Five Things I Have Learned by Consulting with DREAMers

Over the last three weeks, I have met with dozens of young people about their eligibility for Dream Act deferred action.  I advise them that there is no process yet to apply for deferred action as outlined in the June 15, 2012 memo and that if the President loses the election, the program is likely to be cancelled and, finally, that there is a risk that the information provided by applicants in seeking deferred action may be used by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) to initiate removal proceedings.  I advise them that they appear to qualify for deferred action as laid out in the memo or explain why it appears that they do not.  I take their names and their carefully organized documents and let them know that we will reach out to them when we know more.  In dozens of conversations, I have learned the following things about an immigrant community that for an immigration attorney like me has laregly sat on the sideline as the law provided me with no means to assist them:

  1. The family is alive and well.  DREAM Act deferred action consults come in with parents and, usually, two parents.  The parents accompany their children to a lawyers’ office and observe and ask questions.  Amazingly, some of these parents traveled to the US years before their children and paid smugglers to bring their children to the U.S.  Yet, despite the risks that they once took, they are still there to watch over their children.  The children translate for their parents and, as I ask the DREAMers about their plans, their parents beam with pride as their kids recount their hopes of becoming veterinarians, law enforcement (!), writers, and doctors.  For all we hear about the breakdown of the family, I can report that in the immigrant community in the greater DC area, the family is often alive and well.  This is a surprise to me, actually.  Until the deferred action program was initiated, all I saw were abused and abandoned kids, as they had options under our immigration system.  Through the June 15, 2012 memo, I was reminded of the vast majority of immigrant families where children are loved and cared for and the family is united in a common struggle to improve their lot in life.  That, my friends, is America.
  2. But, immigration status can’t fix everything.  I met with a mother who was beside herself with grief over her 23 year old daughter.  She and her husband and their younger children had gotten residence, but the oldest daughter aged-out.  As the family applied for and received their residence, the daughter sunk into a deep depression.  She quit school and has been housebound for several years.  Although she has been prescribed medicine, she has recently stopped taking it.  She has lost all hope.  As I discussed the situation with the mother, I thought that the advice that the daughter could not adjust was wrong and that she ought to apply for adjustment.  However, there was a big risk in that as a denial could subject her to removal and her eligibility was not clear.  She could also file for deferred action, but she would need to get her GED first.  So, there was a decision to make- take a risky strategy to seek residence or take the necessary educational steps to seek deferred action.  The first would require little of the daughter, the second would require her to take control of her life and seek the GED.  While the immigration law may provide her with some options, some issues, such as depression, can not be cured by immigration alone.
  3. There are a lot of bad lawyers out there.  OK, I knew that one, but this process has driven it home.  I consulted with a family that appeared to me to be permanent residents.  They had thought so as well.  After all, the INS office in Los Angeles stamped their passports, four years ago.  The lawyer they hired “to get to the bottom of it” spent four years doing nothing and taking their money.  They had no copies of their documents as their lawyer never provided them with anything.  Once I tracked down their A numbers, I was able to confirm their residence in about two days.  They had been residents for over four years.  And, because they did not know their status, they were too afraid to leave the US when one of the couple’s parents was dying.
  4. You can’t predict the future.  Immigration lawyers sometimes joke that if you can not win, you should lose slowly.  Anti-immigrant wingnuts often similarly say, “it ain’t over until the immigrant wins.”  Either way you look at it, the future is a tricky thing to predict and one can never precisely tell just how things will shape up in the future.  I came across a couple of kids in proceedings.  A NGO filed a motion to reopen their removal proceedings with no clear idea of what they would do in reopened proceedings.  A judge granted the motion.  Now, the kids are eligible for DREAM Act deferred action, and will be able to do it without a removal order, which they would have if a couple of zealous advocates working on a shoestring for a non-profit hadn’t tried a hail mary to try to help a couple of kids.
  5. Don’t underestimate the power of hope.  I will admit it.  I was originally against the idea of blanket deferred action for DREAMers.  My feeling was that deferred action for DREAMers with removal orders was already de facto in place.  Making it an official policy would have trained the fire of every birther, wingnut, anti-Obama partisan onto undocumented youth.  Best that this be handled under the radar was my opinion.  But I was totally unprepared for the electric reaction that this has had in the immigrant community.  I have had the honor to meet high school students who now see the chance to go to college.  I met a high school valedictorian who got a business degree but was working at a McDonalds due to lack of status.  He can now put his education to use.  Watching a group of talented and energetic young people see opportunity open before them is an inspiring and humbling experience.  I have seen parents see a pay-off for the dangerous and uncertain road they took to the U.S. as their kids light up discussing their plans for the future. I have met people who have signed up for GED classes and have returned to school to seek this benefit.  Hope is an amazing and transformative thing.  While Dream Act deferred action is not perfect, it has already changed lives.

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