Why the American ‘Dreamers’ programme needs to be saved

Daca has brought 800,000 undocumented who came to the US as children out of the shadows

US president Donald Trump is due to announce on Tuesday whether he will scrap a programme which gives work permits to undocumented people who were brought to America as children. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), introduced by the Obama administration in 2012, has given 787,580 “Dreamers” temporary rights to live, study and work legally in the US.

Antrim-born writer Yvonne Watterson, who has been living in the US since the mid-1980s, has been campaigning for the rights of undocumented children in Arizona for more than a decade.

Each of us from a different corner of the world, each of us an immigrant in Arizona, we wanted to make a point with our simple declaration - “We’re all immigrants” - the point being that America makes immigrants of us all.

In 2007 in my adopted home of Phoenix, Arizona, it was a point lost on too many people. At the time, I was principal of a small high school. My students were mostly poor, their families living at or below the federal poverty level; they weren't expected to go to college, and many of them had been told they wouldn't amount to anything.

But at that school, we were doing something special. These kids for whom society had the lowest expectations were beating the odds. They were taking college and high school courses simultaneously, some of them graduating from high school and college at the same time.

The “early college” model was working. The school that had languished for years with attendance and drop-out rates at 50 per cent was now boasting a 1.7 per cent drop-out rate. The attendance rate was 96 per cent. The students were proving that, yes, they could “do college”.

Then everything changed.

Proposition 300, passed overwhelmingly by Arizona’s voters, stipulated that college students who were not legal US citizens, or who were “without lawful immigration status” had to pay out-of-state tuition. It meant they were no longer eligible for financial assistance using state money.

As principal, I could no longer use state funding - generated by student enrolment and attendance - to pay college tuition for those students who could not prove residency.

There were 37 students affected by the law, students whose parents had brought them to the US when they were babies. In order to provide them the same educational opportunities as their American born peers, I had to come up with $86,000. And I had to do it on my own time.

When I broke the news to those 37 students, they were devastated. I felt ashamed that I had acquired permanent residence in America so easily; I had merely fallen in love with an American who married me, therefore making it possible for me to stay.

People who could have helped me didn't. Nobody told me what to do - or what not to do - to help young people who wept openly in my office. Their tears forced me into foreign territory: the media. I contacted the Arizona Republic, and columnist Ed Montini wrote a column on the 'Unintended Consequences of Prop 300'.

I was convinced voters didn’t realise children would be affected by the law, which meant I was wholly unprepared for the negative response, for the hate-filled messages that flooded the newspaper’s website.

By all accounts, the consequences were most definitely intended. A TV appearance on Horizonte and a New York Times article about our situation helped change some hearts and minds. Some readers - all the way from Australia to Arizona - began to see beyond the stereotypes as they learned of the dreams of aspiring architects, lawyers, doctors, and entrepreneurs.

Donations began pouring in, and, anonymously, my students - and their parents - began writing thank you letters. Every letter told a story, a story of a child who took his or her first steps on Arizona soil, who said the Pledge of Allegiance every day at elementary school, who believed the assurances of their teachers that all their dreams would come true if they stayed in school and worked hard.

My America was beginning to feel familiar, reminiscent of another time when I was beginning my teaching career in Belfast. In the early 1980s, many of my students had been touched by sectarian violence beyond the school playground. Thus, I learned very early on that classrooms are and should be sacred places, places of hope and possibility, places where dreams begin.

For our efforts in 2008, over just a few months, we raised enough money to pay college tuition for those 37 students - over $100,000. The Hispanic Institute of Social Issues published the students’ thank you letters in a bilingual book, Documented Dreams, and everyone who contributed received a copy.

On behalf of those resilient immigrant students, I accepted the City of Phoenix Martin Luther King Living the Dream Award in January 2008.

Almost a decade later, I don’t know what became of all of them. Some of them left Arizona, beaten down by SB 1070 (the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighbourhoods Act, introduced in Arizona in 2010, which required undocumented people over 14 to register with the US government, and those over 18 to carry ID. It is regarded as the toughest anti-illegal immigration measure passed in the state).

Some of them left on August 15th 2012, when the Obama administration began accepting requests for consideration of deferred action for childhood arrivals (Daca). While Daca does not provide lawful status or a pathway to permanent residence or citizenship, individuals whose cases are deferred will receive temporary relief from deportation, and they also receive employment authorisation. To be eligible for Daca, young undocumented people had to meet the following criteria:

* You came to the US before reaching your 16th birthday

* You have continuously resided in the US since June 15th, 2007, up to the present time

* You were under the age of 31 as of June 15th, 2012

* You entered without inspection before June 15th, 2012, or your lawful immigration status expired as of June 15th, 2012

* You are currently in school, have graduated or obtained your certificate of completion from high school, have obtained your general educational development certification, or you are an honourably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the US

* You have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanour, or three or more misdemeanours, and do not otherwise pose a threat

* You were present in the US on June 15th, 2012, and at the time of making your request for consideration of deferred action.

Since Daca’s inception, it has provided temporary relief from deportation as well as work authorisation to approximately 800,000 undocumented young people across the country, people like the students at my school. The research is clear that Daca has not only helped improve the lives of these young people, but it has also contributed to an improved economy, benefiting all Americans.

These educated young people who know only America as a home have contributed to their local communities. Out of the shadows, able to get a driver’s license and a social security number, to buy a car or a house, they are a vital part of the fabric of America.

But America is unravelling at breakneck speed in front of my eyes. Daca hangs in the balance with leaks from the White House suggesting that Donald Trump may end the programme as early as this week.Whatever Trump does, he cannot change the fact that immigration is always about the future and moving forward. It is always about tomorrow, it is about the about the kind of tomorrow Dr King described in his dream of an America with a place at the table for children of every race … and room at the inn for every needy child.

It is about the kind of tomorrow I dreamed about as a little girl in Northern Ireland where one day Catholics and Protestants would attend the same schools. I still dream of that tomorrow, because I am an immigrant, an American dreamer. Anything is possible in this country, the America that Tom Wolfe described as "a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time".

On September 5th, 2017, I am hoping for a miracle, but I am wary. Reports from the White House now indicate that Trump could formally announce his decision to end Daca within six months, in effect breaking the most important promise ever made to these young people who stepped out of the shadows to believe it.

Yvonne Watterson blogs at timetoconsiderthelilies.com