By Francisco Lasso
Two weeks ago, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced a bill that would offer young people like me —Americans in every way except for the papers— a road map to becoming a citizens.
The bill comes on the heels of a House proposal that would provide a path to citizenship for immigrant youth, individuals with temporary protected status (TPS) and some for whom deportation has been deferred (known as DED holders.)
With these twin efforts, I wonder: will this time be it? Will I finally get the chance to plan for my future, to save for a house, to go to college?
For so long, my life in the United States has held out the extraordinary hope of achieving my dreams, too often coupled with seeing those hopes dashed.
I was 10 years old when my family left Ecuador to settle in northern Virginia with the promise of an education for me.
I grew up here, a product of the Commonwealth of Virginia schools. Education was my family’s guarantee to a better and brighter future.
But after I graduated high school, my life in limbo began in earnest. I was undocumented and because of my status, I couldn’t attend college.
Then in 2012, President Obama launched the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, in order to provide reprieve from deportation to young people who came to the United States as children. That same year, I became a DACA recipient.
But I still couldn’t afford college because DACA recipients in Virginia were not eligible for in-state tuition. In 2014, Virginia’s attorney general Mark Herring ruled that Dreamers like me were eligible for in-state tuition. That fall and for the next two years, I was able to attend the local community college, working toward a certificate in business administration. While I paid in-state tuition, I wasn’t eligible for financial aid because of my status.
But I was finally in college. I was on my way.
After two years, I had enough credits to transfer to a four-year state university. Because I have a vision disability, I sought financial help from the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired, which offered a program to help young people with vision disabilities pay for college. The department offered me aid during my first year at the university in 2016. The second year, the department required all applicants to first apply for financial aid through the school and then they would determine how much aid to give based on how much aid the school offered. To my surprise, when I applied, the university gave me a $10,000 aid package, which meant the department would not offer any additional grants.
Last year, my upswing came to a crashing halt when the school conducted an audit of the aid they provided and determined I was ineligible because of my status. They revoked the aid and told me I owed the school $10,000. I couldn’t afford it and I talked with a school financial aid officer to plead my case. After all, the school knew my DACA status; I’d provided them all of my documentation. The school reduced the amount I owed to $6,000 but I still can’t afford it.
It feels as if every time I take a step forward, I’m pushed back two more. And I know life will continue this way for me and the more than 800,000 other DACA recipients. We are as American as Old Glory, attending American schools, watching American television and growing up on American food. But our lives are lived in uncertainty, always struggling to plan and work and see a brighter future ahead, yet never getting a firm grasp on it.
The House and Senate bills would change that. It would grant Dreamers conditional resident status for 10 years if they’ve been continuously in the country for four years before the bill’s enactment date; were no more than 17 years old when they came the U.S.; graduate from high school and pass security and law enforcement background checks. It would allow Dreamers to access federal financial aid and revoke a harmful law that penalizes states that grant in-state tuition to undocumented students based on residency.
The bills are a step in the right direction. They give me and millions of immigrants and refugees who have made this country their home, hope.
These bills put forward solutions for permanent protections without the harmful enforcement policies that the Trump administration has used to separate families. I know too many families in my community who live in the continued uncertainty about whether or not they will be able to remain in the United States and with their loved ones.
Many of us live from court decision to court decision on whether DACA or TPS will expire. And it is untenable.
Voters are on our side. Public polling shows that there is overwhelming support for undocumented youth. Last election cycle led to the most progressive House of Representatives in history because people want change. Donald Trump’s divisiveness and his hateful rhetoric has inspired an entire electorate.
These immigration bills are a reflection of that change. The House bill, which will likely pass its chamber, and Senate bills will eventually end up before a Senate body that will need to show the political courage it has not shown so far to pass immigration reform.
It is clear to me that we can’t stop fighting until we have protections and permanent legislative solutions for all who need them. It is the only way to climb out of the shifting sands so many of us live in to stand firmly on solid ground.
Francisco Lasso is a DACA-recipient, local entrepreneur and a member of immigration rights organization CASA in Action, which is part of the FIRM Action network of more than 40 immigrant rights groups.