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The Faces Behind the Figures: 5 Dreamers Share Their Hopes and Fears

Rebecca Lee Sanchez for Global Citizen

800,000. That’s the estimated number of participants in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program.

150,000. The number of people at-risk of losing their ability to work and their protection from deportation starting on October 5th if they can’t afford to pay for a $495 renewal of their status.

10,000-30,000. The number of DACA recipients who could lose their status every month starting March 6.

1,400. The amount of people who could lose their work status every day starting March 6.

5. Faces behind the figures.

It’s easy for the meaning of US President Donald Trump’s proposal to rescind DACA to get lost behind the figures; it’s easy to forget that behind every application there is a young immigrant in limbo.  

They could be the student who stays extra hours; the project coordinator bringing in new solutions; the childhood friend who grew up next door.

They’re proud, self-proclaimed Americans who contribute to the economy and work for a better tomorrow — one that they might not even get to be a part of.

Read More: Dreamers of a New American Dream

They’re dreamers, but they’re also doers.

Global Citizen spoke with five Dreamers whose hopes and fears mirror those of any American citizen, but whose experiences are those only an undocumented immigrant could understand. Coming from all over the world, they all had one thing in common — their palpable love of country and their urgency to chase “the American Dream.”

Dale St. Marthe, St. Lucia

170921-GC-Dreamers-Dale-8.jpgDale St. Marthe arrived to the U.S. as a three year old boy in 1998. A DACA recipient, St. Marthe is today a computer science student at New York's York College, an activist, and co-president of the CUNYDREAMers.
Image: Rebecca Lee Sanchez for Global Citizen

1) How did you come to grow up here in America?

I was born in St. Lucia in the Caribbean, the West Indies. I had some complications when I was a baby, when I was young. It started when I was born, I had a very common sickness among babies, but the doctors sort of let it go on for too long and then it turned into something they couldn’t handle. So for a period of about two years I was moving around a lot to different hospitals. And then we finally came to Miami, Florida where I was able to get the treatment that I needed.

But my health situation was so rocky that really anything could trigger something within me. So we decided that I needed to stay but complications made it so that we couldn’t keep our status. That’s how I ended up becoming a Dreamer here.

2) How do you identify?

I mostly identify as African American. I like to keep in touch with black culture at large but I’m also American. I feel like I belong here. If I went back to St. Lucia, it’d be a foreign land. It’d be like as if I went to Tibet or something. I wouldn’t know the language, I wouldn’t know the people, I wouldn’t connect with anything. So, I am American — African American.

3) How did you feel when DACA was passed?  

I felt surprised. I felt excited. Me and my mother, we’d been going through scholarship books. We bought that big scholarship book that has all of the scholarships in it. We searched through it all, like every day looking for scholarships that I might qualify for. We had just heard about the Dream US Scholarship, which was open to DACAmented Dreamers, people who get DACA. When I heard about it a whole new life was opened to me. I was so relieved. I had the chance of bettering myself and making my time here in America worthwhile.

4) Your mom seems to have been instrumental in your pathway to higher education — tell us more about that.

I like to think of my mother as the model immigrant. She’s super hardworking and she always made sure we stayed strong despite our status, despite what people might think of us, despite what we hear on the news about how immigrants are always terrorizing the country.

And she really wants me to have a higher education also. She always pushed education because that’s sort of the way out, the way that America will see you as an equal, if you’re highly educated. So she always pushed that. We were looking through scholarships, she was trying her hardest to make it possible. She always tries her hardest to make anything possible for us.

5) Is that your definition of the American Dream then?

The American Dream is more of a launchpad to what you really want to do. America, some will say, is the center of the world. Anything you want to do, any career, if you want to be a business person, if you want to be a mathematician, or an artist, the world is open to you in America.

6) When do you renew your status? And how are you planning for your future?

My status expires in October 2018, which unfortunately is outside of the range... I’ll have my status until October of next year. Have I planned for anything after that? I know that we can keep our social security numbers, I read that online. So I’m hoping I can still work with that. Basically the plan is to work and hope that Congress passes something more substantial so we can actually live and can actually contribute to American society.

Yadira Dúmet, Peru

170921-GC-Dreamers-Yadira-8.jpgYadira Dumet came to the United States from Peru as a child, when her cousin was injured in a car accident and was brought to the U.S. in search of better medical care.
Image: Rebecca Lee Sanchez for Global Citizen

1) Tell me your story, the story of how you came to grow up here?

So, I moved 17 years ago to a really small Connecticut town, New Milford. I went to school there, I joined the volleyball team. Then in Junior year, I realized I was undocumented.

My older brother and I had come to visit my family in 2000, and we decided to stay here because we felt that there was opportunity, especially my brother because he’s part of the LGBT community —  he felt safe here.

My brother was actually the first one to navigate through the education system as undocumented. When it came to my turn in Senior year then I also followed his footsteps and I knew I was able to go to college but under limitations.

2) What has been the hardest part of being undocumented in America?

It took me almost 10 years to complete school. There were several times where I paused my education because I couldn’t afford it. My parents were not here so I was by myself, even though I lived with my brother and aunt. They helped me a little bit but I was the one sustaining myself, trying to work and pay for college.

There were times where I just wanted to give up and it was really challenging. Even when I transferred to Queens College, there were still so many limitations. It was the first time I actually cried and said, “Wow, I don’t belong here.”

3) How do you identify?

My life is here. I identify as American. My dreams are here, and I’m not giving up on them.

4) Tell us a little bit about what you do now:

I work under the housing department. I work for social justice. Our work is around rent-regulated apartments, especially rent-stabilized apartments. We inform tenants about their rights and not many know about them. We have landlords that want to abuse that, and abuse our community, because they know that there is a language barrier.

Most of our clientele are seniors. You know, I work for my community and I know their struggle, and they’re so vulnerable. So every morning I wake up because I want to protect them.

5) How are you preparing for the future?

My DACA expires next month so I was able to apply for my renewal on time. I’m in the range so I think if it’s not denied, I’ll be with a work permit for the next two years. But I have family whose DACA expire like next May. It gives us incentive to advocate for them.

I have built my life here so I can’t picture my life in Peru.

Isaac Montiel, Mexico

170921-GC-Dreamers-Isaac-10.jpgIsaac Montiel, a computer systems technology student at the New York City College of Technology and co-president of the CUNYDREAMers, came to the United States in 2002 with his mother, in search of a better life.
Image: Rebecca Lee Sanchez for Global Citizen

1) Where are you from and where did you grow up?

I’m originally from Puebla, Mexico. I first came to the United States when I was 13-years-old, I arrived in New Haven, Connecticut with my mom. She came to the US three years prior to that. She couldn’t get all of the money to pay off her debts at home. She was losing the home so the only solution was for her to bring me to the US and continue our life here.

2) What has been the hardest part of being undocumented in America?

[The] most difficult part of being an undocumented immigrant is finding resources. If your dreams are to continue your education, that’s one of the most challenging things I encountered: trying to find resources to support my family while continuing my education.

After I realized that I couldn’t apply for scholarships, I had to get a full-time job. I didn’t give up. I started taking classes and also helping at home with the bills. And finally in 2013, I got my Associate’s Degree from community college in computer engineering. That’s when finally DACA was implemented. I was then able to become a full student for my last semester. I moved to CUNY, [and] with the help of my mom and my savings I was able to quit my job and move to New York to continue my education.

3) What’s one particularly difficult moment you feel comfortable sharing?

Leaving everything behind. My family. We moved to the US, all my family lives back in Mexico. Just my mom, her husband, and her cousin live in Connecticut.

When I went back to Mexico in December, I haven’t seen my dad in 14 years, since I came to the United States. It was really emotional. I do talk to him from time to time. Sometimes I feel that I have to distance myself because it feels like it hurts less, in a way. I know he’s just a phone call away but it’s just not the same, it’s not the same.

So, when I first saw him when I went back, I hugged him. I don’t know, it was a really, really long time and I didn’t want to let go. And then when I had to say goodbye it was just heartbreaking, it was really sad because I don’t know if I’m going to have the chance to see him again.

4) What role have you played in the immigration movement?

I was part of the immigrant rights movement since 2009. I’ve been active on and off in the movement since then, fighting different battles like passing in-state tuition, passing a driver license... New Haven was considered a sanctuary city, and I was also involved in that fight too.

There was one moment that I remember, I was in a march in front of city hall in New Haven, just across from Yale University. There was a rally — it was probably about 200 people — and I was given the opportunity to speak on behalf of all of the DREAMers. At the time, we were fighting for the DREAM Act and in-state tuition so I was able to share my story for the first time and in front of a lot of people. I felt empowered. I felt that just by sharing my story, I could make some changes and contribute to the community.

5) What would you say to someone who opposes the DACA program?

I would just tell them to look at the background history of this country,to learn, to do a little more research, and to have a little more heart, to see that all of these DREAMers are actually being affected, their families. They’re human beings, they’re not just numbers or dollar signs. They depend on this country and this country depends on them.

Hümeyra Çelik, Turkey

170921-GC-Dreamers-Humy-9.jpgHumeyra Celik, a production coordinator and DREAMer activist, immigrated to the U.S. from Turkey at the age of seven.
Image: Rebecca Lee Sanchez for Global Citizen

1) Tell us about where you grew up:

I’m originally from Turkey. I moved to the States with my mom and my brother when I was seven years old. My dad was here five years prior to us and we came to join him. We ended up staying to go to school here and have better opportunities. We were in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

2) Is there, in particular, one difficult memory for you about growing up undocumented?

One particular moment that was really difficult as an undocumented immigrant I would say was when I was back in high school and I had really good grades, I was up there in the top of my class...I could’ve gotten into a lot of schools, gotten a lot of scholarships and grants but I didn’t qualify for any of that.

It got really hard throughout high school when everybody starts working and getting their driver’s license and their permits. I didn’t get any of that until after I graduated high school, which is weird for someone who grew up in the suburbs. When you’re 16 you go and get your permit, but I couldn't because I didn’t have my social security number.

3) What has DACA helped you accomplish?

Because of DACA, I was the first to be able to go to and graduate from college. Because of DACA I was able to live my dream of always living and working in New York City. Because of DACA I was able to go to college and support myself and lift that burden off my parents.

4) What do you have waiting for you back in Turkey?

I don't really remember much of my life in Turkey, to be honest, because I was so young. I feel a lot more comfortable here because I know what it is like here. I don’t know how I would adjust to living in Turkey. I feel like it would definitely be a culture shock if I was to go back.

5) How are you preparing for the future?

I love my life here. I want to stay here. I don’t want to be separated from my family. My family has mixed status. I have a sibling who is six-years-old who is an American citizen and is also not aware of any of this because it’s hard to talk to a 6-year-old about these things...Because we are such a close family, it would affect all of our lives in the worst way possible. It’s something that I’m definitely not prepared for, I don’t want to have to prepare for, and I’m trying to stay positive and think positive thoughts that Congress will do something about DACA so we can stay here with our families and can continue to live our American Dream.

Elizabeth Vilchis, Mexico

170921-GC-Dreamers-Elizabeth-1.jpgElizabeth Vilchis, a DACA recipient and engineer for SamsungNEXT Fund, immigrated to the United States more than 22 years ago.
Image: Rebecca Lee Sanchez for Global Citizen

1. Tell me the story of how you came to grow up here:

My parents brought me and my brother here when we very little. I was seven, just turning eight. My brother was six and we came through the border, the four of us, with some people from our hometown. We settled in New York (we had an uncle who moved to Yonkers), just north of the Bronx and we went to live with him.  

My dad decided to move to the suburbs because he wanted us to have a good education and didn't want to have to worry about our safety. We lived in the same building for about 21 years. Last year, my parents finally moved.

2) What has been the hardest part of being undocumented in America?

A lot of immigrant parents, a lot of immigrant families that have kids that bring them to the US, they raise them here with the thought that if they get an education, there isn't anything that they can't achieve. And that's what's drilled in them day in and day out.

I think the psychological aspects of trying to be successful when there are institutional rules that almost prevent you from doing that each step of the way is the hardest part. I think that every time you hit a roadblock in your path to success, it takes a giant toll on your self esteem.

3) How did these “institutional rules” hold you back?

My first failure was not being able to get into the school that I felt like I was preparing to get into. I wanted to go to Columbia. I graduated from City College in Harlem, the only school that offered engineering with an accredited degree, which was good enough.

I started in [the] Fall of 2006, but I didn’t officially graduate until 2013. I felt like I was going to graduate and nobody was going to be able to hire me because I didn't have the social [security number]. I remember being really angry and really bitter. I thought: “Why am I struggling? Why am I taking 140 credits to try to finish my major when I’m not going to be able to do anything with it?”

4) Since DACA passed, what have you gone on to accomplish?

After I graduated I ended up working for a startup incubator, and I was trying to encourage students in engineering to think about starting their own companies versus just planning to work for corporate companies or other companies.

While I was still at the company, Samsung reached out because they saw a lot of the experiences I had built while studying in college, in science and tech programs and so they had an opening and asked if i was interested. I applied and that’s how I ended up working at Samsung.

5) How do you feel about the current narrative/political climate?

We're looking at an administration that's already wrapped up efforts to try to send people away, regardless of whether or not you have a work permit. I'm not banking on 2019. If legislation doesn’t go through, then I'm not going to stay here until they reach me and kick me out.