Marco grew up Tacoma. He graduated from Lincoln High School and dreams of one day being a teacher. He’s currently enrolled at Tacoma Community College in hopes of making that happen.
Marco, 21, is also a “Dreamer” — one of nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants nationwide, and 18,000 across the state, who arrived in the United States as a child granted a work permit and protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.
His status as a Dreamer makes things complicated for Marco. When President Donald Trump announced an end to the DACA program in September, Dreamers were suddenly thrown into uncertainty. As lawmakers in Washington D.C. grapple with how to find a permanent solution for those in the balance, it’s imperative that we remember what’s really at stake.
The lives of young people like him.
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For a timely reminder, I traveled to Tacoma Community College and the University of Washington Tacoma this week to meet with a handful of local people whose very existence in this country puts them at the center of the immigration debate. As a recent op-ed by Republican state Sen. Mark Miloscia underscored, since September, 15,000 DACA recipients have lost their authorization, and without Congressional action, that number could increase to 1,200 a day early next month.
The trip came at the suggestion of Liz Dunbar, executive director of Tacoma Community House, a nonprofit that serves South Sound immigrants and refugees. Dunbar hoped a column might humanize the conversation and dispel misconceptions about immigrants.
As background, Dunbar cited plenty of statistics. She pointed to information from the U.S. Census and American Community Survey showing immigrants are less likely to be imprisoned than the country’s native born population. She also cited figures from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy that show DACA recipients contribute $1.2 billion annually in federal, state and local tax revenue.
All of it was compelling, but it’s also readily available to anyone who goes looking for it.
What’s less available, or perhaps less sought out, are the stories and life experiences of those DACA has helped.
Emblematic of the fear Dreamers live with, the young people I talked to were willing to tell their stories under one condition — I identify them by first name only. I agreed.
Marco recalled arriving in the United States as a young boy with his mom, who made the difficult decision to leave her two older children behind in Mexico. Though he has only a handful of memories of his time in Mexico, he paused when asked if he felt like an American.
“Here, sometimes, it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s Mexican.’ They kind of look at you differently. Down there, they’d probably look at me differently, too,” he explained.
“I wouldn’t fit in (in Mexico) like I’m supposed to. So it kind of makes the question like, where can I go and not be looked at differently?”
The same was true for Martin, a 19-year-old TCC student who hopes to one day become a social worker or engineer.
For Martin, Tacoma is also home. He arrived here with his parents and two siblings when he was 4 years old and still lives in the same house he grew up in.
Martin applied for DACA status in high school, and, when it was approved, he felt a sense of safety he’d never experienced. No longer was he “scared to go outside,” he said.
“The first time I heard they canceled DACA, I was driving to school. And the first thought that came up was, ‘What am I going to do?’” he said. “Am I still going to be able to go to school or get a job?
“I was disappointed that somebody would actually think about canceling it because there’s so much that we do, and it’s like they don’t even see that,” he continued.
“They didn’t even take us into consideration, like we don’t even matter.”
Unlike Martin and Marco, 19-year-old Paola does not have DACA status. She tried to obtain it but says her application was denied because she couldn’t prove she had been in the country long enough. Still, she’s enrolled at UWT, studying criminal justice.
Paola faces the future with uncertainty. I asked her about her memories of coming to this country with her mother as a girl and the difficulties that followed.
“I don’t really have a lot of memories. I just saw my mom cry because it’s still a hard time for us to have a place to live and food on the table. I just remember seeing her struggles, and that’s the major picture I have in my head throughout my whole life,” Paola said with tears in her eyes.
“To me, this is the only country I’ve ever known, and this is all I have.”
If there was an overarching theme in these conversations, that was it. While politicians and internet commenters froth over the future of DACA and broader immigration policy, young people in our community stand by, continuing to pursue their dreams while at the same time feeling like an outsider and hoping the rug won’t be pulled out from beneath them.
Miguel is a good example. Now 31, he arrived in the United States when he was 5. DACA, he says, allows him to work days cleaning rooms at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and nights as a security guard to help support his aging mother. One day, he hopes to be a high school counselor.
If someone were to tell him to go back where he came from, Miguel knows what that would mean to him.
“I feel like this is home,” Miguel said. “You ask me where did you learn to ride a bike, I’ll tell you where. You ask me where did you learn how to drive — it’s Tacoma.
“Tacoma is all I know.”