When Ben A. was a high-school senior in north Texas, he was class valedictorian, president of the school’s National Honor Society chapter, and had a full scholarship to Harvard University. But his girlfriend’s father still disapproved of their relationship because he was an undocumented immigrant. “It’s one of the most frustrating things. At many times in my life, I’ve felt that no matter how hard I worked or how well I did, I still wasn’t good enough,” says Ben, who graduated from Harvard in 2014 and is now a legal services coordinator for the Houston office of the nonprofit Human Rights First .
Ben is a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to receive a temporary reprieve from deportation and the authorization to work in the United States. The Trump administration plans to rescind DACA, however. And unless Congress takes action, more than 800,000 young people like Ben risk losing their DACA status — and their ability contribute to this country.
Before DACA was implemented, Ben heard about two undocumented Harvard students who returned to Mexico after graduation, taking their American education with them He considered doing the same, but then DACA allowed him to work in the United States. Now he assists refugees who have fled war, sexual violence, and other atrocities, and intends to go to law school in 2019.
College-educated DACA-eligible youth fill crucial roles in the U.S. economy in fields that include accounting, nursing, and teaching. Ninety percent of the overall DACA-eligible population 16 years old and older are employed, and combined these Dreamers pay $3 billion in taxes every year and almost $2.5 billion into the Social Security and Medicare funds, critical social programs that benefit all Americans.
Ben came to the United States from Mexico with his family when he was 11 years old, after his father lost his job and was unable to find a new position. Within a year he was fluent in English and reading at the same grade level as his sixth-grade classmates. Later, his impressive showings at an academic competition, the University Interscholastic League, were frequently written up in the local newspaper.
Ben also became very close with a high school teacher who opposes immigration reform. “My family and I would see him every Sunday at our Catholic church,” says Ben. “He respects my family, even though he thinks we should go to the back of the line. But he also believed it was his job to teach me, and he became a mentor.”
Once they realized that the people in my family are immigrants, they were a lot more likely to support some form of immigration reform.
That teacher encouraged Ben to apply to top-tier colleges, and a Lebanese-American family, who were also politically conservative, paid the fees for some of his SAT tests and college applications. He was accepted into Harvard, Princeton, Columbia and Cornell universities. But despite Ben’s exceptional talents, his future is uncertain. His DACA status expires in 2019. Without it, he’ll be unable to work, or even to drive, legally in the United States
He hopes that Congress will be able to do what many members of his town did: See the people behind the rhetoric. “It’s easy to create laws in the abstract, but you also have to look at how these laws are affecting families, how they are breaking up families,” he says. “Even my teachers who are Trump supporters — once they realized that the people in my family are immigrants, they were a lot more likely to support some form of immigration reform. It would be really helpful if our leaders got to know real people, the people who are fleeing horrible circumstances in their countries and coming to the United States for the American Dream.”
Ben also believes very strongly that a path to citizenship should not be limited to people with extraordinary gifts. “People look at me and say, ‘He’s an Ivy League graduate. He should get to stay,’ ” he says. “But I think about my family. People are working on making an exception for me, but they’re forgetting about my mom.”