes feel the same way. Many are wary of promises from the president made during both of his campaigns and point to the fact that his administration deported a record number of immigrants. Obama has also embraced enforcement tools like Secure Communities, a fingerprint-sharing program that advocates have slammed for sweeping up low-level offenders in addition to the criminal immigrants the Obama administration has vowed to focus on.
“I’m hesitant,” Isabel said in response to whether she would participate in DACA. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Isabel is reluctant to share information about her status with the government because, like other immigrants, she fears that by applying for a visa, she would unwittingly alert authorities to her presence in the country -- and ultimately be deported.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Services has provided no assurances that immigrants who are denied DACA applications will be exempt from deportation. And after the two-year window expires, there’s no guarantee that immigrants approved under DACA won’t again be vulnerable. Of the more than one million potentially eligible immigrants, just over 300,000 have applied since the program began accepting applications in August.
Immigration advocates applaud DACA for removing the omnipresent specter of deportation, but immigrants who get the reprieve will still miss out on many of the benefits of permanent residency.
All but a handful will still be prohibited from traveling outside of the country. Even with a two-year work permit, many immigrants could struggle to find work at businesses looking for the stability of longer-term employees. Nebraska and Arizona have said they will refuse to issue drivers licenses to DACA recipients. The Obama administration has quietly said DACA recipients will be ineligible for federal health insurance programs, effectively shutting them out of participation in the Affordable Care Act. Buying a home could also be a struggle.
“Someone who has a two year work authorization is not going to qualify for a home loan,” said Doug Stump, president-elect of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “The loaning institutions want to make sure people are in the United States long enough to pay a mortgage.”
The Obama administration insists that DACA was intended as a short-term stopgap and has urged Congress to craft a broader immigration overhaul. Obama predicted before the election that, should he win, it would be because of overwhelming Latino support that would bring Republicans to the table. So far, he seems to be right.
But that doesn’t mean finding a compromise will be easy. Because it stops short of offering citizenship, Sen. McCain’s bill will likely be a nonstarter for many Democrats. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), the incoming chair of the House Judiciary Committee (which oversees immigration issues), voted against the DREAM Act in 2010 and has aligned himself with enforcement hardliners. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who reported he is working on a bill with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), said in a radio interview that Congress must find a way to tell the nation’s undocumented population to “come out of the shadows.”
But he stressed that doing so must be paired with tougher enforcement and employment regulations, including penalties on businesses that hire undocumented immigrants. He also floated changing the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship for anyone born on U.S. soil, an idea unlikely to find much traction with Democrats.
For many Republicans, the bitter experience of shaping the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 looms over the current landscape. Critics say the law provided legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants without correcting the enforcement gaps that allowed those immigrants to settle in the United States in the first place.
Two decades later, the country is again grappling with a huge undocumented population. And conservatives say legalizing DREAMers would give an incentive for more illegal immigration, trapping the United States in the same cycle.
“The DREAM act is being posited as a moral obligation: these were people who didn’t have the choice to come there so we have the obligation to grant them some sort of amnesty,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports reduced levels of immigration. But “if you’re a parent sitting in some other country and [believe] your son would be better off in the United States, the solution is to send their kids and the U.S. will again grant amnesty down the line.”
Still, addressing the DREAMers should be politically palatable for Republicans, given that young immigrants here through no fault of their own are “the most sympathetic case of illegal immigrants,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies. And the Deferred Action program has created momentum that will be difficult for lawmakers to undo, Krikorian said.
“This is a fully articulated government program” rather than just a policy shift, Krikorian said of DACA.
“My sense,” he added, “is that there’s a good deal of resignation in Congress that we should in a sense make honest people out of those kids, make this a legal as opposed to extra-constitutional status and get it out of the way. So in a sense the president’s strategy on this might work out.”
But Krikorian argued that any effective immigration reform has to tighten enforcement, because otherwise it would invite more illegal immigration. He cited a proposal by outgoing House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) that would mandate all employers to participate in a screening system called E-Verify.
“Most people can live with amnesty, as distasteful as it may be, as long as there isn’t going to be another amnesty,” Krikorian said.
In every conceivable facet of immigration, there are groups with dueling objectives. Businesses clamoring for more legal seasonal laborers butt heads with labor unions trying to protect American workers; progressive Democrats cognizant of the issue’s resonance for Latinos find themselves at odds with conservative Republicans whose constituents believe a tide of illegal immigration is transforming America for the worse.
Given that type of complexity and chronic disagreement, an incremental, piece-by-piece approach might be more viable than a sweeping immigration overhaul bill. But even passing individual immigration measures with bipartisan support is an uphill climb in a polarized Congress.
Rep. Smith of Texas, for example, has introduced a bill that would offer more visas to foreign students who obtain degrees at American universities in the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Despite bipartisan support for this idea -- both President Obama and Mitt Romney backed it -- Democrats have resisted Smith’s bill because it would offset the increase in STEM visas by eliminating the diversity visa program, a lottery for unskilled immigrants from underrepresented countries.
Still, people involved in the immigration debate are generally optimistic that there may be the will to get something done now, especially with the growing power of the Latino vote in national elections. But “let’s not be naive about how easy it’s going to be,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of the progressive organization ImmigrationWorks USA. “Can enough Republicans stretch enough? Are Democrats serious about being able to compromise, even though they think they’re in a position of power? In order to get a deal they’re going to need to make some concessions to Republicans.”
And as this debate ensues, Isabel worries that she will be too old to qualify by the time Congress passes a permanent fix for young undocumented immigrants. She just turned 29; the cutoff for the DREAM Act is 30.
“We just want a little piece of that freedom,” Isabel said. “We can take care of ourselves -- we’ve been doing it. Just let us do it legally.”