I remember meeting Bernardo Castro for the first time in December 2017. He was soft-spoken and a bit shy, but he had a clarity of purpose.
At the time, he was a full-time undergraduate at Brigham Young University studying business administration. But when we met, he was 2,000 miles away from Provo, lobbying legislators in Washington, D.C., for immigration reform.
Bernardo is a Dreamer whose parents brought him here when he was 4 years old. His memories of Chilpancingo, Mexico — his birthplace — are dim at best. Arriving in small-town Utah in 1995, his family immediately felt welcomed by their church and community. As he told me earlier this year, “Utah is very welcoming of hardworking individuals, and my parents fit right in.”
As a young adult, Bernardo applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), soon becoming one of hundreds of thousands of Dreamers — immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — working and attending school since DACA was created in 2012. The purpose of Bernardo’s 2017 trip to Capitol Hill, where we first met, was to share his story with lawmakers and urge them to bring stability to the lives of DACA recipients, as well as Dreamers who are not eligible for DACA.
Nearly four years later, all Dreamers continue to live in limbo.
Court challenges to DACA have been a steady presence in Bernardo’s life. Attorneys general in Texas and nine other states filed a lawsuit in 2018 challenging the legality of DACA, and in July of this year, a U.S. district court judge ruled in favor of the states — and deemed DACA “illegal.” While existing DACA recipients remain temporarily protected, no new applications will be processed, and a follow-up ruling could end protections altogether.
That’s why Congress must act to cement Dreamers’ contributions — permanently. In every way but paperwork, Dreamers are as American as they come.
Americans Agree: Action Is Needed
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act — the DREAM Act, which gave rise to the term “Dreamers” — was first introduced in Congress in 2001 by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). It would afford those who entered the U.S. as minors the ability to work, attend school, and attain permanent residency if they meet certain qualifications.
It didn’t pass the Senate. In the two decades since, at least 10 similar proposals have been introduced in Congress — always with bipartisan support — but none has passed both houses and made it to the president’s desk. The closest call was in 2010, when the DREAM Act passed the House but fell five votes short of moving to a final vote in the Senate.
Fast forward to 2021, when multiple proposals in Congress could assure Dreamers’ futures. Sen. Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) have introduced the Dream Act of 2021. In the House, a bipartisan vote in March passed the American Dream and Promise Act, which would offer conditional legal status to up to 2.3 million Dreamers.
Neither bill has yet gained traction in the Senate. Some Republican senators have argued that the bills are too broad, or that the conversation surrounding Dreamers should wait until migration challenges at the border are addressed. But these issues are separate, and Congress can — and should — address both.
If Congress were to take action on Dreamers, it would do so with bipartisan support. Polls consistently show that strong majorities of Americans, across party lines, support a permanent solution for Dreamers. Nearly two-thirds of American voters support the opportunity for Dreamers to earn citizenship, according to a poll from Politico/Morning Consult; another poll from CBS News found that 85% of American adults favor allowing Dreamers to stay in the U.S. legally. That’s 85% of all Americans — not just Democrats or Republicans. In today’s hyperpolarized politics, few issues in Washington come near that threshold.
The past year has shown us just how essential Dreamers are to our nation. They were on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic: By one estimate, more than 1 million Dreamers are essential workers, fulfilling critical roles in facilities and construction, food services and production, health care, essential transportation, and education.
Separate estimates in recent years have found that over the course of a decade, Dreamers would contribute $433 billion to the GDP, $60 billion in fiscal impact, and $12.3 billion in Social Security and Medicare taxes.
So, how can we make legislation happen? To start, Democrats and Republicans need to put the good of the country ahead of political opportunism. There is an opportunity for bipartisan, incremental immigration legislation that starts with a solution for these young immigrants. As Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in January, “I am ready to act on that and come up with a stable future for these young people who have done nothing wrong. They came as children, and I think that is a good place to start.”
Those of us who care about Dreamers and depend on their contributions can help by asking our senators and representatives to support a solution with urgency.
Optimism and Uncertainty
I saw Bernardo again this year, this time via Zoom.
Now, Bernardo is married and is an entrepreneur. He still has the broad smile, soft voice, and clarity of purpose. But there is also a sense of confidence that comes with age and experience. In our conversation, he had a clear vision for his career and his family — an energy that was palpable even through a screen.
As he shared all he had done over the last few years, his optimism was infectious.
“I think there has never been a better time to start a business,” he said. “And I say that because I really feel like America is still the land of opportunity. If you’re willing to put into work, to put into sacrifice, you can really get out of it whatever you want.”
But he was quick to point out that this conversation was not about him. It was about the Dreamer community he’s so committed to — some protected by DACA, some not. As he put it, “[W]e want to show that in America anyone can make it.”
In 2017, we both hoped legislative action would have passed by now. But Bernardo and his fellow Dreamers haven’t given up hope, and neither should we.
Certainty — of a future in this country, of family unity, of the opportunity to thrive — is at stake for Bernardo, for the Dreamers whose stories are featured in this issue, and for the hundreds of thousands of others stuck in limbo. But it’s also at stake for everyone on their campuses, in their churches, at their workplaces and in their communities.
With an overwhelming majority of Americans cheering Dreamers on, the ball is in Congress’ court.
Ali Noorani is the president and CEO of the National Immigration Forum, author of There Goes the Neighborhood, and host of the podcast Only in America.
My Christian College Changed My Life; Passing the Dream Act Would, Too
By Ana Lucia Chavez
Thank you for the chance to be heard and to represent many Dreamers such as myself. My name is Ana Lucia Chavez. I was born in El Salvador in 1999, and soon after I arrived in the U.S. at the age of four. I have lived in Smyrna, Tennessee, for 18 years, and I was raised in a supportive, hardworking, and family-oriented home that my parents cultivated for me and my siblings.
From a very early age, I was always eager to learn and I was attached to the compassion I found in education. The public schools I attended — John Coleman Elementary, Smyrna Middle School, and Smyrna High School — fostered so much light and love that school became a place where I felt seen and encouraged daily. I can say with much certainty that all the teachers I have had in my lifetime stood out as great professional role models. They also influenced me to want to become a great teacher myself.
But as everyone began to apply to and choose the college of their choice, I was terrified that I would not get a chance to achieve that. Many barriers stood in my way to make this dream a reality. However, something in me knew that I had to find a way to making this dream of pursuing higher education a reality and affordable. I went to my high school counselor’s office, and she referred me to an ESL teacher who knew about a scholarship that helped DACA students like me. I am a proud recipient of the Equal Chance for Education Scholarship program, which opened the doors to many great college options, including Lipscomb University, Cumberland University, and Trevecca University. I visited the Trevecca campus with a close friend who walked the journey with me in applying and receiving the ECE scholarship as well. I knew that Trevecca was the place for me when I was showered with so much kindness from the campus, and its beautiful scenery also captivated me.
I was pleased to experience higher education in a private Christian college because it was incredible to be surrounded by people who fearlessly spoke about their beliefs and knew they could rely on one another in any circumstance. There was shared joy, sadness, hurt, confusion, and all emotions of the spectrum. My experience at Trevecca made me a wiser person and taught me to seek understanding and wisdom in God.
If the legislation for Dreamers to receive a passage to citizenship passes, it would make a tremendous difference in my life. It would release the burden I carry on my shoulders of heavy concerns for my future in many aspects — economically, socially, emotionally, mentally, and physically. I would finally feel like I belong, and my family’s hard work will pay off; they would be able to live just as safely and comfortably as everyone else. I feel like we will finally take one more step into the world that God intended for humanity.
Ana Lucia Chavez graduated from Trevecca Nazarene University (Nashville, Tennessee) in 2021 with a bachelor’s in social work.
From ‘Undocumented’ to ‘Future Citizen’
Education has transformed my understanding of my own identity.
By Jesus Gomez
During my senior year of high school, the future was beginning to look like a bridge that had no railings and was littered with broken planks. My only path forward appeared to be higher education, and if I did not follow that path, then there was nothing but a mighty fall off the bridge. I was not a 4.0 student with excellent SAT scores, and I knew college costs were an immense burden that my parents had never experienced. However, I was not worried about my undocumented status; I already knew it would create barriers.
Even with all these challenges, I wanted to take my chances and see how far I could get. In the midst of this, Fresno Pacific University (FPU) appeared with a too-good-to-be-true opportunity. I was offered the Samaritan scholarship, which is of tremendous aid in covering tuition costs, and the path to higher education no longer looked impossible.
As an undocumented student attending FPU, my experience has been by far one of the most positive of my life. Over the past three years, I have been able to develop personally and in my leadership abilities. At the beginning of my experience, I felt that being undocumented put me at a disadvantage for full engagement with the greater community. Once I realized that the power behind the “undocumented” label was nothing more than a blockage of my own creation, I brought it down and proceeded to identify instead as a “future citizen.” As of now, I am proud to say that my biggest accomplishment at FPU has been founding the Future Citizens and Allies Program, an organization that seeks to empower undocumented individuals politically and personally through breaking down identity constructs and employing the growth mindset.
Passage of legislation that can help future citizen students like me pursue higher education is necessary to create equity for all college students. Legislation like California’s AB 540 law, which exempts qualifying nonresident students from paying supplemental tuition fees, is an example of higher education public policy that can benefit undocumented students. But beyond tuition costs, indirect college expenses also make it costly to pursue this path. This past year, one of the most significant challenges I faced was food insecurity. If there were state or federally funded benefits that could help undocumented students with food expenses, then perhaps my academic year could have been much better and enjoyable for me.
My higher education experience as an undocumented student has been one of the greatest personal development opportunities that I could have. While my documentation status is often considered a barrier, I have learned to view each challenge as one that gets me a step closer to achieving my goals, and not as a hindrance that determines my potential for success. Thanks to my experience at FPU, I have put the “dreamer” identification to the side and given myself the “future citizen” label instead, because my success requires me not to hope for the best but to take action to achieve the best.
Jesus Gomez is a senior at Fresno Pacific University (Fresno, CA), where he is majoring in political science and serves as coordinator of the Future Citizens and Allies Program.