With immigration reform caught in the gap of a divided U.S. Congress, the long-proposed DREAM Act never got passed. In 2012 President Barack Obama issued an executive order creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program as a temporary stop-gap giving young students who grew up here protections against removal and permits to work, allowing many to obtain drivers licenses and other basic privileges.
Conservative Nebraska officially opposed DACA. Then-Gov.Dave Heineman blocked issuing drivers licenses (Nebraska was the only state), welfare or other public benefits to DACA-eligible youth. Gov. Pete Ricketts continued the stand. But a broad coalition of rural and urban Nebraskans spanning party lines and ages, along with faith, law enforcement and business leaders – the Bible, Badge and Business coalition – along with such organizations as Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska, Heartland Workers Center and Nebraska Appleseed, successfully advocated for legislation granting DREAMers drivers licenses and professional-commercial licenses.
The state legislature twice overturned governor vetoes to preserve these bills as law.
While never a panacea, DACA provided DREAMers and supporters hope that real, permanent immigration reform might follow. However, President Donald Trump made campaign promises to repeal DACA and crack down on undocumented immigrants. With his administration only weeks old, no one knows if or when he'll end DACA and thus undo everything attained.
DREAMer Alejandra Ayotitla Cortez, a senior psychology student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is one of about 3,275 DACA recipients in Nebraska. As more young people age into DACA, that number will grow as long as the program continues, She echoes other recipients in saying, “Right now we are facing a lot of uncertainty. As much as I wish I knew what was going to happen with the program, it's very hard to predict, and that's what makes it harder. We're in this limbo place. Obviously, if it does end, that would have a lot of negative consequences. Right now we are trying to focus on working with our representatives at the federal level to try to draft legislation that would protect the program."
She was part of a contingent of DREAMers who met with Nebraska Congressional leaders in the nation's capitol in January.
A coalition of Nebraska supporters signed a public letter to Nebraska members of Congress urging them to endorse DACA's continuation on the grounds it allows aspirational young people like Alejandra the ability to reach their potential. The argument is that the work they do, the commerce they create, the taxes they pay strengthen, not deplete America. Recently proposed federal legislation called the BRIDGE Act would provide some safeguards in the event DACA isn't renewed or until more lasting immigration reform emerges.
Nebraska Restaurant Association executive director Jim Partington said at a recent press conference in Lincoln announcing the letter, "There is no logical objection to anything about supporting these youths who were brought here at a very young age, have been educated in our school systems, and are now ready to go out into the work force and contribute to our economy and our society."
Ayotitla Cortez also spoke at the conference. She previously testified before state senators.
"It's important for us to share our stories so that we can show that DREAMers are here, we're contributing, we're doing the best we can to serve our communities," she said.
Former DREAMer Lucy Aguilar, a University of Nebraska at Omaha student, advocated for DREAMers' rights through Young Nebraskans in Action (YNA), a program of Heartland Workers Center (HWC).
She's since gained permanent residency status. She stands by what she said two years ago: "I don't think DACA-recipients should be tied to immigration policies or immigration terminology because we're a much different thing. I know my status and it's definitely not breaking the law in any sense. I'm here just like everybody else trying to make something out of my life, trying to accomplish goals -- in my case trying to open a business and be successful in that."
She supports DREAMers retaining their DACA protections.
HWC Senior Organizer Lucia Pedroza, who supervises YNA, said the issue's catalyzed young people to participate and raise their collective voice and take collective action. Coalescing support for the bills that gave DREAMers licenses was a case in point.
"Young people started organizing themselves after coming to meetings and learning more about the legislative process and the issues in their community," Pedroza said. "They knew what they had to do. They started organizing students and teachers at South High School. They were able to speak up for the bills and proposals.
"I've seen some who were afraid to speak up and share their own stories a few years ago now speaking their truth and working with us at the center. I've seen them grow and want to share their interest and passion with other young people. It's a cool thing. They're not just wanting to stay on the sidelines and complain, they want to do something more. They understand it's not going to be just about them, they can’t do it alone, they need to have community support."
Pedroza said YNA's grassroots work "impacted the effort statewide in support of DACA."
She and others make a pragmatic, do-the-right-thing, make-good-policy case for DREAMers being given pathways to full participation. Ayotitla Cortez uses herself as an example of how DACA impacts lives.
"As soon as I enrolled at UNL I started working at a daycare center at the university thanks to the work permit DACA provides. That was the first job I ever had. It helped me to support myself and paid for my living expenses and some of my school expenses. That was a great opportunity. Then my sophomore year I got the opportunity to work as a service assistant in the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools.
"Now I work at El Centro de las Americas -- a non-profit that serves mainly the Latino Community. I'm the coordinator of the Adult Education Program. Helping my community is my main way of giving back some of what has been given to me."
She wishes opponents would look past fears and stereotypes.
"I guess some people have a hard time seeing the human side or the social contributions DACA has provided. We're working and putting money into city, state, federal revenues."
Then there are myths that need overturning.
"As DACA-recipients we have to pay $485 every two years to renew our work permit, so it is something we are paying for, we're not just getting it for free. If you multiply that by the nation's 700,000 DACA-recipients, then that is bringing in money and helping the economy of every state. It's creating jobs because we're working, spending and some of us are even starting businesses."
Pedroza said, "It's about families and the well-being of human beings and giving opportunities to people who work hard and contribute as equally as citizens of the United States."
Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) Executive Director Emiliano Lerda feels the issue found enough support to buck the governor in the "very diverse coalition pushing for these changes," adding, "you had strong, traditionally conservative and Republican-leaning organizations advocating side by side with what are traditionally known as more progressive organizations. This truly is a bipartisan issue that unfortunately has been utilized by politicians to galvanize a certain segment of the population for political support. But the vast aspects of this issue affect people across the aisles equally and the solutions will come from across the aisles from people who understand the economic impact and benefits of immigrants and the economic disaster we could face if we don't have access to immigrant labor."
Charles Shane Ellison, JFON deputy executive director-legal director, said it's a win-win for everyone as employers benefit from DREAMers' labor and DREAMers' income boosts the economy. Then there's the advanced degrees DREAMers earn, the expertise they practice, the services they provide, the products they produce, et cetera.
For Ellison, it's also an issue of fairness and of undoing an overly broad application of law.
"Many of my clients who qualify for DACA came as babies. They don't know any other country other than the United States. The law's very unforgiving. It doesn't make allowances for the fact they didn't have any control over entering the country without status. These kids found themselves growing up blocked out of any opportunities to obtain work, to achieve dreams, so DACA was huge because it was this breakthrough, finally saying you can come out of the shadow and participate in the workforce towards your dreams in the only country you've known.
"Though inadequate and imperfect, it's difficult to overstate the importance of what DACA's meant to these young people."
For St. Paul United Methodist Church (Lincoln) senior pastor David Lux, embracing DREAMers is about social justice.
"They live here and are part of our communities and have been for years. This is their home. Regardless of legal documentation they're human beings worthy of fairness and a chance. They also contribute a lot to our communities and add to their richness."
Besides, Pedroza said, with small population Nebraska struggling to retain young talent and America ever aging, the state and nation can't afford to lose its best and brightest of child-rearing age.
Not everyone eligible for DACA applies for it.
Ellison said, "Nationally, 700,000 have been granted DACA since the program's inception, I believe initial estimates of those eligible were well over a million. There's a number of factors why only 700,000 applied. Some people are very risk averse, other people are not. Those who are risk averse, [do they] feel like paying fees to apply for a program soon to be done away with or potentially done away with, in addition to giving the government your private information they would need to apprehend you and seek your removal, [that] is not a very good bargain. So they're not interested or willing to apply for it even if they qualify.
"A lot depends on the individual facts of the case. If a person's already on immigration's radar, they're not really giving up much by applying.
“If they're not on immigration's radar, by applying with the potential the program will be done away with, they are taking some risk.
"I've actually been surprised by how many people want to apply, even post-election, who say, 'I still want to renew my application because I feel like it's worth a shot. If I don't apply, I know I won’t get it. If I do apply, maybe President Trump will change his mind or something else will happen.' It just shows how desperate folks were before DACA."
Ellison added, "Certainly among my greatest concerns is that DACA will be done away and not be replaced with any kind of protection … that in addition to lack of compassion in immigration enforcement that tears families apart and disrupts communities."
JFON urges recipients to prepare for DACA's demise.
"We want folks to get plugged in with counsel so they can analyze what are their rights in any defenses they may have," Ellison said. "If DACA is done away with, that's going to be really important. We want people to know there are certain constitutional legal protections they may have and other forms of relief they may pursue that exist in law as opposed to policy. While the President can change immigration policy by doing away with the program, which is just an executive memoranda, he does not have the authority to unilaterally undue the law.
"There may be legal protections that exist for some DACA youth they don't know about until they consult with an attorney. We provide referrals for the Nebraska Legal Immigration assistance hotline."
Meanwhile, Pedroza, a Guatemalan immigrant, finds solace in the confederacy of common interests around the issue, such as the Bible, Badge and Business coalition that's championed DACA. These coalitions signal to her America may not be as divided as the media portrays, but she concedes more consensus building is needed.
"What keeps me motivated is knowing for a fact we can do better to be a more welcoming community, state and nation and that we can work together to improve the quality of life for underserved people. Not everyone will see the same things I see, but we don't have to have one way of doing things. The more collective and different perspectives we can add to the larger vision, the more impact we can have."
With DACA up in the air and the path of immigration reform anybody's guess, Pedroza hopes for bridges to dreams, not walls to exclusion.
"I have two children and I really care about their future. I want them to know there is something that can be done when you work with community members and elected officials. We can have dialogue. We don't have to be on the defensive or offensive all the time. We need to have that space to negotiate in, and it's possible. I think the national rhetoric doesn't help. A lot of times, not everybody is open-minded or familiar with the other side of the story. That's something we have to deal with. We're not going to convince everybody. Not everybody's going to see the issue the same way. But we can't give up. We have to work with what we have and to do what we can do."
She senses however things play out, DREAMers and supporters have started a movement that won't go away.
"One thing we can do is help people empower themselves, so that they can continue to work for those solutions and look for other options. A lot of times as immigrant communities we feel powerless and so we don't try to be a part of that change for our community.
"But that collective power really makes people feel they can do something. It can be like a domino effect where one thing leads to something bigger or we inspire people to get involved."
Being seen and heard is a start.
Visit jfon-ne.org, www.heartlandworkerscenter.org, neappleseed.org.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The new administration issued its first immigration orders as we went to press. Local groups, especially the ones mentioned in this story, are organizing now to respond to changes in enforcement priorities that threaten to tear apart families and lives without any review process while diverting resources away from deporting the worst criminals. Stay tuned to them at the links at the end of this story and follow-up coverage in our sister publication El Perico and online at TheReader.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.com.