Opinion | This Can Be the Year We Fulfill Our Promise to Dreamers

We were each 10 when our families — Lorella’s from Peru, Hina’s from Pakistan — moved with us to the United States. Our parents arrived here determined to find the best medical care. For Hina’s sister Aleeza, America meant treatment for a life-threatening brain condition that doctors in Dubai and India warned was available nowhere else. For Lorella, whose right leg was amputated after a car accident in Peru, the United States held the promise of advanced prosthetics and a country where she could thrive.

Our families’ difficult decisions to leave our home countries set into motion the trajectory of our new lives in the United States. We made friends, graduated from college, fell in love and began our careers. We were also undocumented.

We are both in our early 30s now. And for more than a decade, we have fought to be recognized as Americans in the country that is our home. But it has been more than 30 years since Congress last passed a major citizenship bill.

We have watched every major immigration bill, including the Dream Act, fail to gain enough votes to pass both the House and the Senate — in 2007, 2010 and 2013. The shallow workarounds have sent us spinning.

When President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012, the program gave a lifeline to undocumented youth who would now have work permits, access to more-affordable higher education and be safer from deportation. Then, not long after Donald Trump came into office, the new administration attempted to dismantle DACA. The Supreme Court overruled the Trump administration in 2020. But just last month, Judge Andrew Hanen of U.S. District Court in Houston suspended the program, stating that it was unlawful and no new applications should be approved. (The Biden administration will appeal the ruling.)

The back and forth in the courts has kept a generation of young undocumented immigrants — and their families — in limbo. They live with the fear that their DACA status could be revoked at any time. The most recent setback means that tens of thousands of undocumented cannot gain a work permit, cannot afford to go to college or buy a home and build their lives here.

Democrats have an opportunity now to end the precarity that so many immigrants experience daily by passing a budget-reconciliation package that includes citizenship for undocumented residents who have qualified for the DACA program, temporary protected status recipients, undocumented farmworkers and other essential workers.

We believe that this is our year. Democrats have the chance to deliver on a long-held commitment to millions of undocumented people and begin to transform an outdated and cruel immigration system into one that is humane and functional, and one that finally creates a real, navigable path to citizenship. Already we have broad support from moderates to progressives.

On July 22 — a week after Judge Hanen’s ruling — we met with Vice President Kamala Harris, along with a handful of other DACA recipients, farmworkers and movement leaders. It was an opportunity for us to share our stories; we told Ms. Harris what we have been able to do and which dreams are still out of reach because Congress has failed to pass a citizenship bill.

We asked her to support a pathway to citizenship in the reconciliation package. She promised to fight with us. Days later, President Biden publicly affirmed his support as well.

Since the Dream Act failed to pass in 2010, Lorella is now a citizen after marrying her longtime partner. But Hina continues to plan her life in two-year increments because of the DACA renewal process. It’s a roller coaster of emotions to maneuver through the cumbersome system. However, we fight every day to be considered American on paper so we can all make our dreams a reality.

We’re ready. We have the power of a broad and diverse social justice movement. And according to a recent poll by Data for Progress, 70 percent of voters are with us, including a majority of Republicans and independents.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into stark relief our collective dependence on essential workers, including roughly five million undocumented workers who have treated the sick, taught our children , taken care of our homes and businesses, and grown and processed our food.

Democrats must act now to avoid a repeat of our crushing loss in December 2010. That December, Lorella headed to Washington after her final college exams to join the push for the Dream Act. Hina watched the vote to break a filibuster from New York, where she was studying to apply to nursing programs, inspired by the warmth and compassion shown by medical workers to her sister.

On the day of the vote, undocumented youth filled the Senate gallery. Lorella held hands tightly with others while each senator offered a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the bill. It was gut-wrenching. And in the end, the Dream Act was a thumbs-down — even though Democrats controlled the House, the Senate and the White House, as they do now — with all but three Republicans joining five Democrats in voting no. Devastated, the undocumented youth moved out of the gallery into the corridor. The brokenhearted held hands, prayed, cried and then found the courage to chant: “Undocumented, unafraid! Undocumented, unafraid!”

Today, we continue to fight so that this will be the year when Hina can plan for her future; when millions will be able to demand fair wages at their jobs and not live under the threat of detention and deportation every time they drop their children off at school; when families can go grocery shopping or open their front doors without the fear of being ripped away from loved ones and the lives they’ve built.

“Undocumented, unafraid.” These words have carried a generation of undocumented young people for more than a decade.

This is our year. And we cannot wait to join hands in the Senate gallery with families like ours to watch the final vote on the reconciliation package, and this time, cry tears of relief and joy.

Lorella Praeli is a co-president of Community Change Action and a co-chair of the We Are Home campaign.

Hina Naveed is a registered nurse who works with the New York Immigration Coalition. She is a recent law graduate who will begin work in the fall as an Aryeh Neier fellow at Human Rights Watch.

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