Pursuing the American Dream in a post-DACA country
Isaac was lounging on the couch when he got the news. For weeks, there had been rumors that the Trump administration would act to throw his life into disarray, and he was preemptively drafting his backup plans. He’s a computer science major on the homestretch who’s poised to graduate a semester early and enter postgrad life with an internship-laden resume and a bevy of connections in his field. Isaac’s path seemed set before him, but now, his future has never been more uncertain.
Isaac, whose last name has been withheld at his request, was born in Mexico, but has lived in America since he was 8 years old. He is one of thousands who sought protection under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program implemented by the Obama administration in 2012 that protected “Dreamers,” young immigrants who came into the country illegally as children, from deportation and allowed them to legally work in the United States. Following up on a campaign pledge, the Trump administration abruptly rescinded the program early last month and plunged the lives of thousands of DACA recipients who went to college, got jobs, and started families under the program into uncertainty.
Isaac remembers the day DACA was announced. He was 16. It was a sweltering early summer day, and he was sitting in French class when his phone buzzed to alert him his life was about to change. Riding home from school that day, his mind pulsated with the possibilities of what his life could now become. He could go to college. He could get a good job.
“That was always my dream,” he said. “I’m the first in my family to go to college.”
Like many other first-generation college students, for Isaac, going to college was repaying a debt that had been accruing for generations. His mother was born in El Salvador, but instability forced her family to immigrate to Mexico when she was a young child, also illegally. Isaac’s father would start his days at 3 a.m. to drive to Mexico City and deliver drywall material to provide for his family. He’d get home at 9 p.m., go to bed, and do it again the next day. That worked for a while, but eventually, hard times left his parents with no choice but to leave for America.
Isaac’s parents hardly spoke English and barely made ends meet when they came to America, but there was still more opportunity than in Mexico. They worked at a hotel, and when they finished their shift, they’d take the bus to their other job at a fast food restaurant. After enough nights waiting at the bus stop in the rain or snow, they decided to save up for a car. Their father’s cousin knew a guy. They paid in cash.
They got the car, but not the title. A few weeks later, there was a knock on the door.
“I’m taking the car back,” the man said. He never gave them their money back, and they were too afraid to go to the police.
“They had a lot of experiences like that,” Isaac said.
These stories left an impact on Isaac. “They motivated me to work hard,” he said. College was something he’d been working toward his whole life, and when DACA was announced, Isaac could see his dreams materializing in front of him. His family hired an immigration attorney to help him apply for the program, and Isaac was so eager that he showed up to her office with a stack of documents he’d excitedly prepared ahead of time.
“Oh, looks like you’ve already done my job for me,” she said.
When it was time to apply for college, Ivy League schools across the country received applications with Isaac’s name on them. It was his chance to finally pay his family back for the sacrifices they made for him. He wanted “to show them that their efforts hadn’t been in vain.” He eventually decided on the University of Minnesota, due in part to the Minnesota Prosperity Act, which went into effect in 2013 and provided in-state tuition to students in the country illegally.
Endemic to Isaac’s generation is the fear that you or those you love could be deported without warning.
Before DACA, coming into America illegally as a child left Isaac, along with thousands of other young immigrants, in a sort of purgatory. He belongs to a generation of immigrants who grew up alongside Americans, but did so feeling like there was always something to hide. Endemic to Isaac’s generation is the fear that you or those you love could be deported without warning.
“It was always there,” he said. “We’d hear that so-and-so person got deported. You hear stuff and you get a little scared.”
Isaac’s memories of Mexico are scant, wispy little islands of a time and place that is familiar yet utterly foreign. Isaac remembers waving at his grandma as he drove away in the dirt-coated pickup truck that would take him and his sister to the border. He still has family there, his grandmother and the odd cousin, but he hasn’t seen any of them for most of his life. If he were forced to return to Mexico, he’s not sure what he’d do: “I have nothing where I come from. I know no one.”
In person, Isaac comes off as a little timid, but if you throw a problem at him, he’ll spend hours wrestling with it just for the reward of finally solving it. He’s a math whiz who excites himself talking about troublesome code. When confronted with a challenge, his initial reaction is “how do I solve this?”
After the numbness passed, he found himself thinking the same thing on a cold November night last year when Donald Trump was elected president. Like so many across the country, Isaac was dumbfounded: “I never imagined it was actually going to happen. It was always a joke.”
He was scared, but also angry, though not so much at Trump himself and more so at the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that propelled him into office. He looks out at a country that he’s called home for most of his life and he’s met with frothing, blind indifference.
“Most people don’t understand that for people with my status, there is no right way to become a citizen. There is no line to get into,” he said.
Spend enough time around Isaac, and you’ll realize how relentlessly optimistic he is. He saw Trump urging Congress to come up with a solution for the void left by DACA as evidence that he actually does care, and that gives Isaac hope.
Isaac was brought up learning about the same American Dream as everyone else. But what does the American Dream mean to someone living in the country illegally? Isaac says it’s the same dream: “graduate, get a good job, be able to start a family,” but with the added stipulation, “to be able to not live in the shadows.”
Isaac lives with his sister who is four years his junior and just started at the U of M. She’s also a DACA student, and she shares Isaac’s ambition. She’s a devoted cross-country skier. She’s considering aerospace engineering, and has always been fascinated by planes.
“I find it really interesting how you can just go from one place to another,” she said. “Maybe it comes from how I can’t do that.”
Together, they live day-by-day, without a guarantee in the world about what things will be like in a year’s time. Isaac recently attended the College of Science & Engineering Career Fair, and spends a lot of his down time looking for jobs. He doesn’t know if it’ll be in vain, but all he can do is hope for the best and keep going.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. ““All I’m trying to do is accomplish the American Dream.”