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The case for a clean Dream Act



Over a hundred young immigrants are losing their DACA status every day Congress fails to act. Time is running out for Congress to pass legislation that fully takes into account the humanity of DACA recipients. Borrowing, with apologies, from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” is a case for a clean Dream Act.

I. Krissia Rivera Perla

I personally disagree with saying, ‘I want you to build that wall so that I can stay here.” – Krissia Rivera Perla, DACA recipient

Krissia Rivera Perla graduated from Brown University in 2015 with a Bachelor of Science in Biology. This year, she once again left her home in Maryland and began her first year as a medical student at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School. In four years, she will have an “MD” next to her name and she’ll be ready to start her medical residency. There’s just one small problem: she’s undocumented. Or rather, she’s “DACAmented.”

In 2012, after years of asking Congress to pass legislation protecting undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children, President Barack Obama announced DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which gave them two things: temporary protection from deportation and a work permit. Requirements for eligibility are rigorous: in order to apply for DACA, undocumented immigrants must have entered the United States before June 15, 2007 and prior to their 16th birthday; they must have been under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012; they must currently be in or have graduated from high school or they must have been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States; and they must not have been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more misdemeanors. All that is just to qualify for DACA. The application process costs at least $495, and that’s for the lucky ones. Many cannot navigate the labyrinthine application process and turn to lawyers; a booming business has sprouted, which involves posing as a lawyer, taking hundreds or thousands of dollars from desperate immigrants, and then disappearing. For those who get legitimate lawyers and manage to obtain DACA status, they must spend the money to renew every two years, as per DACA federal requirements.

Krissia is one of almost 800,000 DACA recipients living in the United States. When she was eight years old, she boarded a one-way flight to Maryland with her mother and sister to begin a new life in the United States. She excelled in school and dreamed of going to college. “It didn’t matter which college,” she says. “I just wanted to go to a college.” During her senior year of high school, however, her college counselor told her she wouldn’t be able to go to college because, as an undocumented immigrant, she was not eligible for any federal financial aid–the same aid which almost 70 percent of students depend on to help pay for college. Despite the odds, in 2011, Krissia was accepted to Brown University and matriculated to the Ivy League university in the Fall, having found outside scholarships to help with tuition.

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When DACA was passed the following year, Krissia applied and received her work permit and temporary relief from deportation. However, DACA did not make Krissia eligible for governmental financial aid. She had witnessed the suffering of undocumented immigrants who refused to seek help at hospitals even when they were clearly in distress; their fears of being caught and deported kept them away, and Krissia’s dream was to become a doctor in order to give help where it was most needed. When she graduated from Brown, however, she discovered another obstacle: many medical schools refuse applications from undocumented immigrants, including, it turns out, the school she most wanted to attend: her state school, the University of Maryland. “That was really heartbreaking,” Krissia says, “because it meant I’d have to leave the state and leave my family again.” Taxes she paid from her job at Johns Hopkins benefited her state university, but that money would have to go to other students. As it turned out, her stellar undergraduate work while at Brown made them happy to take her back for medical school, and she became its first DACAmented medical student. First in her family to go to college; first to get into graduate school; first DACAmented Brown medical student: Echoing the sentiments of many first-generation college students, Krissia notes if often feels “like you’re constantly breaking glass ceilings.” Always, though, she was grateful for DACA and the opportunities it provided, in spite of its very limited scope.


Krissia Rivera Perla inside Rhode Island Hospital (2017)

The bomb dropped on September 5, 2017: Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump Administration was rescinding DACA. No new DACA applications would be considered, and those whose DACA status ended on or before March 5, 2018 would have until October 5 to file for renewal–giving them just thirty days to come up with the $495 renewal fee, a near-insurmountable feat for many of the desperately impoverished working poor who work in the lowest paying sector of the economy: busboys, chambermaids, dishwashers, orange pickers. Trump grounded his opposition to DACA by claiming that the program, along with DAPA, or Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (which was blocked before it could be implemented), were “President Obama’s two illegal executive amnesties, in which he defied law and the constitution to give amnesty to approximately 5 million illegal immigrants.”


In Sessions’ speech announcing the recession of DACA, he claimed that DACA “essentially provided legal status” and that DACA recipients were able to participate in the Social Security system. However, DACA never provided legal status, and DACA recipients who work and whose taxes go into our Social Security system will never benefit from it, unless they one day become citizens or lawful permanent residents–pathways to which DACA does not provide. Furthermore, Sessions claimed that DACA “contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border.” However, DACA recipients must have lived in the United States since June 2007 and DACA was not announced until 2012. “We must all be alert,” notes Deborah Gonzalez, director of the Immigration Clinic at Roger Williams University, referring to Sessions’ speech, “We must call out our politicians and leaders when they blatantly lie to us.”

President Donald Trump gave Congress just six months to come up with a “legal” legislative solution. “I just took a test yesterday that I studied days for, knowing very well that it could not matter,” Krissia explains. “It all depends on what Congress decides to do.” If Congress doesn’t pass a Dream Act–or something similar–within the next four months, Krissia will not be able to go into residency after having spent four years in medical school, and her dream of becoming a physician advocate will be snatched from her.  She will not be able to put her medical training to use, will not be able to save lives, will not be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. However, this is not why Krissia deserves to live in the United States. On September 8, 2017, three days after DACA was rescinded, the aspiring physician advocate spoke at a rally in support of DACA in Providence, RI. She ended her speech with a plea towards humanity: “I encourage you to stop thinking of us only as potential assets to this country who contribute financially and intellectually. I want you to look at our shared humanity and experiences as collective people of the United States and understand that we deserve better simply because we are human beings.”

Krissia understands that much of the immigrant narrative threads itself around economics, around the idea that Latinxs and other immigrant groups are “stealing good jobs from legal Americans” and that they form a collective parasite, eating up resources that would otherwise go to United States citizens. There is, of course, a plethora of evidence that DACA recipients help our economy. According to the Center for American Progress, we would lose $460 billion of the GDP within the next ten years, and a study by the Immigrant Legal Resource suggests that Social Security and Medicare would lose $24.6 billion of tax contributions. More than five percent of DACA recipients (eight percent of recipients over 25) actually create jobs through start-up businesses. The GDP of Rhode Island alone, the smallest state in the country, would decrease by over $61 million if the state’s 1,229 DACA recipients–including Krissia–are unable to legally work. Ending DACA could also cost businesses about $6.3 billion, as companies would have to fire almost 500 employees daily for the next two years as DACA recipients lose their DACA status, which is estimated to cost businesses $61 million every week for recruiting, hiring, and training replacement employees. Deporting DACAmented immigrants would also be costly to American taxpayers: according to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, in 2016, each deportation conducted by ICE cost taxpayers an average of $10,854; multiply this by 800,000 (roughly the number of DACA recipients), and you get a $8.6 billion price tag to deport DACA recipients.

III. Immigration: A Very Short History of Our Forgetfulness

Krissia Rivera Perla’s graduation from Brown University. 2015.

The United States has a moral imperative to remember that, with the exception of Africans brought here on slave ships and Native Americans, it is a country of immigrants. Nevertheless, the United States:

  1. has fought back against each new “wave” of immigrants,
  2. has been proved xenophobic each time,
  3. has taken a long time to absorb each new  immigrant “wave,” and finally,
  4. once it absorbs them into the mainstream, the country moves on with a new respect for the folks it only recently reviled (this notably excludes Black Americans, who are not immigrants in any traditional sense of the word and remain under the weight of systemic racism, while immigrants end up eventually being mainstreamed).

Krissia reminds us that immigrants are people who deserve respect, that they are not a collection of savages but a group of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters–people. Reducing DACA recipients to their labor–both economic and intellectual–eliminates their humanity. In the case of DACA, blame is often thrown on the parents of these children: DACA recipients deserve to stay, one popular narrative goes, because they were brought here as children by their parents and they had no say in the matter. Thus, the children have “done nothing wrong,” a concept which implicates the parents. This amounts to deflection: it disregards the parents of DACAmented immigrants who migrated here for the same reasons immigrants have always come to this country–fleeing persecution, economic despair, and natural disasters in their home countries–and it also ignores the United States’ role in creating the first two of these desperate situations which force people to flee.

The Great Fear of the Period: That Uncle Sam May Be Swallowed By Foreigners.”

[1860s Cartoon depicting a Chinese and Irish immigrant eating Uncle Sam and then the Chinese immigrant stealing the Irishman’s hat and eating him. Note that Irish immigrants were almost universally depicted as monkeys or ape-like.]

Cartoon originally printed in “The Mascot” newspapers in 1888.

[Caption: “REGARDING THE ITALIAN POPULATION / A Nuisance to Pedestrians / Their Sleeping Apartments / Afternoon’s Pleasant Diversions / The Way to Dispose of Them / The Way to Arrest Them.” Loafing around on city sidewalks; sleeping 20 to a bedroom; stabbing and killing American citizens for fun; calls to deport and violently arrest them: all of these arguments about Italians at the turn of the century are exact mirror images of arguments many Americans make today regarding immigrants, particularly Latinxs.]

IV. El Salvador & the Apologies That Never Came

El Salvador, which is where Krissia may be forced to live out her life should Congress not pass a permanent solution for DACA recipients, is now known as the “Murder Capital of the World.” In the first three months of 2016, the homicide rate in the small Central American country was higher than it was during the country’s twelve-year bloody civil war. Today, its homicide rate is 22 times that of the United States, largely due to gangs such as MS-13 and 18th Street. It’s easy for Americans to say, “Well, it’s not our fault that El Salvador is dangerous.” The problem is, however, that in large part it is our fault. The United States’ fingerprints are all over the country’s civil war, from its beginnings to its ramped-up violence to its end. We funded the war illegally–Congress voted against it but President Ronald Reagan secretly went full steam ahead anyway–and it became, as Benjamin Schwarz notes in The Atlantic, “America’s most prolonged and expensive military endeavor in the period between the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf conflict.” More than six billion dollars of United States taxpayer money went to a war in Central America’s smallest country. Moreover, we funded and trained death squads, paramilitaries, and army units in El Salvador, which were responsible for “more than 85 percent of the killings, kidnappings, and torture” during the civil war, according to Schwarz. The war ended in 1992, and a year later Krissia was born.

A young girl stands near a man who was killed by the death squads for violating curfew in San Salvador, El Salvador. (1989) Photo by Donna de Cesare

The civil war killed 70,000 and left over a million people–almost twenty percent of the country’s population–displaced. During and after the civil war, Salvadorans fled their country–leaving behind their language, their now destroyed land, and often their families and culture–and came to the United States. As a means of self-defense, the Mara Salvatrucha, commonly known as MS-13, was established in Los Angeles by this fairly new and vulnerable group of refugees who ended up living in impoverished areas. Gang members were later deported en masse back to El Salvador, and thus were gangs introduced into the country for the first time. With El Salvador still recovering from the bloody twelve-year civil war and lacking sufficient legal and physical infrastructure, the government was unprepared to deal with the surge of gang violence; the results were disastrous.

Fast forward a couple decades to 2017, and MS-13, along with 18th Street (which was originally established by Mexicans in Los Angeles), still rule El Salvador. “Over the past two decades, they have grown, evolved, and wreaked more carnage in El Salvador due to the weak government [and] dire inequality.” It seems logical that, as the United States has played an active role in laying the groundwork for the violence that has ravaged the developing country for the past 37 years, we would greet fleeing Salvadorans with open arms–and perhaps ask for their forgiveness. But as Krissia explains, “America, the country [my family and I] chose to adopt as our own, continually rejects us.”

And the United States owes an apology to more than just El Salvador. We have immigrants here who were forced to flee a slew of other countries touched by United States politics: President Obama recently apologized to Argentina for our support of the country’s “Dirty War,” which resulted in the “disappearances” of about 30,000 Argentines, many of them left-wing activists, trade unionists, students, and journalists. We have DACA recipients from Argentina.

We have yet to apologize to Guatemala for the CIA’s secret coup d’etat against their democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz – who was trying to give his people fair wages and a way out of corporate controlled and slave-like conditions–which resulted in a 36-year civil war and cost Guatemala hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars. We have DACA recipients from Guatemala.

We have yet to apologize to Chile for installing the murderous dictator Augusto Pinochet. We have DACA recipients from Chile.

We have yet to apologize to Iran for the CIA staging a coup d’etat against the democratically elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and helping install the corrupt and restrictive Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. We have DACA recipients from Iran.

We haven’t apologized to Haiti for invading and occupying the country for nineteen years, or for our refusal to recognize the country’s independence from France until 1862, 58 years after Haiti defeated their brutal French colonizers. We have DACA recipients from Haiti.

We haven’t even apologized to Japan for dropping two atomic bombs, even though we knew Japan was already negotiating surrender. We have DACA recipients from Japan.

We have yet to apologize to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos for spraying about twelve million gallons of the herbicide Agent Orange over areas in these countries, resulting in an estimated one million people becoming disabled or suffering health problems. From all three, we have DACA recipients.

With this condensed and incomplete list of United States (often illegal) foreign policy operations in mind, it seems odd that many Americans are against “illegal” immigration. As American citizens, it is our duty to understand our history as a nation of immigrants, and to understand the most basic premise: many immigrants do not want to leave their countries; they leave because they have to. “Things are so dire that people would rather risk drowning in el Río Grande than stay in their dangerous home countries,” Krissia explains. For her family, migrating to the United States was not an easy choice, but it was necessary for survival. Increased border security, including possibly a wall, is one of several demands President Trump and other members of the GOP are asking for in exchange for a Dream Act that would grant amnesty and a pathway to citizenship for DACAmented immigrants.

Krissia is against such a compromise: “I personally disagree with saying, ‘I want you to build that wall so that I can stay here,’” she says. And it’s not that she doesn’t want to stay here. She got straight A’s in high school, attended an Ivy League university for undergrad, and returned to that institution for medical school. She studies long grueling hours every day in hopes of one day becoming a physician advocate serving marginalized communities. She knows that, if deported back to El Salvador, she would lose everything she’s worked for in the United States. She will have spent most of her life working towards a goal that most Americans agree is admirable: becoming a doctor. Her life and dreams depend on staying in the United States. Krissia–and the almost 800,000 other DACAmented immigrants–deserve permanent protection and dignity; they deserve a Dream Act. But Krissia demands that this Dream Act is “clean.”

V. The Case for a Clean Dream Act

A “clean” Dream Act would offer a permanent solution for DACA without tacking on any extra measures that further harm other members of the undocumented community, members who helped Krissia get where she is today. “I am nothing without my community,” she says, sitting in her shared 3-bedroom apartment in Providence. Further militarization of the United States-Mexico border, increased raids, increased funding for ICE, termination chain migration and the Diversity Visa Program – among other measures being proposed – would put members of Krissia’s undocumented community at risk. We need to ensure that any legislation that protects DACAmented immigrants does not further oppress, demonize, and criminalize the rest of the eleven million human beings without “legal” status in the United States whose lives are at stake, as well as those still living in dangerous conditions abroad hoping to one day find safety in the United States.

The DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act proposed by Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) – who first introduced the bill in 2001 and then again in 2009, but it failed to pass in 2011 due to a bipartisan filibuster – and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) offers just that. Similar to DACA, conditions for eligibility would be rigorous: one must be undocumented, DACAmented, or a beneficiary of TPS (Temporary Protected Status); one must have entered the United States before the age of eighteen; must have been physically present in the United States for at least four years prior to the enactment of the Dream Act; and one must meet an education requirement. As it stands now, this Dream Act would offer undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children a pathway to permanent residency and, eventually, citizenship without further harming members of the undocumented community. This Dream Act is “clean,” and Krissia continues to fight for it so that she and her fellow DACA recipients can continue reaching for the American Dream.

Krissia Rivera Perla (left) with her sister in El Salvador.

While other legislation has been proposed, the Dream Act is the most comprehensive and just. Other proposals include the BRIDGE (Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy) Act, the RAC (Recognizing America’s Children) Act, the SUCCEED (Solution for Undocumented Children through Careers, Employment, Education and Defending our nation) Act, and the RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment) Act. With the exception of the BRIDGE Act (which would essentially be a three-year extension of DACA) these acts all, in varying degrees, fail to treat DACA recipients with real dignity, instead using them as a bargaining tool with which they can harm non-DACA recipients: the RAISE Act, for example, puts so many extra restrictions and rules on other immigrants that Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal calls it “nothing but a series of nativist talking points and regurgitated campaign rhetoric that completely fails to move our nation forward toward real reform,” while the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights calls it “red meat to Donald Trump’s base.” The SUCCEED Act, meanwhile, includes measures for increased security and enforcement along the United States-Mexico border and would force DACA recipients to “sign a voluntary deportation order subjecting [them] to automatic removal if [they] are unable to meet requirements” at all times, according to the largest youth-run immigrant rights group, United We Dream.

Some Democrats have suggested they are willing to add border security measures, a “solution” that is both financially destructive and inhumane. When DACA recipient Renata Mauriz said “I’m asking you to say ‘no’ to any compromises that further militarize the border,” at the rally to defend DACA in Providence, Krissia cheered. Hundreds of migrants fleeing Latin American countries die every year while attempting to cross the border; in fact, according to the United Nations’ migration agency, the number increased by 17 percent in 2017. An estimated 10,000 people have died trying to cross the border, and migrant deaths along the border have been consistently rising since 1994 when Bill Clinton’s administration implemented Operation Gatekeeper, under which Congress increased funds for ICE, doubled the number of border patrol agents, doubled the amount of fencing and other physical barriers (unfortunately, Trump’s idea of building a physical barrier to prevent “illegal” immigration is nothing new), doubled the budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to 800 million dollars, and tripled the number of underground sensors. With more border security, migrants are more likely to take more dangerous and potentially fatal routes instead of crossing the Rio Grande (which is still dangerous). Such methods include (but are not limited to) walking through underground tunnels, riding on top of freight trains (commonly known as “La Bestia,” or The Beast), and walking across the Arizona desert with temperatures often above 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and below freezing at night.

Just as Krissia and the millions of other immigrants who, over the centuries, made their way to these shores are worthy of dignity and respect, so too are these migrants who risk their lives crossing the United States-Mexico border (many of whom are now DACA recipients). “I don’t use the word ‘Dreamer,’” Krissia says of the label often given to DACA recipients, “because it implies only some of us [undocumented immigrants] are allowed to dream.” DACA recipients are not bargaining chips; they are human beings, and their equality should not come at the expense of other undocumented immigrants, the community which helped Krissia get where she is today. Their right to exist in this country should not come with an asterisk. Imagine how great the United States would be if we allowed DACA recipients to stay in the United States without cutting off their lifelines and support systems–their undocumented communities.

VI. A Final Reminder

At the September 8th rally to defend DACA in Providence, Rhode Island, after relating a story of registering an undocumented couple at a local clinic, Clínica Esperanza, Krissia reminded about a thousand DACA recipients and allies that we shouldn’t be playing politics with people’s lives. “This issue is not about political beliefs,” she told the crowd, “it is bigger than that, because it’s about sympathy and love.”

Krissia Rivera Perla speaks at a rally to defend DACA after Trump’s decision to rescind DACA.

A Washington, DC native and the daughter of a first-generation immigrant from the Caribbean, St Clair Detrick-Jules grew up in a Central American immigrant community and watched families separated by our broken immigration system. A senior at Brown University, St Clair has spent the past four years studying immigration through a theoretical lens and, on a less abstract note, has been making short documentaries focused on the immigrant experience in the United States.