Bruno Villegas was 6 years old when he arrived in Southern California with his parents and older sister from their native Peru. He thought the trip was just a vacation, but his parents had a different plan, which was to overstay their tourist visas to build a better life in the United States. Thirteen years later Villegas is still undocumented, but also a college sophomore who managed to get into Harvard with a generous scholarship.
“I grew up in a household where our status was a secret, you didn’t want anyone to know because it was dangerous,” says Villegas. “But staying silent is not an option anymore.”
President-elect Donald Trump’s reprehensible vow during the campaign to deport millions of undocumented immigrants may not be as feasible and practical to carry out as it was to promise. But fears that he can begin with targeting the so-called Dreamers — children who were brought into the country illegally by their parents, through no fault of their own — are not unsubstantiated. Four years ago, President Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, after the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) failed to pass Congress in late 2010. DACA grants certain undocumented youths and young adults a social security number, a work permit, eligibility for a driver’s license, and temporary deportation relief. There are about 800,000 DACA-permit holders, and Villegas is one of them. At least 40 of them are enrolled at Harvard, out of 7,000 or so who live in Massachusetts.
While campaigning, Trump said he’d end the DACA policy. It is unclear, however, what he will actually do now. In a short video detailing his policy plan for the first 100 days of his administration, Trump didn’t address a DACA rollback. But because these young immigrants officially declared their illegal status to the government when applying for DACA, a Trump administration may very well go after them for deportation.
Legal experts have explained that the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause protects Dreamers from any removal procedures the government may launch against them based on the information they previously provided. And yet, thus far the one defining feature of the Trump era is that nothing is off the table. “We don’t know what the guy actually wants to do,” says Villegas. Ending DACA would make Villegas instantly deportable. Trump’s nomination of Jeff Sessions for attorney general has only compounded fear among illegal immigrants. The nominee for the nation’s top lawyer and chief enforcement officer job has been the leading opponent in Congress of both legal and illegal immigration in recent years.
Many polls have shown wide public support for DACA and allowing Dreamers to stay. A new survey shows 58 percent of voters nationwide are against Trump repealing DACA. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is reportedly preparing legislation to protect the legal status of those in the program, although it wouldn’t be filed until next year. Major universities and colleges like MIT, Harvard, Brown, and Boston University have urged the incoming administration to protect undocumented students. Harvard has announced steps to offer them expanded resources and assistance on campus. Beyond the moral case, there is an economic imperative in allowing DACA to continue. The Center for American Progress recently issued a report estimating the cost of ending it: Over a decade, it would mean a GDP loss of at least $434 billion.
If Villegas, whose current DACA permit expires in 2018, gets deported, he has no “home country” to go to. Unlike more recent immigrants, the Dreamers have no previous life elsewhere, as they were typically brought to the United States by their parents as infants. America is the only home they know. “This is my country and no one can tell me otherwise,” says Villegas.
The impending Trump presidency is exposing the true costs of failing to arrive at an immigration compromise, leaving Obama with no other tools except executive orders, which now can simply be reversed. The problem isn’t going to go away with a new era of intolerance. But the case for allowing youth like Villegas to stay is as unequivocal and powerful as ever.