When Santiago Tobar Potes was brought to the United States at age 3, he spoke only Spanish. Now 20 and a student at Columbia University, he has become a gifted linguist, teaching himself English, French, Portuguese, Italian, Haitian Creole, and Chinese, and now working on Arabic and Russian. He wants to become a judge. But today it’s far from clear whether he will be able to fulfill that dream. Tobar Potes is an undocumented immigrant, and he is only able to legally live and work in the United States with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) — which President Donald Trump has said he would end unless Congress comes up with a legislative solution.
Tobar Potes’s parents fled Colombia in 2002, after FARC communist rebels murdered his maternal grandparents. They applied for asylum from Florida, and stayed after their application was rejected because it was the only way they knew to keep their son safe. “Moving to an entirely different country was a huge sacrifice, and they did it for me,” Tobar Potes says.
In Colombia, Tobar Potes‘ parents had been university students; in the United States, they washed cars and worked in convenience stores, eventually saving enough money to open a check-cashing store with two employees. They later sold the business, and today Tobar Potes’s father works in construction and his mother works as a secretary. “A very American value that I learned is that with hard work you can accomplish anything,” Tobar Potes says. “I was told that by my parents from a young age.”
My entire life, all these years I’ve been working toward this — all these years I’ve invested in the U.S. and built myself up as an American will all be for naught.
As a teenager, Tobar Potes won a spot at a prestigious magnet school that ran a youth orchestra; hoping to give others the same opportunity, he began offering free violin classes to local children, eventually teaching 32 students. Then, thanks to a dual-enrollment program, he was able to graduate high school with a degree in economics from his local community college.
Tobar Potes had always known he was undocumented, and gaining DACA protection when he was 15 years old allowed him to aim higher than he otherwise could have. When, at 17, he won a scholarship to attend a month-long language course in Beijing, DACA allowed him to make the trip, knowing that he would be able to re-enter the country and return home. “When I got on the airplane to China, I felt for the first time that I was finally free,” he says.
Getting to a four-year university wasn’t easy. Few scholarship programs are open to undocumented immigrants, and many schools don’t offer needs-blind admission to DACA recipients. Still, Tobar Potes won a place at Columbia University in New York, and pieced together a patchwork of scholarships and grants to fund his studies. Now, however, he fears for his future: Without congressional action to protect the Dreamers and restore DACA, he could face deportation. “My entire life, all these years I’ve been working toward this — all these years I’ve invested in the U.S. and built myself up as an American will all be for naught,” he says.
Tobar Potes says there is a legitimate debate to be had about whether all undocumented immigrants should be given a route to legal status. But the Dreamers, he says, unquestionably deserve a pathway to citizenship. There are more than 100,000 DACA-eligible people in Florida alone, who combined pay $214.2 million in taxes. It would be self-destructive and morally wrong to try to deport them, Tobar Potes says. “To make arguments against Dreamers, people who had no say in whether we came here, that’s not justice, and that’s not what the U.S. stands for,” he says. “We’re already contributing to society, we’re part of society, we’re Americans.”