Today marks the ninth anniversary of DACA. But this time also marks five years since my parents self-deported.
By Daishi Miguel-Tanaka
When I was six years old, I came to America with my parents on temporary visas in the hopes of being sponsored by my U.S. citizen grandfather. But we did not know that there was a 25-year green card backlog for married adult children being sponsored from the Philippines (my Lolo, my grandfather, would sponsor my Filipino mother and my father and I would be included in her application). Like one out of every seven Asian immigrants in the U.S., we became undocumented. We couldn’t legally get jobs, driver’s licenses, or a home loan.
For the American Dream my parents couldn’t achieve, I inherited it through my childhood. I avidly watched the LA Dodgers, made close friends at school, ran for prom king (and lost).
In high school, I received DACA, an Obama administration program that gave undocumented youth temporary legal work authorization and relief from deportation. Without fear, I attended an out-of-state university and pursued my career dreams in nonprofit organizations. My story became one of many diverse experiences of the 650,000 member community of DACA recipients, 93% of whom are actively employed. I felt like one of the lucky ones, as some of my friends didn’t qualify for the program.
After my freshman year of college, I returned home for the summer. I saw my mom and dad toil as caretakers at an elderly care nursing home. Being undocumented, they were paid $6.00 per hour to work 10-hour days and given a cold, rusty garage with a makeshift bed for their overnight shifts. I often witnessed their employers withhold their paychecks, leaving my mom in tears. They were afraid of losing their jobs to report their employers for wage theft.
My parents, growing older and fatigued, and knowing their working conditions would not improve decided it would be best to return to their home countries even though they would be banned from reentering the country for 10 years. And under the Trump administration, I could not travel out of the U.S. and return with my DACA status. Despite the uncertainty of when we would see each other again, we knew it was time. I used my internship stipend to pay for their flights and drove them to the Los Angeles International Airport. I waved goodbye.
In the parking lot, I broke down in tears. Gritting my teeth with anger and helplessness, I questioned, why I deserved a dumb piece of paper? Why were my parents left out?
The next morning, I returned to work in an air-conditioned office space far from the rusty garage. I was grateful that DACA has given me a better life. But I thought of the millions, like my parents, who are the true backbone of this country. Hidden. Doing the essential jobs of caring for children, the sick, and the elderly, growing, transporting and preparing our food, cleaning our homes and offices and so much more.
Today marks the nine-year anniversary of DACA. But this month also marks five years since my parents self-deported. My mom and dad remain unrecognized for their hard work, much like the five million undocumented workers doing essential work to keep this country alive during the pandemic. Congress has an opportunity this year to bring long-awaited relief for our communities and create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. I urge Congress to commit to including DACA recipients, TPS holders, farm workers, and other essential workers in the budget reconciliation.
For five years, I have not seen my family aside from looking through the lens of the webcam. The separation, anxiety, and depression that many American families felt during the COVID-19 lockdowns has been a daily reality for us. We don’t know when we’ll see each other in person again.
But I have hope that America will open. I have hope that America will open its heart to the immigrants that grow our food, attend our schools, and enrich our neighborhoods. I have hope for an open America where I can go to the LA Dodgers game with my dad once more.
Daishi Miguel-Tanaka is the immigration policy associate at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.