The Dreamers of UCI: Who Are They?

Imagine living in the United States for as long as you could remember. You’ve always considered yourself an American, a part of the only place you call home. Now, you wake up and realize you’re being deported to an unfamiliar place.
By Mi Tran

As of this year, nearly 700,000 young adults depend on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) to live productive lives in the United States. Dubbed with the nickname “Dreamers,” those who are eligible for Barack Obama’s implemented immigration act must meet certain criteria and reapply for the program every two years. Dreamers arrived in the U.S. as children under the age of sixteen and were given the opportunity to integrate themselves into the community by going to school, applying to college, getting jobs, and paying income taxes. Most importantly, they are protected from deportation.

There is no direction, purpose, or progression in street life. Facing overt discrimination from his math teacher, Adrian was told that he would either end up dead in jail or be working for McDonald’s.

Despite common misconceptions, Dreamers don’t get the “free pass” that some may believe. Upon arriving on U.S. soil, most children are under the age of ten and didn’t realize they would be staying. “My parents kind of tricked me. They said we were coming to America for a vacation, but when we got here, they told me to get ready to go to school,” says Sam, a 21-year-old junior at UC Irvine. On top of that, integrating themselves into a culture where they were belittled for being non-English speakers was a difficult task they would have to face.

Adrian moved to Santa Ana, CA at seven years old. He described his childhood as one that
lacked family support since both of his family members had to work two jobs to make a living. Growing up in a city highly populated by Mexican immigrants, Adrian easily made friends at school, although without parental guidance he lacked discipline and would often get into trouble – misbehaving in class and being disruptive, for example. The guidance he needed simply wasn’t there and his teachers didn’t care enough to aid his academic development. Adrian recalls, “There were papers that needed to be signed by parents, and my mom was never home to do it. I wouldn’t do my homework and I went to school, but it was only to show up. I had no goals or aspirations.” He began to integrate himself into “street life,” as a teenager, a common occurrence among low-income neighborhoods. There is no direction, purpose, or progression in street life. Facing overt discrimination from his math teacher, Adrian was told that he would either end up dead in jail or be working for McDonald’s.

This was a pivotal point in his young adult life that pushed him to work toward a purposeful future. “Those words really hurt me,” he says, “but that was a wakeup call to go and make something of myself.” Adrian finished high school, enrolled in community college, and found his passion in environmental engineering which he is now studying as a junior transfer at UC Irvine. DACA permitted Adrian to take on government internships, lab work, and conduct research on how natural disasters impact critical water resources. “If I was granted citizenship, I would want to give back to the community that helped me grow so much,” he says. “I would start by creating a non-profit organization in my hometown to give the youth better opportunities and keep them off the streets.”

Integration into an accepting community would provide social support that children need for intellectual and emotional growth. Like Adrian, Sam called Santa Ana home when he was ten years old. While Adrian was able to integrate somewhat smoothly and make friends in school, Sam faced discrimination and bullying from all sides due to the fact that he was Peruvian in a predominantly Mexican community. “I didn’t feel at home,” Sam recalls. “It wasn’t until middle school that I got into the routine of things and just focused on school.” Sam developed an early interest in joining the Air Force, but his dream became infeasible when he was diagnosed with colitis during his freshman year of high school.

Colitis is a lifelong chronic inflammation of the colon lining. Symptoms include diarrhea, fatigue, and other pains that hinder daily life. “I throw up a lot of blood,” Sam says. “I have to live with it for the rest of my life, and you can’t go into the military with colitis.”

While it can be treated, there is no cure for colitis. “With DACA, I was able to get insured under MediCal, so the disease is manageable. It isn’t easy, and you’re forced to give up a lot of your dreams when you have to rely on the structure of the government.” Sam’s unexpected diagnosis required him to pursue a different lifestyle and future, so he decided to go to college and study aerospace engineering.

“I’m taking life day by day now,” Sam says. Despite the limitations that come with being sick, Sam is appreciative of the healthcare that is available and allows him to continue doing most of what he wants. “Without DACA, getting deported back to Peru would be awful in terms of my health,” he says. Compared to the healthcare he receives here, Peru’s healthcare system would not provide the same caliber of treatment, and it would be much harder to cope with the disease. Sam’s story demonstrates that the repercussions of appealing DACA aren’t limited to taking away jobs and opportunities—it would ultimately diminish the quality of lives that depend on proper healthcare.

In Javier’s case, an interesting concept came up. His intended career path was centered around politics; as bizarre as it sounded, he wanted to play a part in the government that was trying to banish him. “I consider myself American,” he says. “So of course I want the right to vote and be a part of the decisions that impact my life.” If he was given the chance, Javier would want to run for office as mayor of his hometown and even climb the ranks into the county or state government. “I care about America even though it doesn’t care about me,” he says. “If it weren’t for American history, the good and the bad, there wouldn’t be any need for me to be here.” Javier’s interest in politics was inspired by his idea that life will always be political regardless of who you are or where you come from. The best way to make things better is to be aware of what’s going on and proactively change the system in any way possible.

“If I was granted citizenship, I would want to give back to the community that helped me grow so much,” he says. “I would start by creating a non-profit organization in my hometown to give the youth better opportunities and keep them off the streets.”

When asked about the possibility of deportation, Javier was mostly indifferent. “Life would be easier in Mexico, but it would also be much less fulfilling. I’d rather do what I can here with what I have and live my own version of the American Dream.”

Javier mentioned that he has found strength in the knowledge that he is not alone. There is hope in the future of DACA students because of their intelligence, passion, and willpower to create change. “The focus should be on us, not the bad apples that give undocumented people a bad name. We’re the ones who utilize our privileges for giving back to the community and creating change.” Javier believes that the removal of DACA doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s over; politics are rarely a one-and-done deal. “The fight continues,” he says.

There appeared to be common ground between the students who were interviewed, despite the fact that they may have never crossed paths nor lived similar lives. When inquired about what DACA has done for them in terms of goals and accomplishments, none gave a grandiose response (for example, saving lives or bringing world peace) nor did they mention specific events. Instead, they expressed gratitude towards the people who encouraged them, their support systems, and the cities they grew up in. DACA was just a tool that granted them the possibility of having a choice. What truly shapes a person is their own experiences, decisions, and the influence of others. Our country’s morale thrives on hard work, individual development, and purpose, built on passion, common humanity, and diversity; change and progress does not come about simply because everyone has been to the moon or invented a life-changing device. Progress transpires when individuals work together, follow their dreams and discover.

We must grow in unison and stand in solidarity rather than deprecate one another— Dreamers are an integrated part of society and will always represent an aspect of contemporary U.S. history. Our neighbors, peers, coworkers, future health care providers, rocket scientists, and politicians will be avid contributors to our flourishing society. The government’s termination of DACA is dreadfully misdirected; in an attempt to wipe out “delinquent” immigrants, it simultaneously punishes vital members of civilization. Workers’ rights will be destabilized, and with hundreds of thousands affected, this will undoubtedly impact the economy of many states.

This was not meant to merely highlight how DACA has given Dreamers the opportunities to succeed as immigrants. Rather, it was portrayed through each unique story that, regardless of what is placed in front of them: hardship, discrimination, decisions that can lead to success or failure, these students are defined by their aspirations and unwavering loyalty to a country that has given them so much. The beauty of exploring this topic was learning that they harbored no anger or desire to fight; they can’t control what happens next, and that’s why those who do have control can make a difference.

Even with all of the opposition they have faced, these students surprisingly did not express resentment and instead voiced a desire to provide something valuable to their community, their earth, and their people—in the country they find deserving of their talents, skills, and presence.

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