Many so-called Dreamers – people who were brought to the United States illegally as children -- have spent most of their lives in the U.S. They've grown up, attended school, and held jobs here. Some have even started families of their own.
They also lived in constant fear of deportation until former President Barack Obama’s administration implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012.
Now, those fears have returned with President Donald Trump threatening to end DACA unless Congress comes up with a bill to replace it and address immigration reform by early March.
“We don't know if we should expect the best, if we should expect the worst. We don't know if we should have some hope. We just don't know how this is going to end,” said a Dreamer who asked to be identified only as Lisset.
Lisset said she was born in Mexico City. Her parents moved the family to the U.S. when she was three, seeking a better life. Lisset said she has no memory of living in Mexico – she has lived in west central Illinois for 17 years and this is the place she calls home.
Lisset said she attends college in Jacksonville and pays for her education by working a retail job. She said a loss of her Dreamer status could cost her the job, which would rob her of the ability to pay for college. So she hoped politicians can reach agreement on DACA or, better yet, pass the Dream Act.
- Lisset: “It would be a very good move. And President Trump is a businessman so I think this would be very good for him. He knows how much we bring into the economy and making us residents or giving us a path to citizenship would benefit the economy greatly.”
- Tri States Public Radio: “Do you feel you lack a path to citizenship right now?”
- Lisset: “Yes. There is no path. I have spent thousands of dollars on immigration lawyers and there is just no path for kids who were brought here as young as we were. It’s not as easy as people make it seem. You can’t just go in and fill out a one page application and become a citizen.”
She said part of the current citizenship process would require her to go back to Mexico and live there for a few years, which she said would be like living in a foreign country – again, she has no memory of ever being there.
Lisset said she was 13 when her mother told her that she was not a U.S. citizen. At first Lisset did not give it much thought, but it’s become more important to her over time.
“It got harder when I started thinking about colleges and not knowing if I would be able to go or not. It was hard knowing the truth,” she said. But she doesn’t blame her parents for moving to the U.S. because they wanted a better education for their children.
Lisset said it’s her dream to become a U.S. citizen.
Lisset said if she had the chance, she would tell her congressman that Dreamers contribute to the economy by working hard and paying taxes.
Her congressman, Darin LaHood (R-IL), said he understands. He said he’s spoken with Dreamers in his congressional district and in Washington D.C. and reminds them about his own heritage.
“My great-grandparents came from Lebanon to this country through Ellis Island as immigrants. They didn’t speak any English. They came here with no money. But they came here with a dream to have a better life in America,” LaHood said.
“I’m so fortunate that a couple generations later, because of their sacrifice and because of their dream, I’m the beneficiary of that.”
LaHood said Congress has an obligation and a responsibility to resolve the DACA problem in a bipartisan way. He’s confident that can be done, but said a legislative fix for DACA must include immigration reform. He said that includes improvements to border security and changes to the chain migration and Visa Lottery programs.
“We’ve learned that those programs let in people that tried to harm Americans and those need to be reformed and fixed as part of the immigration process,” he said.
Rafael Obregon of Macomb has a few other suggestions if lawmakers intend to address immigration reform.
Like Lisset, Obregon was born in Mexico City. But he is not a Dreamer. Obregon came to the U-S as an adult when he was hired by Western Illinois University. He’s now an Associate Professor in Engineering Technology.
Although he received authorization to live and work in the U.S., Obregon said he would like to see the immigration and citizenship processes made less complex.
“I don’t agree with illegal immigration. I think it’s wrong. But I understand it. Because it’s so hard to do things the right way,” he said.
Obregon said there are so many different visas with so many technicalities and so much fine print that it’s difficult to navigate yourself through the process. And he said legal assistance is not cheap.
“Every time you have a conversation with a lawyer it’s accompanied by a check. We spent quite a few dollars on these issues.”
He estimated his family has spent around $25,000 through the years on visa-related issues. He said he's been fortunate to have the resources available to work through the process.
Obregon said he and his wife arrived in the U.S. legally as non-resident aliens. They fell in love with Macomb and the U.S. Both their children were born here and this is where they want to stay. He said he spent nearly two decades working through the legal process before finally achieving permanent resident status. Now he can apply for citizenship in another five years -- assuming he maintains a clean record, fills out many more forms, and passes a citizenship test. He said all of the work and effort and expense will be worth it.
“My interest is my family. And I was able to do what I needed to do to have something secure for them,” Obregon said.
A poem called “The New Colossus” is inscribed on a bronze plaque at the Statue of Liberty. It includes the often-quoted line, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Rafael Obregon and Lisset each have breathed freely in the U.S. for many years. But they’ve not been free to vote or enjoy the other benefits that come with U.S. citizenship. They hope lawmakers are ready to create a clear path to citizenship for those who’ve worked hard and contributed to the U.S. so they can continue to live in the place they love and call home.