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Sandra Feist: They work hard for the dream, in the only country they’ve known

Jun 17, 2020 | Blog

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

This article originally appeared on Pioneer Press on September 7, 2017. You can find the original here.

Imagine that you had grown up in a suburb of Minnesota. You went to preschool and elementary school with your neighbors. You have big dreams for your limitless future. You have dreams about “seeing the ball drop” at Times Square on New Year’s Eve with your sisters when you grow up. In middle school, your teacher gives you a bookmark that says: “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future” with an American flag on it.

You enter high school. And then at some point, you’re told, “Although all you’ve ever known has been Minnesota, you were actually born in Mexico. You don’t have a social security number. You can’t get a driver’s license when you turn 16. You aren’t eligible for student loans to go to college. You don’t have work authorization to eventually become a nurse, as you had dreamed. And there’s absolutely, positively no way for you to fix your status. No path. No right way.”

And life goes on. Your little sister, who was born in Minnesota, enters high school behind you and accepts an internship because she is a U.S. citizen and can work for whoever she pleases. In 2012, President Obama creates a special category for you — a child brought to the United States who has lived here for most of your life – just as you’re graduating from high school. To qualify, you prove that you’re a student, have not committed serious crimes, answer a ton of detailed questions about your background, and pay a steep fee. It’s not “status,” and holds no promise of legal status or a path to citizenship. But you are grateful. You’ll get to see Times Square on New Year’s Eve! You’ll get to fly to Hawaii for a vacation like you’ve always wanted. Your brother applies for DACA too and gets a full-ride scholarship for an engineering program at a top university. Life moves forward, brighter than before.

You graduate from high school with honors and enroll in nursing school. You marry your childhood sweetheart and have a baby. You wait and you pray and you yearn for a path to true legal status – a status that you’ve always had in your heart because all you’ve ever known was your childhood and young adulthood in America. When people ask, you say, “I’ve never been outside of Minnesota except for a school trip to Iowa once,” forgetting that before you can remember, you were apparently born in Mexico.

Then, in November 2016, a reality TV star is elected as president of the United States. And your life that you worked so hard to build becomes a number. One of 800,000 kids granted Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, or Dreamers. One of 800,000 other mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers, employees and neighbors. Just a number. Sometimes the reality TV star calls you “great people.” But then sometimes he calls neo-Nazis “fine people,” and you don’t feel so great. And so you spend Labor Day weekend 2017 waiting for the announcement that was foreshadowed by the White House press secretary as if your life were nothing more than the much-anticipated rose ceremony at the end of The Bachelorette.

The narrative I’ve shared with you is the true experience of a DACA recipient here in Minnesota. In fact, 6,300 Minnesotans have had a similar experience. In Minnesota, ending DACA would cost the state more than $376.7 million in annual GDP losses. Nationwide, the 800,000 DACA kids are estimated to contribute over $433 billion to the GDP over the next decade. But more than that, they are members of our families, our workplace, our schools and our communities. They’re law abiding. They’re utterly blameless for their lack of legal status. And yet, here they sit, all over the United States, awaiting news on where the political winds will shift. Republicans have begun to speak up on their behalf, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Sen. Lindsay Graham (R–S.C.), who actually introduced a bill alongside a Democratic colleague to provide a path to legalization for the Dreamers. In Tennessee, the attorney general withdrew his support for a threatened lawsuit targeting DACA, citing “the human element.”

As an immigration attorney who has focused on high-skilled professionals, medical researchers, universities and large corporations, I am often confronted not just with “the human element,” but also the economics of immigration. I’ve had the privilege of assisting top researchers from around the world in their quest to contribute to American healthcare and academia and industry. I’ve enjoyed seeing my clients achieve their dreams, building companies that now employ over a hundred employees in the Twin Cities, or who are slowly growing a restaurant franchise, year after year. I’ve helped entrepreneurs come to this country and seen their software development companies and chicken and dairy farms and investment firms flourish. The statistics are easily accessible, so I’ll focus instead on my personal observation: Immigrants are awesome and they work hard every day to improve this country and our economy in so many ways.

Every immigrant I have ever known has come to this country for new opportunities, and with hopes and dreams for a big, exciting, ambitious life for them and their children. Kicking out a thriving segment of our nation would be financially ruinous, and will gut what has always made this country a success.

When the announcement of DACA’s demise came on Tuesday morning, it was not a surprise. I am nonetheless hopeful that the people in power of both political parties who are in fact thoughtful, and care about the fate of our nation, will prevail, and the Dreamers will ultimately be granted full access to this country that they have always called their home, and has always been their heart’s home. To reject these Dreamers is to reject the promise of America as a fair country, a nation of laws and justice and opportunity for those who are hardworking and have spent their living memory abiding by our laws. They, and we as a nation, deserve better.