Here I Am: A DACA Recipient’s Radical Act

By Carlos Adolfo Gonzalez Sierra

Art by Erick Parra

The supreme court’s 4–4 split decision on Texas vs. United States means the DAPA and expanded DACA executive orders will not stand. DAPA (undocumented parents) and expanded DACA (undocumented children) would’ve granted lawful presence to 4 million immigrants and kept families together. The associated opportunities benefit people like Carlos, currently a Gates Cambridge Scholar at University of Cambridge.

Uncertainty and fear entered my life the day my visa expired. Chasing the proverbial “American Dream” while undocumented felt futile. Regardless of how many A’s I earned, how many clubs I led, or how many hours I volunteered, my dream of a college education always felt out of reach. I felt powerless, I felt frustrated and, above all, I felt stuck. Seemingly unable to do anything else to improve my situation, I closed my eyes most nights and prayed for immigration reform.

Nevertheless, every morning I chose to continue chasing my dreams of pursuing a quality education because, when confronted with the choice, failure is a much lighter weight to carry than a lifetime of regret. With grit, hard work, and a strong support system, I graduated from high school, continued my education at community college and eventually transferred to Amherst College with a full scholarship. As an undocumented student, the possibility of winning a full scholarship to college is like stumbling upon a briefcase with a million dollars. I felt like a scratched record as I thanked the dean of admissions over and over for the opportunity.

I entered Amherst feeling like an unworthy impostor. Why me? Thousands of undocumented students dream of this opportunity, and why am I the one who got the call? I knew how hard I had worked to earn it, but I could not help but wonder if perhaps someone else worked harder and was more deserving. Each time I questioned myself, countless young faces came to mind. I am still waiting for a satisfying answer.

As a student, the limitations of my immigration status stood out most when I returned home or sought enrichment opportunities away from campus. I knew I was completely barred from any opportunities that required a Social Security number. I also involuntarily scratched off any opportunities in states that would require boarding an airplane. I simply could not risk being in the vicinity of an immigration officer. Once over the eligibility hurdle, I still needed to think about ways of securing housing, arranging transportation, and a series of other quotidian activities my peers with driver’s licenses took for granted.

And then, a change.

I was completing a community organizing internship in Chicago the summer President Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). For thousands of beneficiaries like me, DACA has brought relief and clarity into lives characterized by uncertainty. Previously barred experiences are now accessible, including some outside the United States.

Thanks to DACA, I am currently a Gates Cambridge Scholar pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Later this year I will travel to China to continue my education at Tsinghua University as a Schwarzman Scholar. My presence in these spaces is highly improbable.

That said, I find it ironic that winning two of the most prestigious scholarships in the world is only the first hurdle I must clear to be able to partake in these opportunities. Traveling with DACA is permitted, but it is also precarious as advance parole does not guarantee re-entry into the United States. I am reminded of that fact every time an immigration officer escorts me to a back room for further inspection. Immigration officers have a lot of discretion at the port of entry and many are not fond of “illegals” like me, regardless of how many degrees I have.

However, I refuse to allow fear to dictate my choices. I owe that to myself, to my mother, and to the countless activists who put their bodies on the line to win administrative relief.

Society expects undocumented people to be invisible, passive actors in our own lives. My life experiences have taught me that my achievement as an undocumented student is not only a tremendous privilege, but also a radical act, one of simultaneous resistance against invisibility and emancipation from the thought that we are unworthy of leading fulfilling lives.