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“I want more than anything to just live my life”: DREAMers wrestle with being used as “hostages” in immigration debate

The status quo is unbearable. So is the guilt of selling other immigrants out.

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On Capitol Hill, it all looks so easy. The White House offered Congress a tradeoff: agree to cuts in future family-based immigration and a tightening of asylum law, in exchange for allowing 1.8 million unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children (including the 690,000 immigrants affected by President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) to become legal immigrants and ultimately United States citizens.

To President Trump, the proposal represents a compassionate solution for the generation of immigrants known as DREAMers, one Democrats could only reject if they didn’t really care about immigrants after all. To Democrats — and to national immigrant-rights groups, including those led by DREAMers themselves — it’s a total nonstarter, an artifact of white nationalism not even worth considering.

But to DACA recipients around the country, the debate is wrenching to follow. And the choice being presented — a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers in exchange for harsh limits on future immigration — isn’t easy at all.

It’s “very stressful,” confided DACA recipient Vella Tembe. “We have so many questions still and are quite worried,” wrote Skylar Roush (whose girlfriend is protected under DACA).

As more than one DACA recipient put it, the whole situation — living without the certainty that legal status would provide while having to follow from afar the debate over their futures — “sucks.”

It’s not that DACA recipients are split over the White House’s proposal itself — ultimately, most agree it’s unacceptable. But that doesn’t make it any less painful a decision to make, especially for a generation of immigrants weary (and wary) after years of political fights with little to show for them.

“We are being used as hostages”

Some of the DACA recipients who talked to me in the hours after the White House’s plan was released were every bit as resolutely opposed to the framework as the national immigrant-rights’ groups have been. “I’d rather live in legal limbo than concede to these horrific points that would hurt future immigrants, including my family,” wrote DACA recipient Adriana Garcia Maximiliano, a PhD student at the University of California Irvine.

Many rejected the explicit tradeoff in the White House proposal between legalizing current unauthorized immigrants and barring future legal immigrants. DREAMers ”should not stand for a deal that gives us dignity and peace in the country we call home but that also will deny potentially millions of families from reunifying with their loved ones,” said activist Eduardo Samaniego. Samaniego was unable to apply for protection from deportation under the DACA program but would be legalized under the framework the White House offered — a framework he, nonetheless, is urging his peers to reject.

At the same time, many acknowledged that Democrats would have to make some concessions. One DREAMer named Christina noted that “In this political climate we aren’t able to demand the same concessions that were asked for in 2013” — when the debate was about offering citizenship to most of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US, rather than just a fraction. And some were deeply skeptical that Democrats would ultimately choose to help DACA recipients and other DREAMers over continuing to use their fate as a talking point.

“[California Sen.] Kamala Harris goes and rallies with DREAMers, dances with DREAMers, but will she concede some of her positions or keep us as props for her potential run as president?” asked Rigo Contreras. Contreras trusts older Democrats like Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) to negotiate but remains worried that progressive insistence on a “clean DREAM Act” with no enforcement tradeoffs will sink a deal: “I’ve seen immigration fail under Bush, then under Obama. Now there is a chance to pass something. Don’t let us wait 10 more years.”

That fatigue — and the cynicism that comes with it — is impossible to miss if you talk to DREAMers who aren’t professional advocates, who have been waiting for as long as 17 years to be able to move on with the lives and careers they want. It’s led some immigrants to take the view that neither party really cares about them, and it led a couple of DACA recipients to aver that Democrats should take the deal Trump offered.

“I’m happy with the deal,” one DREAMer said. “It kinda sucks that we are being used as hostages, but so be it.”

The status quo is unbearable — but so is the guilt of selling other immigrants out

Even for the DREAMers who just want a deal, it’s clear that they don’t lack concern for future immigrants — it’s just that they themselves know they can’t go on like this for several more years. “Frankly, many DREAMers like myself are tired of the constant back and forth, waking up one day with hope and then going to bed in tears,” said Illinois DACA recipient Diego Quevedo. The White House framework is “far from what I would like,” he said, and he hoped it could be moderated in negotiation, but it would “provide us with some stability.”

But the pain and anxiety that DACA recipients feel isn’t just on their own behalf — they also feel for those who would lose out in any DACA deal. No matter where they stand on what concessions they’d be willing to make to secure their own futures, it’s clear that the choice is a painful one.

“I don’t want protection in exchange for my other family members or friends or other immigrants who have found a better life in this country being sold out,” a DACA recipient wrote via email. “I also feel great pains about plans that create a vast second class [of] citizenship for DREAMers or their parents or other immigrants but I guess that is preferable to dreading deportation.”

The continued uncertainty of their own lives is unbearable. So’s the guilt they’d feel at selling others out.

Rathin Kacham is a math major at the University of Notre Dame with DACA. In private online groups for DREAMers, he noted, the White House framework was greeted with relief and even excitement — excitement he himself didn’t feel.

“I know that I and many others have been undocumented for a long time,” he wrote Thursday. “I know it sucks. I want more than anything to just live my life. But at the same time, I do not want to lose my sense of self over this. I don’t want to deny others a chance at coming in so I can get legal status. I don’t want people to be deported just to get a green card. I don’t think I can sleep at night knowing that.”

Kacham and the other DACA recipients are distressed about a decision they aren’t actually empowered to make. They aren’t voting on the president’s proposal or any other bill; they won’t even be able to vote in the November elections for the politicians who make the right choice in the coming weeks. When a dozen or more DACA recipients attend Tuesday’s State of the Union as guests of members of Congress, they’ll be sitting alongside the people who have the power to determine their futures. But the DREAMers themselves are the ones acknowledging that the stability they seek might have a cost — and wrestling with what cost might be worth it.