During the summer of 2012, I was working an unpaid communications internship in Tallahassee, Florida, with no hopes of ever getting a job that would put my college education to some use. It was not due to laziness, the economy, or unwillingness to seek a job in my preferred field. It was because I was undocumented.
All of that would change on June 15, 2012, a Friday, when I received a personal call from a White House staffer who told me to turn on the television. President Barack Obama was making his announcement regarding “DREAMers,” or young immigrants who arrived to the United States as children but lacked a legal immigration status. I had spent the past several years advocating for the program, so she wanted to tell me herself.
“I hope you understand that this program will benefit you, your brothers, and other immigrants like you,” the voice on the phone said. “Please apply, recruit others to apply as well. All we ask is that you protect people from being scammed by notarios or fraudulent lawyers.”
The staffer was referring to a new program the White House was announcing to temporarily shield DREAMers from deportation and grant them a work permit and a driver’s license. This was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, a program that has allowed me to live without the constant fear of deportation for the past five years. My life would change overnight.
And now, under President Donald Trump, the program could be taken away from me and close to 800,000 other DACA beneficiaries. After waffling on whether to sunset the program, Trump may cave in to pressure from several Republican state officials who are threatening to sue the administration if they do not end the program by September 5.
I am a longtime Florida resident, the oldest of three brothers, and a two-time graduate of Florida State University. I am also an undocumented immigrant who considers myself American in all ways but one — on paper.
A life in the shadows before DACA
My family and I came to the United States in 2000, shortly after Hugo Chavez became president of Venezuela. My parents had the foresight to predict the current chaos engulfing the oil-rich nation, which is why they left their family, belongings, and home in exchange for a chance to pursue the American dream. I was 11 years old.
My family’s hopes of eventually becoming US citizens were dashed in 2006 when we discovered that our immigration attorney mishandled our case. Never mind that my family spent six years and thousands of dollars waiting in the infamous “line” immigrants are often told to get in — a line conjured in the minds of Americans from old images of Ellis Island but, in today’s world, does not actually exist.
Nor did it matter that my parents had started to build a business of their own and paid taxes. It did not matter that they sent me and my younger brothers to public school in Miami-Dade and Broward County and that as young children, this country was our home. No. The only thing that mattered to the government was that my family could face deportation due to our lack of a couple of papers.
I was 17 years old when our immigration case crumbled. My life changed swiftly. Anxiety quickly set in as part of my daily routine. Everything that I did, whether it was work or academics, always carried the weight of uncertainty that came with being undocumented.
I carried big worries on my shoulders day in and out. Was I really going to school for a degree that I might be unable to use in the future due to my lack of status? Would my savings account come with me if I was deported from the United States? Then there were the everyday threats: fear of getting arrested, detained, and deported for doing something as simple as driving without a driver’s license.
In 2007, after watching my mother cry inside a college admissions office when she discovered that our immigration status meant paying off my college would be a paralyzing financial burden, I became an immigration advocate.
For the past 10 years, I have fearlessly and unapologetically advocated for the rights of the immigrant community. I have helped organize sit-ins inside congressional offices in support of the Dream Act, legislation that would allow young immigrants like myself to obtain a legal and permanent immigration status in the United States. I have collected hundreds of thousands of signatures denouncing Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies and attacks, a clear expression of my First Amendment right of free speech. And I have lobbied for in-state tuition for undocumented students in Florida, an effort that earned Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s personal recognition back in 2014.
I am proud of my work as an immigration advocate, mainly because it has allowed me to overcome my fear of being deported, but also because it has allowed me to help families across the United States deal with the depression that comes with being undocumented.
However, I am even prouder of the obstacles I have been able to overcome as an undocumented immigrant.
Ending DACA would disrupt the lives of nearly a million young immigrants
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was announced by President Obama in 2012, provided nearly 800,000 young people with the opportunity to live free from the fear of deportation. It also gave to them a sense of freedom, providing work permits and driver’s licenses for these young immigrants.
I have had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful DACA beneficiaries throughout my years as an immigration advocate. My friend Reyna Montoya is a local organizer in Arizona and a 2016 Soros Justice Fellow. Thanks to DACA, Reyna was able to teach high school students and participate in the Teach for America program. And just like Reyna, there are countless other young immigrants who have shown incredible passion and ambition for a variety of causes.
There is Yuriana Aguilar, an undocumented postdoc who is leading cardiovascular research at University of California, Merced, thanks to DACA. And there is Denise Rojas, a DACA beneficiary and student medical student at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai who was awarded Soros Fellowship for New Americans last year.
I remember feeling a sense of relief when my work permit arrived in February 2013. My DACA had just been approved, and all I could think about was the amount of possibilities that would be immediately available to me. I would be able to go to school without fear of deportation, get a paying job with benefits, and feel like my life had purpose once again — no longer was I bound by the fear and anxiety that plagued me for years. Now, even if for two-year intervals at a time, I would be able to seek out new and better opportunities to improve myself and my community.
That freedom that young undocumented immigrants have enjoyed for the past five years has yielded significant gains for the United States. Thanks to DACA, young immigrants have been able to pursue higher education, have started their own businesses, while others continue to work and contribute back to their communities. All of these young people are aspiring Americans, who are working day and night to make use of their temporary deportation protection to give back to, not take from, the country they call home.
My parents took a great risk for my future. It’s what families do. My family and I do not have a pathway toward citizenship, not today, tomorrow, or ever. That is why DACA is so important.
Ending DACA means disrupting the lives of almost a million people. Every single DACA beneficiary would be stripped of the ability to live in a normal life, from meeting financial obligations like mortgages to driving without fear. They’ll also become potential targets of Donald Trump’s aggressive deportation tactics.
Right now, DACA beneficiaries, often known as DREAMers, enrich this country with their talents, culture, and determination. All they want is for this country to allow them to work and study without using them as targets for deportation or prey for the white supremacists who wish to see them sent back to a country that they do not know.
Juan Escalante is an undocumented immigrant and DACA beneficiary. He loves pineapple on pizza, black coffee, and public radio. You may find him taking photos around Tallahassee, Florida, whenever he is not advocating for immigration policies at the state or national level. Find him on Twitter at @JuanSaaa.
This article is adapted from an open letter originally published on Medium.