Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, Ph.D.

A Dreamer’s Tale

There remains a lot of uncertainty for DACA recipients as to what will happen next, and confusion and fear is preventing many from renewing their status. Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado shares one Dreamer’s story.


Ruby is a twenty-something college junior who has set her sights on graduating from college, attending law school, and eventually seeking elected office in her mid-sized Midwestern city. Her academic record is stellar (a 3.9 GPA in Political Science), she is preternaturally organized, and is clear to let you know that she doesn’t have time to waste. For her, the clock is ticking, figuratively and literally. She has four years from this coming summer to finish an undergraduate degree and complete law school before she ages out of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program instituted in 2012 by the Obama Administration.

You want to ask, Why has it taken her so long to complete her college education? (She graduated from high school 11 years ago.) She is quick to remind you that while she has been regularly attending college all along, she has had to work to pay for school, as do many college students, but because of her “undocumented” status she was ineligible to receive one red cent of college assistance, be it in the form of a scholarship, grant, or loan from the federal or state government. The burden of covering the cost of higher education was entirely on her, so she would “work” to save up money to pay for a semester’s tuition, and almost never at a full-time status. She was essentially not able to work without a Social Security card to call her own, and the idea of pursuing a college degree, while a hope and dream for Ruby, was a very long shot for her, but one that she continued to chip away at.

That was until 2015 when her public university announced that it had secured private funding for a scholarship that would assist Dreamers in her state to attend college. The state of Nebraska passed legislation in 2006 authorizing all graduates from its high schools to attend one of the state’s universities at in-state tuition rates regardless of their immigration status, and now with the possibility of securing one of these treasured scholarships, she just might be able to see her dream come true. She had applied for and received DACA certification in 2012, a work permit, and much hope about the future. Added to this was a remarkable bill passed by the Nebraska Legislature in 2017, making it possible for Dreamers to acquire professional licenses in one of over 100 categories, including a license to practice law in Nebraska.

Almost unbelievably for her, Ruby received one of the new scholarships available from her university and was, now more than ever, certain of a future that would allow her to pursue a legal career where she would offer her services to the immigrant and refugee communities tangled in the morass that the processes of immigration, legalization, and naturalization had become. By the estimates of anyone paying attention, the U.S. immigration system is broken. The last time that Congress successfully enacted a comprehensive immigration reform was 31 years ago to be exact and it has been “smoke and mirrors” ever since. Insofar as the reform was supposed to provide a path to citizenship for existing undocumented immigrants and tighten border enforcement, it didn’t work. Instead, the opposite occurred and the number of undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of American life, in often-precarious situations, doubled.

I am not here to offer a forensic analysis as to why the best laid plans of U.S. lawmakers failed so abysmally, but it suffices to say that after initially reducing the number of the undocumented to just a bit over two million, after the largest legalization process in American history, Congress paid little or no attention to the shifting structural dynamics of the American and regional economies, much to the chagrin of anyone left to care. Allow me to explain. While we viewed the prospect of a hemispheric trade regime positively because of the inherent mobility and gains from trade in capital investment, technology, and manufacturing to even greater profit, we gave little consideration to the mobility of labor at all wage and skill levels. The dramatic remaking and demise of the American manufacturing base compounded this glaring oversight. It was transformed into an exploding service sector replete with a bevy of low skill/low wage and anything but permanent jobs. Consider that the manufacturing sector has lost almost eight million jobs since 1980 and that those that remained required, in many instances, significant retraining for workers to keep abreast of the advances in technology and productivity. This coincided with an economic collapse of the Mexican economy in the late 1980s and an exodus of immigrants escaping the civil wars and poverty in Central America. This, among other factors, created the impetus for a dramatic increase of immigration. Especially, immigrants were drawn to the low skill/low wage sectors of the U.S. economy for employment, taking jobs that few if any native-born Americans would ever consider.


So, it has come to this, a sizable population of young people in this country, here by no choice of their own, are being swept about the political landscape like leaves on a windy day, by state policies that border on mean, immoral, and capricious.


This wave of immigrants, while largely undocumented, found work across all sectors of the U.S. economy and in new destinations in every corner of the country. The meatpacking and food processing, restaurants and hotels, farm working and construction became the staple of this new and growing workforce. By 2015, only two million workers were employed in agriculture, and roughly 50% of hired crop farmworkers in the U.S. were noncitizens working without legal authorization. First, single males, and then trailing wives and children looking for their place in the sun and a path to a better life.

But through all of this there has been and remains few if any options to come “legally,” with the average length of wait for application to naturalize taking no less than three years and perhaps as long as twenty years, depending on which region of the world one is coming from. This is all to say that for the 11 million or so immigrants who subverted the process, the legitimate chances of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen are all but non-existent. For the 800,000 young adult immigrants brought to this country in an undocumented status by their parents, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, launched by the Obama Administration in 2012, has proven to be a stopgap measure to assuage their fears on imminent deportation. But the yo-yoing policy shifts by the Trump Administration, beginning in September of 2017, has had the effect of destabilizing and undermining any hopes for the future on behalf of these Dreamers.

So, as Ruby prepares to take her law school entrance examination next fall, she is left to ponder where all this uncertainty will leave her and the hundreds of thousands of Dreamers just like her. To assuage her own anxiety and fragility in these matters, she states, “I have to keep my mind on the bigger picture, what can I do with this opportunity? What will produce the most good, what is the most possible that I can accomplish?” For her, she focuses on what it means for 11 million other undocumented immigrants to find relief in the midst of the morass. It elicits a range of emotions and challenges that compels her to consider how she can transform “weakness into strength” and to take on the challenge that is “empowering as opposed to debilitating.” As Ruby reflects, this is “everything and nothing.”

The standard tropes about Dreamers, their resilience, the overcoming of adversity, and sky-high aspirations in the face of the ambiguity for the future has soured the dreams of many rendering them unrealistic and unreliable. And yet she persists while delicately balancing herself on the horns of this dilemma. For many, the lure of the United States has been that of the “shining beacon of freedom,” of the “city on the hill,” and yet, for just as many, they have come to harm in pursuit of the ideal. I have over the years asked the international, refugee, and undocumented students in my classes just why they have hazarded to come and study in the United States, and almost uniformly, they respond that it is all about the promise of opportunity that has drawn them to this country. It is a powerful and compelling reason. But for Ruby and so many others like her, pursuit of the same is fraught with a sense of precariousness and foreboding that borders on overwhelming terror, in spite of this being the only country and place that she knows. She is adamant as she blurts, “A piece of paper will not define me! My status will not impede my progress!” She is perhaps foolish in this regard, but vows to press on regardless.

So, it has come to this, a sizable population of young people in this country, here by no choice of their own, are being swept about the political landscape like leaves on a windy day, by state policies that border on mean, immoral, and capricious. In many ways, it ends up as a Sisyphean tragedy, where every effort to move forward is subsumed and eventually buried by an avalanche of racist and inhuman edicts masquerading as laws. We have to look no further than the simmering controversy at the southern border of the U.S., where parents from Central America are having their children forcibly removed from their custody at border crossings, for having the gall of trying to find a safe and secure place in the United States. This is what now stands as immigration and border enforcement policies that are eerily similar to the practices of the brutal fascist regimes of the past century.

As she gathers her belongings, Ruby turns and looks at me and says, “Maybe my dreams are unrealistic, but my reality is here, I’ve got to get back to work,” as she whisks out the door into an uncertain world.


(REUTERS / Stephen Lam)


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