Advancing American DREAMs

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Today marks the last post in our series. To mark the occasion, we have developed a compilation of all the stories that have been featured in this space. Each of the stories show what life was like before Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and what it has meant for these recipients to receive a work permit and live without the fear of deportation. These youth came to the United States in different ways from all over the globe. They settled across the country, but all grew up with a strong desire to do well in school, help their families, and give back to their communities. They represent the ways that DACA can be transformative, from granting access to in-state tuition to facilitating higher education, better job opportunities, and driver’s licenses.

You can read all the posts at or download the whole compilation below. We hope that you have enjoyed the reading the series as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to you. The fight for immigration reform goes on, and we will continue to advocate for making those American DREAMs come true.

Fulll report:

DACA Allays Fears and Brightens Futures

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For this week’s installment of “Living the American DREAM,” we’re featuring a DACA recipient in her own words. Mayra Melendez graduated from Maryland’s Salisbury University last month with a degree in international studies. On campus, Mayra has been a leader of immigrant student activism. While there, she helped organize the Undocumented Students Forum with the hope of increasing undocumented student resources at the university. Mayra also has the distinction of being selected as a FirstGen Civil Rights Fellow this summer, one of seven. In the fall, she begins a two-year community fellowship with the Immigrant Justice Corps in New York. We wish her the best of luck.

Melendez, far right. Photo: Mayra Melendez

Melendez, far right, at the April 2013 Rally for Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C. Photo: Mayra Melendez

I arrived in the United States at seven years old with my family on an H1B visa application. At age 17, and after 10 years of waiting to hear back from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), my family and I found out our permanent residency application had been denied due to the errors of our immigration attorney. She had filed our application wrong. In high school I was quiet about my status and did not feel safe sharing it with anyone.

In 2012, I was formally introduced into immigrant advocacy through the Maryland Dream Act campaign. Activism and organizing helped me find my voice and be open about sharing my story. I co-founded Students Taking Action for Necessary Dreams (STAND), a youth immigrant group dedicated to immigrant rights and education access for students. Our group campaigned for the Maryland Dream Act—we canvassed weekly, spoke at numerous organizations and churches, and conducted trainings for volunteers.

The Maryland Dream Act won in referendum on Election Day 2012, establishing a process for undocumented students who graduated from high school in Maryland and met certain criteria to be able to pay in-state tuition. Around that time, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was announced. Before DACA, I would always wonder what I would do after college, and I was constantly in fear of deportation. College sometimes acted as a blanket for those fears because I would feel safe and like everyone else, but I knew I wasn’t.

An event that I still remember was when a police officer came to my friend’s car window. I remember telling myself, “There’s nothing to worry about, Mayra. You haven’t done anything.” But due to my status, I was terrified. I was sitting in the passenger seat, but I thought, “What if he asks for identification?” At that point, the only ID I had was my school ID. He didn’t ask for anything, and after making sure we were okay, he let us go.

DACA means not having to worry about these fears any longer—at least not for two years. I applied for DACA because I recognized the opportunities it will open up for me. I will no longer have to worry about removal or stress about how I will get a job, and I will finally be able to apply for a driver’s license.

However, while these opportunities are still open to me, the rest of my family does not benefit. Even with President Obama’s proposed Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) plan, my parents do not qualify because neither my brother nor I are permanent residents or citizens.

Every day I remember this, and every day this motivates me to continue to work for my community so my parents one day can live without the fear of deportation and separation.

Living the American Dream: Hareth Andrade

Living the Dream-01 (2)Hareth Andrade planned to go to college ever since she was a little girl. She just never imagined the challenges that she would face in getting there. Hareth arrived in the United States without her parents at an early age, and it was years before she would see them again. They stayed behind in Bolivia, hoping that their daughter would have better opportunities in the United States.

With time, Hareth adapted to her new reality and excelled in school. She attended Washington High School in Arlington, Virginia, where she took Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes.

Hareth, with Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, at a celebration recognizing DREAMers of Virginia’s efforts in pushing for access to in-state tuition

Hareth, with Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, at a celebration recognizing DREAMers of Virginia’s efforts in pushing for access to in-state tuition

Hareth worked hard and her future looked bright. But one day, while visiting a University of Virginia camp for high school students interested in science, she learned that she would face challenges in pursuing her dreams because she was undocumented. Like many DREAMers, even though she worked hard and felt as American as her peers, she didn’t have the paperwork to prove it.

Hareth explained, “I had heard about Social Security numbers, but I didn’t know what that was. We didn’t talk about it at home. One of the panelists was talking about financial aid and Social Security numbers. I was puzzled, so I asked, ‘What if someone doesn’t have a Social Security number?’ The response was something I did not expect. It felt like a slap in the face.”

Given her accomplishments in school and her talents, Hareth’s opportunities seemed endless. However, after discovering the barriers to higher education that her undocumented status posed, she felt uncertain about her future. Thanks to the inspiration from her guidance counselor, Hareth realized that she could use her talents to push for policy change, so she started advocating for Congress to allow students like her, who had grown up in the U.S., to continue their education and pursue their dreams in the country they call home.

After graduating from high school, Hareth, along with other students, founded DREAMers of Virginia, an organization that has led efforts to provide access to in-state tuition for people who came to the United States as children and graduated from high school in Virginia.

She remembers when President Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Hareth applied in the summer of 2012 and shortly after received her documents, including her work permit, in the mail. “The day I got the card, I called my mom crying, and I told her, ‘Mom, it’s happening! I am going to do all these things I want to do.’”

Now Hareth’s life has changed in ways large and small. “Before it was so limiting,” she said. “One time I could not get into the movie theater to watch the newest Harry Potter movie. I had to show ID to prove I was 18 years old, but since the movie theater staff didn’t take my student ID and I had no state-issued ID, I was not let in. When I held DACA in my hands, it meant so much to me.”

Since receiving DACA, Hareth transferred from community college to Trinity Washington University, where she is pursuing a degree in international affairs. She expects to graduate next year and obtain a job in that field.

Thanks to DACA, there is a clear path for young people like Hareth to enter the workforce. “Applying for jobs has felt like an accomplishment. Writing my Social Security number on a piece of paper felt like an accomplishment. My entire life has been based on this number.”

Hareth has continued to advocate for opportunities for her peers. In 2014, DREAMers of Virginia was instrumental in securing access to in-state tuition in Virginia. Today DACA recipients are eligible to pay in-state tuition at some of Virginia’s colleges and universities, keeping higher education within reach.

When asked what she would like to see next, Hareth said, “I would like to see my parents included in DAPA [Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents]. These programs shape lives. Our society can’t exclude the people who help the most. Otherwise we are not helping our country move forward.”

Determined to Achieve the American Dream: Yazmin Abreu

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By David Castillo, Communications Department, NCLR

This week in “Living the American DREAM,” we meet 30-year-old Yazmin Abreu of Orange County, California. Like so many young people profiled in this space, Yazmin arrived in the United States as a child. She was eight years old, and her young mind could not fully grasp why her family was leaving what she thought was a happy life in Mexico. What she didn’t realize was that her father, like many parents, was looking for a way to sustain his family, and coming to the U.S. was the chance to realize his potential. He decided to move first, and Yazmin, her siblings, and her mother would join later.

For much of her early life, Yazmin was not aware of her immigration status. She struggled some in school, though not with her academics. Rather, Yazmin had difficulty socially. Thanks to a great elementary school teacher who took an interest her, she was able to overcome these challenges. In middle school Yazmin discovered that she was an undocumented immigrant. That revelation would affect how guarded she was about many details of her private life.

Despite the problems presented by her status, Yazmin was determined to go to college, though she knew getting there would not be easy. However, thanks to the California DREAM Act, she was able to pay in-state tuition. She also confided in a guidance counselor about being undocumented, and that counselor helped her in the college application process.

Although she was able to attend college, it wasn’t always an easy road. Yazmin’s commute to and from school was an hour and a half every day. Often she made use of the computer labs until they closed, and she wouldn’t get home until midnight. She admits that it took a while for her to graduate, as she had to take some time off to raise funds for classes. Her hard work and dedication finally paid off when, in 2012, Yazmin graduated from California State University, Long Beach with a degree in health science education.

Freshly graduated and ready to work, Yazmin didn’t find a job easily, especially due to her immigration status. Later that year, however, after receiving administrative relief through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Yazmin hit the ground running, reveling in the practice of even applying for a job legally.

“Right now, I can go to websites, look for jobs, and apply to them, and it is such a sense of freedom,” said Yazmin. She was even excited to go to the DMV. “I had the biggest smile on my face. I was finally able to set foot in there. That fear just goes away.”

Yazmin is still searching for the right career, and she is determined to make it happen. In the meantime, she wants to ask those who are blocking expanded DACA and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) why they are so intent on deporting people who will contribute greatly to the United States, especially given the numbers of people who are already benefiting from relief.

“This country needs DREAMers like us, so why give it away?” she asked. “I know I’m going to achieve the American Dream. They need to think about the future.”

DACA Made a Future Nurse’s Dreams Become Reality

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By David Castillo, New Media Manager, NCLR

When Jose Aguiluz was 15, he was involved in a severe car accident in his native Honduras. Desperate for help, his aunt contacted doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. The staff were able to perform the required surgery, and it wasn’t long before Jose and his aunt traveled from Honduras to the United States. His immediate family joined soon after so they could be by his side before and after the procedure.

The surgery came at a great cost, however. Jose’s parents had to sell everything they owned to pay for it and to be with him.

That was almost 10 years ago. Yet it was a fateful event for many reasons. During his stay at the prestigious medical facility, Jose discovered his passion for medicine. It also marked the beginning of a new life.

Jose remained in the U.S.—a decision that was beyond his control—and in time his visa expired. Despite the hardships brought on by his undocumented status, Jose proved to be a spectacular student. Although his status barred him from receiving financial aid, Jose managed to find jobs to pay his tuition and fees at Montgomery College. His workday started at 5:00 a.m., followed by classes at night.

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When the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was established, Jose knew he had an opportunity to finally achieve his potential. He chose to pursue a nursing degree and was dedicated to making this dream come true, no matter what obstacles were in his way.

“Education is the path we have to become someone in our lives,” said Jose.

Jose continued to balance work and school once he started his nursing education. Despite a hectic schedule, he became active in his community too. He worked to pass the Maryland DREAM Act by canvassing neighborhoods and encouraging people to get out the vote. This civic experience made the DACA announcement that much more special for Jose.

On the day President Obama introduced DACA, Jose went to NCLR Affiliate CASA de Maryland to talk with fellow youth organizers and share in the victory they had worked so hard to achieve. He filled out his DACA application, anxious to receive his work permit and finally advance toward his dreams. The best part was being able to take his board examinations. Since January 2014, Jose has been employed at Washington Adventist Hospital as a registered nurse.

Jose has already achieved much, but the 23-year-old is just getting started. He continues to contribute to his community as a member of Casa’s board of directors. He is also continuing his studies and plans to pursue an advanced degree in public health at the school where it all started: Johns Hopkins University.

Without DACA, Jose knows that getting to this point would have been nearly impossible, and he pleads with Congress and the 26 states that have blocked DACA expansion and the new Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program. “Only by removing these roadblocks can we show everyone what we’re capable of,” he says.

Gaby Gomez, NCLR Communications Department intern, contributed to this blog post.