Washington, DC – Angelica Villalobos still remembers the bumpy 16-hour bus ride she, her parents, and four siblings took 25 years ago to reach the border with the United States.
Originally from the Mexican city of Guanajuato, the family waded through the Rio Grande to eventually reach the United States, where they hoped to start a new life with better opportunities. She was 11 years old and could not swim.
“It was scary,” said Villalobos, now 36 and with five children of their own, Al Jazeera in a phone interview from Oklahoma, where she now lives with her family. “When we started walking in the river, I couldn’t get to the bottom, so I pretty much just had to hold on to another person who pulled me through.”
Villalobos was granted legal status in the US eight years ago under the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, an Obama-era policy that gave her the right to legally stay and work in the US, but not obtain citizenship.
Often referred to as dreamers and currently numbering more than 640,000 across the country, DACA recipients have become active and vocal advocates for social justice and immigration reform.
Now that thousands of migrant families and unaccompanied minors – many fleeing poverty and gang violence – arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border in search of protection, the harsh greetings these migrants have received contrast sharply with that Support you enjoy now.
“They are fleeing violence and many of these children miss their parents,” said Villalobos. “We are no different from these unaccompanied minors. They put us in a different class of people because they are newcomers, but we are no different. “
When U.S. President Joe Biden took office, he immediately took steps to overhaul the nation’s immigration system and overthrow some of Donald Trump’s most anti-immigrant policies.
In February, the Democrats introduced a Biden-backed immigration bill that would give the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants an eight-year path to citizenship, as well as an accelerated citizenship program for the Dreamers. Trump tried to end the DACA before the US Supreme Court ruled against him.
But the recent surge in the number of migrants arriving at the US southern border has been scrutinizing the Biden administration – and its plans for sweeping immigration reform appear to have stalled. In March, US authorities arrested more than 172,000 migrants along the US-Mexico border, the highest number in 15 years.
Thousands of families and children, including many from Mexico and Central America, have attempted to enter the United States in search of asylum in recent months [File: Go Nakamura/Reuters]During a recent speech before Congress, Biden suggested addressing elements of his bill that are more likely to be passed in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats have a slim majority and require at least 10 Republican votes.
“If you don’t like my plan, let’s at least get passed what we all agree on: Congress must pass legislation this year to finally ensure protection for dreamers – the young people who only knew America as their home to have. Said Biden during his April 28th address.
Recently, however, there have been signs that the dreamers’ support from both parties may be frayed. Senate minority chairman Mitch McConnell recently said Republicans are unlikely to endorse a separate bill for DACA recipients without imposing stricter restrictions on the border.
“Well, all I can tell you is that everyone agrees with the DACA issue,” said McConnell, as reported by The Hill news agency. “I cannot imagine that we would tackle an immigration law, no matter how valuable it might be … without insisting on our part that we deal with the apparent crisis at the border.”
The connection that Republicans make between the dreamers and the politically strained situation on the US-Mexico border comes about because US public opinion on these two issues is very different. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center last year found that 74 percent of Americans support granting Dreamers permanent legal status in the United States, while a growing percentage of Americans are concerned about migrants arriving at the border.
Elise de Castillo, executive director of the Central American Refugee Center, a refugee aid group in New York State, attributed the difference to the fact that the dreamers have done a “fantastic job” for themselves over the past decade.
The dreamers have shown the US public “how they contribute to our country, society and economy,” de Castillo told Al Jazeera, referring to demonstrations, marches and social media campaigns.
“That is why this population is as compelling as it is and has the support that it has on both sides of the aisle,” she said. “The people at the border haven’t had this opportunity yet.”
DACA recipients and their supporters gathered outside the U.S. Supreme Court on June 18, 2020 to protest the Trump administration’s efforts to end the program [File: Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP]Karen Herrera, a 29-year-old DACA recipient from Berkeley, California who came to the United States with her parents from Mexico when she was three, attributed support for the dreamers to a popular belief that it was acted on innocent children brought into the country by adults who have broken the law. That idea doesn’t necessarily apply to other categories of migrants, she said.
“For some reason, within the Dreamer concept, there is a diversion of responsibility onto our parents, our caregivers. There is some kind of scapegoat mechanism, ”Herrera told Al Jazeera. “I think that’s why the Dreamer story is so tasty.”
Diana Sanchez, co-founder of the Yonkers Sanctuary Movement and former DACA recipient, said that in order for the program to pass under former President Barack Obama, the narrative had to be framed around the idea that “it was our parents who committed the crime “.
The 34-year-old said that argument has profound implications for migrant communities: parents of DACA recipients have been excluded from the program and remain undocumented.
It also promoted the idea that new migrants must meet a certain standard before they can earn support, Sanchez said. To qualify for the DACA, applicants must be under the age of 18 when entering the United States, have lived in the country continuously since arrival, have no criminal record, and have a college degree or equivalent.
A migrant is seen under tents in a camp of asylum seekers from Mexico and Central America at the El Chaparral border crossing with the United States in Tijuana, Mexico [File: Jorge Duenes/Reuters]”Our parents have been criminalized and new migrants are now partially criminalized because there is a need for perfection at DACA: students, young people, people who can contribute to US society,” Sanchez told Al Jazeera.
Despite years of vocation in the United States, many dreamers still face challenges in the country, including the fact that they still have to renew their status every two years.
Luz Ochoa was 10 when she came to the United States from Colombia with her parents. The 31-year-old said there was constant concern that DACA might be lifted, making her unsure about the future. “There is a fear of being illegal again, [that] We can be ambushed at any time and sent back to a country I haven’t been to since I was ten, ”Ochoa told Al Jazeera.
She added that while each migration story is different, the trips are familiar in many ways.
“I remember coming here with just a backpack and that was all I had that was in there,” she said. “You leave everything behind and really just trust that the place you go will be better than the last.”