Samuel Cervantes can’t ever imagine returning to Mexico. He hasn’t been back since his family moved to Houston when he was 5. He now fears being deported if the federal government ends the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
He also fears for his life if forced to return to a country he barely even remembers.
“As a gay man, the way that the LGBTQ individuals are treated in other countries where there is no support system and there is discrimination, it’s hard to imagine living there,” he said.
Cervantes is among more than 660,880 people known as “Dreamers” covered by the DACA program, which gives legal protections to undocumented immigrants brought as children to the United States.
These immigrants consider themselves American in every way except documentation. But their status is currently in doubt.
The Supreme Court will hold oral arguments Tuesday on whether to uphold DACA, which President Donald Trump tried to terminate after taking office in 2017. His effort was blocked by three lower court rulings that the administration ultimately appealed to the nation’s high court.
DACA was established in 2012 under the Obama administration after Congress failed to come up with a bipartisan solution that would allow Dreamers to work legally and prevent their deportation, among other things.
Cervantes, now 22, said he can’t imagine ever leaving the only home he has ever known.
“I have not thought about leaving the United States, I just cannot. This is my country,” he said. “You are ripping me apart from the country that I have grown up.”
But some Dreamers say they can’t wait for others to decide their fate and have decided to return to their home country.
Tawheeda Wahabzada was born in Toronto to parents who are refugees from Afghanistan. She was 5 when her family moved to the United States. Now 29, Wahabzada has decided to “self-deport” to Canada early next year, rather than wait for Congress to pass legislation that could keep her here indefinitely.
“I wanted an opportunity to live a life on my own terms,” she told CQ Roll Call. “I feel like I’ve always felt stuck because there isn’t a clear path to citizenship.”
After the implementation of DACA, Wahabzada was allowed to work and go to college, but she said she also found it increasingly difficult to plan her future.
“I’ve always had to think about my life in two-year increments,” she said. “In job interviews when they ask, ‘What do you want to do in 10 years?’ U.S. citizens are able to ponder that question, but Dreamers don’t have that ability.”
Anyone who self-deports would be barred from returning to the United States for 10 years — but even then, there’s no guarantee the person would be granted a visa to able to re-enter. Some lawmakers remain optimistic that Congress will be able to come up with a legislative solution.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., has fought for a citizenship path for Dreamers since the “original” one came to his attention in 2001. He urged Wahabzada and anyone else thinking about self-deporting to reconsider.
“I beg them to stay,” he said.
A Supreme Court decision, which could come out in June at the height of the presidential campaign, may end up helping Dreamers, he said. In addition, Durbin has crafted another legislative effort to protect them with the help of South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“I believe that this current problem with President Trump could end as soon as November of 2020. And I think their lives can get back on track very quickly,” Durbin said.
Republican Texas Sen. John Cornyn, another GOP lawmaker who has helped with DACA bill negotiations, said he remains open to passing a legislative solution.
“I am sympathetic to their plight,” he said of Dreamers, “and I want to work to find a solution that would allow them to become American citizens.”
But Nicolle Uria, a 19-year-old Dreamer born in Bolivia, is skeptical. She expressed disappointment at the inability of Congress to pass legislation.
Uria, now attending community college in Northern Virginia, said she can’t imagine getting deported to a country where she can’t speak the language fluently and would stick out in other ways as a foreigner.
“This is all I know. I don’t know anything else. I haven’t been to Bolivia since I left at 1,” she said.
In the past few months, advocacy groups and business leaders have voiced support for DACA through statements and legal documents. In October, Apple CEO Time Cook and the company’s senior vice president, Deirdre O'Brien, filed a "friend of the court" brief to express their support for the program and highlight the contributions Dreamers have made to U.S. businesses, including their own.
“We did not hire them out of kindness or charity. We did it because Dreamers embody Apple’s innovation strategy,” they wrote in their briefing. “They come from diverse backgrounds and display a wide range of skills and experiences that equip them to tackle problems from different perspectives.”
Trump asserted in October that the Supreme Court should not uphold DACA and allow Congress to pass a legislative solution instead.
“If they do what is right and do not let DACA stand, with all of its negative legal implications, the Republicans and Democrats will have a DEAL to let them stay in our Country, in very short order,” he said in a series of tweets. “It would actually benefit DACA, and be done the right way!”
Cervantes expressed optimism that lawmakers will eventually find a way for Dreamers to remain in the U.S., and said he’d be willing to help if possible.
“It energizes me to find ways to find ways to support my country,” he said. But he acknowledged it would require a lot of work.
“We’re living in a broken immigration system and we need to help reform it.”
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