Story by JaNae Williams
While the deadline for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is currently stalled by the federal court system, the future of all immigrants in the U.S., authorized and unauthorized, is facing challenges. Many from across the globe face uncertainty and hardship on their road to legal residency or citizenship.
DACA has been a heavily discussed issue since President Donald Trump decided to end the program in September 2017. DACA is a federal program that aimed to offer relief from deportation to those brought to the U.S. illegally during their childhood. Many recipients of DACA have no recollection of the country they come from, the cultures or even the languages spoken there. They have effectively lived their entire lives as residents of the U.S., but have done so without legal status. Through DACA, these young men and women are safeguarded from the risk of deportation and given authorization to be employed in the United States legally.
“Those thousands and thousands of Dreamers, who are out there now, trying to make a better life for themselves—they need to be protected,” said Democratic Rep. Scott Inman.
“Dreamer” is a term generally used to describe immigrants brought to the U.S., from Mexico and other Latin American countries, illegally as children and subject to DACA protection. However, a smaller percentage of DACA recipients also hail from Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and Africa.
Additionally, millions of other unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. do not qualify for DACA because it only extends to those who were under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012. Pew Research Center found that in 2015 the majority of immigrants in the U.S. were over the age of 34, which would make it likely that they would not be eligible for DACA. Further conditions also apply for qualification under DACA, and those who do not meet them have a greater chance of facing deportation.
There are also the overstayers—immigrants who come to the U.S. through legitimate means, but overstay the limits of their visas. These people statistically make up a larger number of the overall immigrant population than illegal immigrants, with most of them hailing from Canada, Europe and Asia.
Tony Torres, a nurse living in Brooklyn, explained that one of his friends from France has overstayed his visa.
“I think he is way less likely to be harassed or questioned about his citizenship solely on the basis of skin color and accent, but just like [other immigrants] he is as illegal as they get,” Torres said.
Unauthorized immigration is not the only part of the system with problems under scrutiny. Obtaining citizenship in the U.S. is an extensive process, requiring applicants to have knowledge of U.S. history, go through an interview and have lived at least three years as a permanent resident. In addition, those wishing to obtain citizenship must exhibit the ability to read, write and speak English, despite the U.S. having no federally recognized official language. These are only a sampling of the requirements for citizenship in the United States, and they typically only apply to those holding authorized legal statuses.
“The process is broken; there’s too much red tape. It takes too long for people to navigate the process, [so] we need to streamline that and make that more efficient,” Inman said.
Time and money are further concerns for those looking to gain citizenship or legal residency in the U.S. Filing for residency and citizenship can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars and it may take years for the entire process to be completed.
Can Onar was born in the U.S. to Turkish parents working here legally at the time of his birth. Onar moved back to the U.S. in 2013 after completing culinary school in Istanbul to have better opportunities to further his career. For Onar’s younger sisters, both born in Turkey, U.S. citizenship is not guaranteed. His youngest sister currently lives in Turkey with their father. The other is currently in the U.S. on an education visa that will expire at the end of May.
With his sister’s visa expiring, Onar must face the reality that she will be leaving soon. If she were to overstay her visa, it could jeopardize her ability to receive a green card in the future.
“We try to visit Turkey as often as possible, so I hope to see her again soon, but it is still very upsetting to be losing one of my supportive family members,” Onar said.
Onar’s mother also lives in the United States and has a green card. Obtaining a green card took a lot of patience and perseverance due to extensive paperwork and wait times.
“When we applied for a green card for my mom, we had a little bit of struggle. It took two and a half years to bring my mom into the United States, so waiting for it was hard,” Onar said.
For unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S., the path to citizenship is even more difficult, especially without DACA protection. The difficulty of the process leads to stressful situations among families.
Torres is half Puerto Rican and the son of naturalized citizens, thereby granting him citizenship. His mother and her siblings came to the country early in their lives and were blessed with a relatively pain-free path to citizenship because of their father’s years of work within the U.S., However, not everyone he knows gets that kind of easy transition.
“My mother’s current husband is illegal. He’s a hard worker. He’s been here for many years and works six days a week in construction,” Torres said.
With U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportations on the rise, families of immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally face the daily fear of their loved ones being deported. This is true for Torres’ stepfather.
“I would feel horrible if he got deported, but that’s the reality and fear we all live in now,” Torres added.
Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike see the immigration issue as one that needs work. Members of both parties think that tearing families apart is not an ideal situation and want the government to work with those living as unauthorized immigrants in the U.S.
“As far as people that are here already illegally, I have no problem with some guidelines to make that legal for them, as long as they go through the process,” Republican Rep. Roger Ford said.
However, for some there is a desire to eliminate immigration as a whole, and sometimes inaccurate sentiments may be attached to immigrants in an effort to bolster this argument. Immigrants are accused simultaneously of taking jobs from U.S. citizens and being lazy, violent, more prone to criminal activity and more likely to abuse social welfare, among other things.
Unauthorized immigrants are more likely to be victimized than to commit crimes, especially those involving violence. They also make up an estimated 5 percent of the workforce in the U.S., with an overrepresentation in farming and construction. Immigrants as a whole have a higher likelihood of working the labor-intensive occupations that many U.S. born workers avoid.
“Immigrants are hard workers. They want a better life,” Torres said. “But you will see, especially in the Trump era, that anything bad committed by an illegal immigrant will be blown up, drowning out the majority good.”
Torres explained that many in the U.S. have put the idea of “law and order” above humanity and empathy. He said that he has noticed how, under the current circumstances in the country, many are facing heightened racial profiling and discrimination.
“I mean, to the average American, foreign languages and cultures feel invasive, so I think that’s where a lot of that racism comes from,” Torres added.
Inman discourages lawmakers from making snap judgments about people and their ability to contribute to the U.S. based on their country of origin.
“For those politicians who sort of look down their noses at immigration as a whole and say ‘we just don’t want those immigrants to come here,’ in a very nationalistic view, I think that’s bad public policy and bad for the future of the country,” Inman said.
Despite the negative light cast on the immigrant population in the U.S., there are people working to highlight the positive aspects of immigration. From Einstein and Pulitzer to Liz Claiborne and Oscar de la Renta, immigrants have left a significant mark on the U.S. throughout history.
“Our country is built on immigration; it’s sustained itself on immigration. It just has to happen legally,” Ford said. “Immigrants obviously bring a lot to the table when the come to this country.”
Whether it’s in the invention of blue jeans or YouTube, without the input of immigrants, life the way most people know it might look vastly different. Acceptance will come through education and acknowledgement of the contributions immigrants make. Torres thinks that more emphasis should continue to be put on all of the great things that immigrants accomplish.
“[My mother and her siblings] all grew up to be college graduates. Those are the stories that are seldom told,” Torres said.
With a solution to the DACA dilemma unreached and even legal immigrants unsure of where they’ll stand in the future, voters will face decisions during midterm elections that could change the landscape of the immigration conversation. For the many hanging in the balance, those decisions could impact their entire lives.