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Can You Have An American Dream If You’re Not In The USA Legally?

A U.S. Supreme Court decision on DACA is expected later this year. Photo Credit: Ron Dicker [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Photo Credit: NGerda

Editorial Note: Names and certain identifying details have been changed to protect the individual called “Osmin Garcia” in the article.

No high school student could have been happier or prouder of winning a statewide academic competition and, more importantly, the prize of a sizable scholarship to a local college. It was a dream come true for high school sophomore Osmin Garcia. He had worked hard to get to this point, taking Advanced Placement and honors classes and doing well in them. To the outside world, the student’s future looked bright indeed. The reality, however, was far from it.

Garcia always knew he was different from his peers, but it never affected his day-to-day life.

“I kind of always knew I was undocumented,” said the now 23-year-old. “But I never knew what it meant.”

The competition brought it home.

Garcia recalls two teachers telling him that he didn’t deserve the scholarship because he took the prize away from a U.S. citizen, and then the college told him he wasn’t eligible for it anyway because of his status. (The college later rescinded this decision after negative publicity and urged him to apply upon high school graduation.)

Then, when all his friends were applying for driving permits, Garcia couldn’t. He didn’t have a U.S. birth certificate or passport to prove his identity, let alone a Social Security number.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m best of the best,” said Garcia. “That nine-digit number is not available to me.”

"I entered illegally, crossing the Rio Grande…”

On June 5, 2003, Garcia, along with his aunt, entered the United States after a harrowing journey from Honduras, entering Texas at a point well known as an exit on the illegal immigration highway. The six-year-old was coming to join his parents who had come to the United States four years earlier. While legally in the country with temporary work permits and protected by laws that offer relief for those escaping Honduras, under that law, they were not allowed to sponsor family members to come to the U.S.—even their own child. (This remains true to this day.)

“I entered illegally, crossing the Rio Grande to avoid inspection by immigration officers,” recalled Garcia. “We were on a raft that began sinking, and my aunt launched me toward the U.S. side. I remember instinct kicking in after I was submerged under the freezing water; I remember having my eyes closed and swimming as fast as possible.”

Garcia’s parents had left Honduras to seek a better life thinking they would be able to have their son, then about two years old, join them soon. Garcia’s father had lost his job after the American company he worked for as a tailor decided to abandon their sites destroyed by Hurricane Mitch. This 1998 storm was one of the strongest natural disasters to hit Central America in 200 years, leaving approximately 7,000 dead in Honduras alone, and with over 19,000 fatalities in total.

“To this day, my parents tell stories about trying to feed all of us with one egg,” said Garcia. “My parents were some of the few people in their village who survived.”

Passed from one family member to another with his parents sending whatever funds they could from the United States, Garcia’s living conditions went from so-so to horrific—ending with his living with a distant relative who abused him heinously.

“It was a tough time,” said Garcia, “but a survival switch turned on in me.”

“Instead of a shield, it has become the sword…”

It was this survival switch that pushed Garcia to excel academically, socially and athletically as a teen—he was a three-sport varsity athlete in high school. And when DACA became available, Garcia felt it was his shot at legal status.

“My parents have spent thousands of dollars to figure it out,” said Garcia.

DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is an immigration policy begun in 2012 under President Obama that was to serve as a stopgap measure, temporarily stopping deportation and allowing those who had arrived in the U.S. illegally before age 16 and in the country since June 15, 2007 (and no older than 30 at the time of the order) to apply for temporary work permits. Unlike the proposed DREAM Act, DACA does not offer a path toward citizenship and applicants must reapply every two years once accepted. As of August 2018, there were some 699,350 people that registered for DACA status; by June 2019, that number was estimated to be as high as 825,000.

The program has been considered successful, and various polls available online have a majority of American supporting it—some even showing as much as 8 out of 10 or even 9 out of 10 Americans for it. Nevertheless, that all changed with the presidency of Donald J. Trump, who announced he was ending the policy in September 2017.

This is being challenged in the courts, reaching the U.S. Supreme Court this past fall; a decision from the nation's highest court is expected later this year. Due to the lawsuits, however, the DACA program has remained in effect for now.

“DACA was a well-intentioned policy in the beginning, but now it’s been perverted into something that isn’t used as a humanitarian measure but as prosecutorial instrument,” said Tamra Evans, a Fairfield attorney who handles immigration issues. (She has no connection to Garcia.)

Evans said that DACA registrants worry about being deported once their names and addresses are known.

“Instead of a shield it has become the sword,” concluded Evans, “like so many well-intentioned policies. It’s scary what’s going on.”

“Going back is not an option for me…”

Garcia found support from an organization founded by fellow undocumented students and their allies. He applied for and received DACA status.

However, when Garcia’s DACA status expired in 2015, the young man found himself overwhelmed, hit hard enough by PTSD and depression to seek in-patient treatment.

“All the stress that came with finding out I was undocumented caught up to me,” he explained. “And fear definitely settled in when Trump was elected.”

Because he fears deportation, Garcia decided not to renew his DACA registration initially, and then once he decided to take the risk and renew, the DACA policy was in question under the new administration.

“I was told I was overdue and needed to apply as new applicant,” said Garcia. “Now again I’m in the process of getting all my documentation together. The scary part of this? If they don’t approve me, I go into immediate deportation proceedings.”

Returning to Honduras—a country where no close family remains, with a culture he doesn’t know, and a dialect he does not understand—is not an option for Garcia. He is the only member of his immediate family who is not in the United States legally as his younger siblings were both born here.

“I’ve heard 60 percent of those who get deported are kidnapped or killed within the first year of their arrival,” said Garcia. “I’m also bisexual; I identify as queer and Honduras is one of the most homophobic countries in the world.”

Garcia also has hired an attorney to look into an asylum claim to remain in the United States.

“My whole family is here. Going back is not an option for me,” said Garcia. “I’d rather die than go back to Honduras. I’m going to die anyway if I go back. My rapist is waiting for me; he promised that if I ever spoke to anybody he’d kill me and the people I speak to.”

For now, Garcia is considering applying to colleges. Without a Social Security number he has to apply as a foreign student, which means increased tuition rates. He works at a family-owned business.

“My parents raised me with the values that if I work hard and honestly—and with faith in God—I’ll achieve whatever I set my heart to. But my life has been on pause for such a long time. I try to hold on to my faith. There’s so much I can offer the world. My life is here, not anywhere else.”

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