There’s a secret about dreams. Roberto,* a young man in Iowa dreaming about his future, can tell you all about it: “You can never see the [mountain] peak; you just climb the mountain until you depart from this earth.”
As a young child, Roberto was brought to the United States from Mexico by his parents. Twenty years later, like the hundreds of thousands of other undocumented young people known as “DREAMers,” Roberto is struggling to fulfill his vision of school, career, and family.
From their home in Iowa, Roberto and his parents have carefully watched the swings of the immigration debate over the last two decades.
The DREAM Act, which would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth, languished in Congress for years. In June 2012, however, President Obama announced that DREAMers who meet certain qualifications can apply for work permits through a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Many DREAMers were jubilant. For those whose biographies fit the narrow requirements—arrived more than five years ago, aged 15-31, in high school or graduated, and a clean police record—this was the best news from Washington in years.
“This is the only opportunity I had to become what human law considers ‘legal,’” said Roberto in reaction.
Throughout the country, thousands applied for deferred action, often at legal clinics such as those organized by AFSC in Iowa, Florida, and New Jersey. In the fall, the first approvals came back. That was when the tremendous disparity in states’ responses to the executive policy really stood out to Roberto.
Being DACA-approved means something different in every state. Some states have decided to offer in-state tuition to DREAMers seeking higher education. Iowa is not one of them, but there’s an ongoing effort to change that.
States have also taken widely different views on driver’s licenses for these young people. This winter, the Iowa Department of Transportation announced that they would refuse to authorize driver’s licenses for people with DACA-approval and would rescind licenses that had already been issued.
It was an especially burdensome decision in a largely rural state such as Iowa. “Our young students have to work and often go to school in the evenings,” says Sandra Sanchez, who directs AFSC’s organizing work with Iowa DREAMers. “There really is no public transportation to accommodate their need.”
Frustrated and energized, the Des Moines DREAMers organized a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day rally in protest of the transportation department’s decision, which went on in spite of wind chills approaching 20 degrees below zero. Their dedication paid off; two days later, the DOT reversed its decision.
This kind of on-again, off-again policy has real implications for the daily lives and the future plans of immigrant families. Only change at the federal level will transcend state lines and the politics they contain. Sandra says that the DREAMers she works with want humane immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship and a permanent version of the federal DREAM Act—policies that would extend to people who came to the U.S. before or after them.
Those with deferred action approval have options for themselves (for at least two years), but worry about family members whom the policy excludes. “They don’t want to have siblings who couldn’t qualify,” she says, “and they can’t leave their parent out of the possibility of a stable family life.
“They feel like, ‘Why should I have this privilege when the rest of my family doesn’t have any way to move forward?’”
Encouraged by victories like the one in Iowa, DREAMers are climbing on, continuing to push for a path to permanent residence, including citizenship, so families can plan their futures together.