Proving My Undocumented Existence: What DACA Means to Me

Sometimes it takes stepping into someone else’s shoes to understand where they come from. That’s why storytelling will always be a vehicle for empathy. That’s why I want to share my experience.

I applied for an immigration program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which now allows me to have a temporary and renewable employment authorization to work in this country, without fear of deportation. This program is neither a path to legalization nor “amnesty” as some of its opponents like to call it, but rather an opportunity to work with permission in the country where we live. It is also a temporary solution to a bigger problem: the U.S. immigration system.

I arrived in the United States from Venezuela twelve years ago with my mom and my brother. My mom, trying to escape an unstable government and economy, moved us to the U.S. to provide us with a better education and a safer environment to live in. We arrived with tourist visas wanting to stay, and after a rejected asylum request, overstayed these visas and became undocumented.

The first time I became aware that I was undocumented, I was a junior in high school. I was helping one of my closest friends back then, a senior, fill out applications for college. He was also the best student in the school. One of the applications he had to fill out was for a scholarship for a full tuition in a prestigious program that he qualified for at Princeton University. When he showed it to me, I was really happy for him, until he said he wouldn’t be able to apply because he didn’t have the “papers.” In that moment, I realized that I would also go through the same situation in my senior year. In the end, my friend made it into the honors program at a CUNY school and his tuition, books, and transportation were thankfully covered by the program.

Once I became aware that my immigration status would jeopardize my future plans and put me at a disadvantage, I studied hard and became involved in different activities and organizations at school. I had to sit back and watch my friends fill out applications for the universities of their choice, while my higher education choices became very limited due to my status.

When I started college at CUNY, my financial burden intensified. I no longer had the free Metrocard, books, and lunch that my high school provided, nor the support to pay my tuition. I had become an undocumented college student. I received a couple of scholarships that were gone by the end of my first semester. During that time, I would pay for my own books and my transportation with the money I was making at my part-time job, while my parents helped me with tuition.

The economy worsened, the MTA increased fares, and CUNY hiked tuition. It affected my pockets and those of many students around me. I found myself struggling to make ends meet, deciding whether to take a semester off and work, or leave school and work full time to pay the surging bills. Believe me, it is not an easy choice to make, and I know many other undocumented youths who have chosen the latter. In a city like New York, putting a roof over your head will always precede an education.

People used to ask me: “Why are you paying tuition by yourself?” “Can’t you apply for financial aid?” “Why don’t you get a better-paying job?” “Why don’t you work at the school?” “If you’re 21, why don’t you have a license to drive?” “Why don’t you get a car?” I struggled to find answers to get them to leave me alone. I was fed up feeling like my immigration status defined my life. Advocacy became the way to rebel against these feelings of isolation.

I started organizing around the federal Dream Act and the New York Dream Act. I had started to befriend other undocumented young people, particularly members from the New York State Youth Leadership Council. Their actions inspired me to become an activist and to share my story as an act of self-empowerment and self-preservation. They organized actions and rallies, often by putting themselves at risk of deportation to try to get legislation passed.

The federal Dream Act would allow undocumented youth who qualify to be placed on a path to citizenship, while the New York Dream Act would allow state financial aid to be opened for undocumented youth who qualify, allowing them to attend school while providing for their families. Both pieces of legislation would have a significant impact as hundreds of thousands of youth would have, to the very least, access to an education.

In December 2010, I witnessed the congressional debate on whether to pass the federal Dream Act. Some members used ignorant arguments, showing indifference to immigrant youth and their families. In the end, the Dream Act didn’t pass. That’s when I realized that my life and those of thousands of others were being gambled on by politicians with their own interests. How else could you explain so many hateful remarks toward a group of young people looking for an education?

Still, I realized the dramatic impact we could make. If it wasn’t for advocacy, our elected officials wouldn’t have cared enough to even bring it to the table for a vote, nor would the president have created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The hunger strikes, the rallies, sit-ins, protests, calls made and letters sent, and the walks to Washington, DC, all paid off in 2012.

Graduation: A milestone that becomes almost a privilege for some in our community.

On June 15, 2012, two weeks after my college graduation, President Obama announced that he was taking executive action to provide temporary relief to approximately one million eligible undocumented youth while we waited for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. The programs were set to go in effect in August, three months after the announcement.

In the meantime, we had to start saving money to pay for application fees and the expenses that came along with it (usually an average of $500 per applicant) as well as collecting documents that would prove we had been present in the country since 2007. I, fortunately, had been attending college during those years and they became my main evidence.

I would later become a DACA case manager, and learned many other people in my situation didn’t fare the same. I once had a case of a person who was denied solely because he was unable to find enough evidence of his presence in the country before he turned 16, even though he had arrived when he was 15 years old. This young man also had a family dependent on his income and was working on finishing his bachelor’s degree. And I had many more cases who were unable to apply because they had been working jobs off-the-books, and had no physical documents to prove their presence in this country. Many others whose past encounters with the law made them afraid to apply or prevented them from applying. Others were delayed applying because they lacked a high school degree or didn’t have the money to cover application fees. As of today, about 680,000 DACA-eligible youth have actually applied for deferred action.

In March 2013, eight months after I had sent my application, I was approved. Having DACA has allowed me to obtain a Social Security number and a state ID, and the privileges that come with it: a stable job, state health benefits, and even traveling outside of the country (with a previously approved advanced parole).

In August 2015, I traveled back to Venezuela after almost 12 years away. My stepmother had passed away unexpectedly and I knew I needed to be with my father during this difficult time. My conviction to travel was set in stone, but ultimately the decision to leave and be allowed back in, depended on immigration authorities. After spending a whole weekend, once again, collecting and translating documents, getting the fees together ($350), I showed up to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office on Monday morning with my application and after half an hour, I was approved for a 30-day emergency advance parole to travel outside of the country.

I hope these words help you understand how surreal the situation felt, when a piece of paper and half-hour wait, made twelve years of separation seem so irrelevant, painful, absurd, and thrilling all at the same time. That’s when I realize how traumatizing immigration can be to each of us. I can’t even fathom the emotional and physical ordeals that refugees and other migrants go through.

To this day, I still can’t believe I was there and was able to see my family and my country again. Twenty-four hours after my advanced parole was approved, I was on Venezuelan soil looking for my family at the airport. And 28 days later, I was back in the U.S. once again. (By the way, getting advanced parole for DACA recipients isn’t easy; it’s best to consult an immigration attorney.)

Despite all these benefits, I want to be clear that DACA is not a permanent form of legal status and it is certainly not a path to citizenship. DACA recipients cannot vote nor freely travel abroad. We are also not eligible for many other benefits such as a retirement pension (even though we contribute in taxes towards the Social Security) or Obamacare. And the benefits you may receive depends on the state you live in. We are stuck in a limbo of legal and undocumented status, and we run the risk that the next president may terminate the program — and we could be deported.

We should not settle for this temporary status, we are not second-class citizens. Advocates and allies: This is a collective effort. Let’s make sure DACA, and eventually DAPA, turn into a path to permanent residency and eventual citizenship for all of our immigrant communities. Let’s make sure our LGBTQ migrant brothers and sisters are released from detention centers currently killing them, and that they can live here peacefully. Let’s make sure those who are currently not eligible for DACA and DAPA are included in this fight too. Let’s make sure those with refugee status are treated with compassion, dignity and respect.

We are still here and we are thriving, and despite the challenges we face, we will continue to work towards turning this country into a more humane and welcoming society for all migrants and refugees alike.

Francis Madi is the Regional Outreach Associate on Long Island, NY for the New York Immigration Coalition. The NYIC promotes immigrants’ full civic participation, fosters their leadership, and provides a unified voice and a vehicle for collective action for New York’s diverse immigrant communities. Francis is also the co-founder of Voices Out of Silence, an advocacy and arts-led organization educating our community on the challenges faced by refugees in the US and around the world.

DACA recipients, join the conversation. What was the hardest part of applying for deferred action for you?