The first time I thought about self-deporting was in 2007. I was twenty-four years old and had been living in the United States for over a decade. I didn’t have a criminal record, I was college educated, but thanks to the law’s indifference to immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors, there was nothing I could do to fix my immigration status. I felt helpless. I didn’t have a driver’s license, which made even social rites most of us take for granted, like getting a drink at a bar, cumbersome. Why not take my talents to Mexico, where I was born and would be seen as a complete person. I did not leave, though, because there were still many reasons for me and people in my predicament to be hopeful. When I was in college, my future was more uncertain than that of most of my classmates, but I believed in the American Dream. America still seemed like a place where talent was cultivated and rewarded. We had a Republican president, but the political environment was far less hostile than it is today.
During a visit to Alexandria, VA, in 2006, President Bush said, “we cannot kick people out who have been here for a while. And so I look forward to working with Congress on a rational plan as to how to make sure people who have been here, the 11 million or so people who have been here for a while are treated with respect and dignity.”
President George W. Bush won re-election in 2004 with 44 percent of the Latino vote in part because with respect to immigration, he embodied the compassionate conservatism he espoused as a candidate in 2000. In 2012, the country reelected President Barack Obama in large part because his opponent, Mitt Romney won less than 30% of the Latino vote. This statistic touched off a season of Republican soul searching. According to the strain of thought that seemed destined to forge consensus, Romney doomed himself by proposing what he called “self-deportation.” Don’t just enforce immigration law more strictly, Romney argued in essence, but make America so unwelcoming to immigrants who overstay their visas, or who never had visas, that they will choose to leave. It seemed that Republicans were learning that George W. Bush had gotten the issue right. That in America, racist, far-right, anti-immigrant politics wouldn’t fly. One influential Republican called Mitt Romney’s self-deportation policy “maniacal and crazy.”
That Republican was Donald Trump.
It really seemed that the debate in Washington was shifting from how aggressively to deport immigrants to how best to welcome them. Trump went on to say of Romney’s policy, “It sounded as bad as it was, and he lost all of the Latino vote. He lost the Asian vote. He lost everybody who is inspired to come into this country.”
Trump was right in a moral sense. Immigrants are inspired to come to America. We see the U.S. as the land of milk and honey. We leave our families, friends, and land behind to come to the United States in search of the American Dream. We risk everything—in some cases our very lives—because we believe deeply in the promise of America: work hard and be rewarded.
But he was wrong about the politics, and he proved himself wrong. Trump has gone backwards and dragged us with him. Thanks to him we are living in the very self-deportation regime he once decried as a political and moral error. And the worst thing about it is, he made millions of immigrants think that America isn’t what we hoped and believed it was. And if immigrants lose that faith, the American Dream will be truly dead.
In the aftermath of Trump’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the Department of Homeland Security urged DACA recipients, “to use the time remaining on their work authorizations to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States,” essentially asking DREAMers to self-deport.
DACA was an executive action President Obama took in order to protect young undocumented people from deportation and allow them to work legally in the country. Since 2012, over 800,000 young people obtained DACA protection. Recipients were able to go to school, work to support their families, secure in the knowledge that as long as they did not break laws, they would not be expelled from the country. Some bought cars, and became homeowners. DACA had taken the American Dream that had seemed out of reach for me and made it palpable to them.
Many of us who grew up undocumented before Obama implemented DACA in 2012, never knew what it was like to work legally in the U.S., we didn’t know what it was like to drive with a valid driver’s license, or, with advance parole, to be able to leave the U.S. knowing we could return. DACA recipients were given these tools most Americans take for granted. In the most cruel way, Trump took them away.
The most immediate victims of this cruelty are DACA recipients themselves. Five years ago, their country told them “here is how you should stay.” In September, it told them, “here is how you should go.” But unless he reverses himself, and maybe even then, Trump’s decision will ultimately harm every one of us. A small percentage of DACA recipients qualified to receive a new two-year work permit, if their current work permit expired between September 5, 2017, and March 5, 2018. About 150,000 DREAMers were eligible to renew their work authorizations, but the day before the deadline, over 40,000 had not renewed. The administration never sent official notices informing DACA recipients of the termination of the program. Some DACA recipients couldn’t come up with the $495 renewal fee. And at least some of those young people decided the American Dream was dead for them, and chose not to re-apply.
Now, many DREAMers find themselves thinking similar thoughts and are making arrangements to leave the United States and take their talents and dreams to countries they left as children. Trump has created an environment so hostile for immigrants that leaving is becoming their only choice. These tens of thousands of people will take their talents with them, but their departure will serve as a cautionary tale for aspiring immigrants of all backgrounds. Trump may as well have turned the Statue of Liberty on its head.
Our country needs more immigrants, not a deportation force, a border wall, or an environment where immigrants want to leave. Our labor force is in the midst of a massive shift. As baby boomers retire, and fertility rates hit record lows, it’s estimated that between 2010 and 2030, close to 59 million workers will leave the workforce, while only 51 million native born workers (third generation and higher) will enter it. Unless immigrants and children of immigrants enter the labor force, we will have a labor gap that will prevent us from creating the output and growth we need to care for the elderly, educate children, and replenish ourselves as a society.
I became a U.S. Citizen in August 2014, and still believe the dream can be restored. But time is short and we can’t count on second chances. Congress has an opportunity to reverse course by passing the DREAM Act. The bill would provide a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants, and eliminate the central component of Trump’s self-deportation regime. Earlier this year, Trump and Democratic congressional leaders agreed in principle to pass the DREAM Act, but he has since reneged. If it passes anyhow, and becomes law, it would be a big first step toward restoring our politics to the place they were in November 2012, when it seemed like we had nowhere to go but up. If it fails, the demise of the dream will continue apace, with nothing on the horizon to arrest its fall.