By Connor Burnard, Studio M staff //
Diego Sebastian Amaro, a 19-year-old Venezuelan immigrant, considers Nashville to be his hometown. He grew up in Goodlettsville and graduated from Hume-Fogg Academic High School, one of the highest-rated public high schools in the state. However, Amaro, now an engineering student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, might have a very different life without Deferred Action for Child Arrivals.
Diego Sebastian Amaro, a 19-year-old Tennessee college student and Venezuelan immigrant, looks over the downtown skyline in Nashville, Tenn., on May 23, 2014. Amaro participated in DACA after immigrating to Tennessee from Venezuela illegally with his parents before being granted legal residency through asylum. (Photo by Evan Van Tassel)
Amaro’s parents brought him to the United States illegally when he was a toddler due to unsafe living conditions in Venezuela. His parents were police officers who did not support then-President Hugo Chavez, a political stance that allegedly led to politically motivated arrests in the country at the time.
He believes that his parents had little choice but to bring him to the country illegally, and that if a program like DACA had not been available, he might have been sent back Venezuela to face a very different reality than what he knows today.
“Some people wanted to hurt my family, so we had to leave,” Amaro said. “If we had never left, bad things could have happened to our family, and I think I would’ve been a completely different person. … We would have to deal with the issue of constant violence, the food shortages, the medicine shortages.”
Amaro participated in DACA for a short time as a child before his family was granted legal residency through asylum and believes that opposition to DACA is mostly based upon ignorance.
“I think that (opponents of DACA) think it’s just a free illegal immigrant pass, but it’s not that,” said Amaro. “It was made to protect children that were placed in an unfortunate position. It’s mainly just not being informed on the act that causes people to be so against it.”
Interactive timeline: A history of DACA
The program, which was announced on Sept. 5 by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to be rescinded with a six-month delay, was created by an executive order by Barack Obama in 2012 and provided temporary work permit eligibility and protection from deportation for approximately 800,000 illegal immigrants that came to the United States as children. Pending congressional action, DACA will be rescinded on March 5, 2018.
The decision to rescind DACA, which was one of President Trump’s campaign promises during the election season, has been met with widespread protest and condemnation, including lawsuits filed against the president by several states and attorneys general, as well as prompting an array of studies about the program’s participants.
According to an August 2017 survey of 3,063 DACA participants conducted by Tom Wong, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego, over 91 percent were employed; over 72 percent had a spouse, child or sibling that was an American citizen; over 71 percent had obtained higher education beyond a high school diploma or equivalent; and over 48 percent became organ donors after being approved for DACA.
Andrés Martínez, the director of communications for Conexión Américas, a Nashville nonprofit located in Casa Azafrán that helps integrate “immigrant families into their new community,” says that the election of President Trump and the announcement to rescind DACA were both events that reverberated through Nashville’s immigrant community.
“There was definitely a dropoff (after the election) in interest in people applying for (DACA) status,” said Martínez. “After the president rescinded DACA, we went into crisis response mode. We offered a few workshops, information sessions to DACA recipients and their families to tell them what their rights were, what options they had. … We were in high schools in Nashville, spreading the word that we’re here for support or information that DACA recipients might need.”
“We’re very focused on now,” Martínez added. “The solution needs to happen now. … These are people that are a part of our community, and it’s not healthy for a community for people to be taken away like that.”
Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, the policy manager at the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, states that any interpretation of DACA as a polarizing policy is not supported by facts, citing research by the Brookings Institution and polls by Fox News that show more than three-quarters of respondents — two-thirds of whom self-identified as Trump voters — support allowing DACA participants to stay in the country and become legal residents.
“DACA recipients enjoy widespread bipartisan support,” said Sherman-Nikolaus. “Our country is in pretty wide agreement that there should be an earned pathway to citizenship for these young adults who’ve been in this country since they were children.”
She added, “The divisive rhetoric is actually mistaken, because the polling shows that the majority of voters want a solution for DACA recipients.”
Amaro, Martínez and Sherman-Nikolaus all believe that the rescission of DACA will not only have a significant negative impact on its participants, but also create a void in American society that was once filled by hundreds of thousands of people.
“A lot of (DACA participants) are going to have to prepare to go back to a country that they don’t really know,” Amaro said. “It’s just going to completely ruin their lives, in my opinion. … The only thing (the rescission of DACA) is accomplishing is putting young people in a very confusing and possibly dangerous situation. It was set in place to aid helpless young people.”
“We would lose a lot of money just deporting them,” Martínez said. “It makes no economic sense. Not only that, but these young people are talented. They go to college, they get really good jobs. A lot of them are bilingual. Several top Fortune 500 companies employ DACA beneficiaries. It would make a huge economic impact.”
“These are kids who’ve grown up in our high schools, they’ve had an American education,” Sherman-Nikolaus said. “DACA recipients are contributing to our economy. They’re working as engineers, nurses, journalists, teachers. … It’s something that really touches all of our lives from a personal level up to an economic level.”
One proposition of immigrant reform activists is to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bill initially introduced in 2001 by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that would provide illegal immigrants that fit nearly the same eligibility criteria as DACA a graduated path to permanent legal residency.
“This is the first time in our country that so many people know what DACA is and have heard of the DREAM Act,” Sherman-Nikolaus said. “In previous efforts to pass the DREAM Act, there just wasn’t this much education and information and knowledge across the country about this issue. I think it’s really a testament to immigrant youth who have been sharing their stories and humanizing the issue. For the first time, we have many members of Congress from both sides of the aisle who acknowledge that we do need a legislative fix.”
According to Martínez, the hope to pass the DREAM Act has prompted participants in the program to contact their elected officials to urge the importance of a permanent replacement to DACA.
“It’s really encouraging to see DACA recipients advocating on behalf of themselves and other people in their situation,” Martínez said. “We know a few that have gone from Nashville to D.C. to meet with our senators and our staff to get them to pass a clean DREAM Act.”
Connor Burnard is a sophomore studying geography at Middle Tennessee State University.
Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.