I came to live in the U.S. when I was 9. My family immigrated from Guatemala, which at the time was in the midst of a bloody (and U.S. funded) civil war that claimed the lives of over 200,000 people. I was never asked if I wanted to move — I was never even prepared for the culture shock, the vastly different school system or life in urban Los Angeles, where it was not safe to play outside of our tiny apartment. All I could say in English was “good morning” and “ice cream, please.”
My memories of Guatemala are few and fuzzy, at best. But I do remember conversations I overheard there as the adults in my family discussed people who had “disappeared.” And this: One day my brother and I were wandering our neighborhood in Guatemala City and came across a group of kids who had found a dead body. We all stared in wonder at the marks all over the dead man; these I now know were signs of torture. At the time, this experience made an impression that became the stuff of my nightmares.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, my mom announced that we were moving to the U.S. The only information I was given was that we were going to be reunited with our dad, who had left more than a year earlier. And just like that we flew into the U.S. on tourist visas and then overstayed them. Fortunately for us, my uncle had just become a U.S. citizen, and he sponsored our immigrant visas. It still took two and a half years for our visas to become available, but by the summer of 1984 when I turned 12, we were legal permanent U.S. residents, and all of us became naturalized citizens in 1990.
I’ve often wondered what would have become of my family if we’d migrated today. That same line we waited in is not 2.5 years long anymore but 13 to 23 years long, depending on the country from which you’re emigrating. Given the violence and political instability in Guatemala, we could not have waited 13 years for our visas to become available. Would we have spent that many years as invisible undocumented immigrants, hoping and praying that we were never picked up in an ICE raid? Would I have come home from school one day and found out my parents had been deported?
Or what if I hadn’t had a U.S. citizen uncle? Then I’d be in a similar situation as some of my colleagues at World Relief — I’d have protection to stay in the U.S. under DACA or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
In 2012, this executive action under President Barack Obama gave protection to immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, people like me but who have no other immigration solution available to them. According to the American Immigration Council, there are more 8,000 people in Maryland that have protection under DACA and 4,000 more will become eligible in the next few years. Nationwide, over 800,000 young adults have found protection under the program.
DACA recipients are not nameless, faceless immigrants that live underground somewhere. Working at the Baltimore Immigration Legal Clinic at World Relief, we put together DACA applications — which cost $495 apiece and must be renewed every two years, with proof of a clean criminal record — and learned that they are our neighbors, our colleagues and our children’s teachers. They are college students, they are service workers and professionals, they are homeowners and renters. They pay taxes and contribute to our economy, they speak English well, and they have integrated into our communities. In short, they are giving their best to the only country they know as home, and we are better for having them in our communities.
That’s why President Donald Trump’s decision to end the program without passage of the DREAM Act, which would have provided similar protection, is so heartbreaking. Given that the majority of Americans, including most of the president’s supporters, favor providing a way for DACA recipients to earn permanent residency and citizenship, it’s now urgent that the Congress come together on a bipartisan basis to pass — and then that the president sign — a permanent, legislative solution for these young people. And the good news is that it’s not too late. Our elected officials can still act in a way that is just and right, guided by the faith that most of them profess: “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:34).
Karen González (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an immigrant advocate and a writer who lives in Baltimore. She works for World Relief, which seeks to empower the church to serve the most vulnerable people, including refugees and other immigrants.