Thousands of immigrants in Minnesota were brought to this country as young children, growing up American but with a terrible secret whose implications became clear the older they got. When it came time to drive a car, find a job or go to college, many realized their parents' decisions to bring them here illegally had put them in an impossible situation.
For the most driven among them, a sliver of relief came in 2012, when a presidential order created a stopgap solution — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that offered, in two-year increments, temporary legal status, work authorization and protection from deportation. Not everyone qualified. The lucky ones were able to meet age requirements, prove continuous residency and submit to background checks. They had clean records and paid hundreds of dollars in fees.
The result, in just a little over five years, has been the creation, here and nationally, of a class of super-striving, model immigrants, determined to make the most of even limited legal status. To an astonishing degree, they are focused on better jobs, better education, and helping others in the immigrant and refugee communities get ahead.
Jose Alvillar does not think he is exceptional among Minnesota's 7,116 DACA recipients. Brought here at age 4 from Mexico, he remembers the terrifying journey across the border, guided by an uncle who brought him and his sister to their parents in Minneapolis. He remembers constant warnings to stay out of trouble and parents who held him close when they saw law enforcement officers.
But when Alvillar got to high school and started thinking about college, "That's when I realized I was different from the other kids." Determined to forge ahead, he graduated from Minneapolis Roosevelt High School, earned a scholarship to Augsburg University and got a bachelor's degree. Now 26, he juggles work and master's degree studies in education at Hamline University and hopes to make a career working with underserved and immigrant communities.
Alvillar is one of three college students in his family. One sister is a year away from a law degree at Mitchell Hamline, specializing in immigration law. Another is working toward a degree in psychology at Concordia University. Soft-spoken and clean-cut, Alvillar sports an almost Ivy League-style of tailored pants, close-cropped hair and casual sweaters. It is, he admits, an attempt to blend in, his armor against those who too frequently assume his dark skin also means he is in a gang or doing drugs.
Since becoming an adult, he has returned to Mexico twice on brief visits to see his grandparents. The visits were allowed under DACA until President Donald Trump rescinded his predecessor's order late last year, throwing the program — and the lives of its young recipients — into chaos. Trump and Congress have fenced over immigration proposals ever since, even briefly shutting down government, while Alvillar is left to ponder what will happen when his latest two-year renewal expires. "There is so much more I can do to help my family, my community," he said. "We've all worked so hard, come so close."
John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said Alvillar and thousands like him are precisely the type of immigrant this country needs: educated, hardworking, focused on getting ahead and giving back. Once they qualify for DACA and are old enough, "Most of our clients have gone on to college," Keller said. "Most start in community college, but then transfer to four-year institutions. They all work, some more than one job. They tend to be high-achieving, high-functioning — out of necessity."
The young men and women in the DACA program are not the only ones brought to this country as children. Thousands more did not meet the stringent requirements of a program never intended as a broad or permanent solution. But among all the Dreamers, as they are known, DACA recipients may be most at risk. Trusting a federal government that offered the promise of temporary protection, they disclosed their most sensitive information. They all have fingerprints and other biometric information on record that would make it easy to track them down should they become targets for deportation.
That is why their plight is so urgent — why this nation cannot allow their lives to become just another leverage point in the ceaseless tribalism that dominates Washington. What is the promise of America if it allows the trust of these young people to be turned against them?
Alvillar says he is scared, not just for himself, but for all the Dreamers and their families. Trump's deadline for final DACA expiration, barring congressional intervention, is March 5. "There's been a lot of pain, suffering, fear in our community," Alvillar said. "It's frustrating. I'm tired." But, he said, "I know whatever happens to me, this work will continue. We were raised here. We are going to keep fighting for our place here."