June 15 marks 10 years since President Barack Obama announced DACA. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program protects young immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents from deportation. But it does not give them a path to citizenship, as many had hoped broader legislation, known as the Dream Act, might do.
To mark the anniversary, WBEZ interviewed Carlos Alberto Benitez Cruz, who came from Mexico at age 4. Cruz, who uses the pronoun they, is working on a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Illinois Chicago. Reporter Anna Savchenko asked Cruz to recount how DACA has shaped their life over the last 10 years. Cruz’s recounting has been edited for brevity and clarity.
It was 10 years ago [and] I remember Obama being on our big TV, explaining what DACA was, and that it was going to protect youth. It was a huge buzz because this was the thing that was going to change people’s lives.
Applying to [college] was really difficult as an undocumented kid. It was the lack of scholarships available. Nine out of 10 scholarships ask you to be a U.S. citizen. About four weeks before decision day, I was at the kitchen table with my mom. We were talking about Loyola, DePaul, City Colleges [of Chicago] and trying to piece together the financial packages to figure out which one we could afford. And we couldn’t afford any of them.
I remember my mom holding me, and I was crying because I always wanted to go to school.
My high school counselor recommended TheDream.US scholarship. And it was right before decision day that I got an email that they gave me a scholarship. But they didn’t give me a choice of what school to go to. It was only Dominican University. And I knew nothing about it. But I was like, “You know what, this is a school, and we’re going to it.”
What still lingered in the background was the fear that I would be deported, or my family would be deported. That one of us or all of us would lose our ability to work legally, that I would have to drop out and try to help my family. Because that was still a part of my reality. Even though I was in college. Even though I was doing the thing that would supposedly lift me up.
I am the kind of person that whenever I’m anxious or fearful, I would rather run into the fire. And I found a group of students at Dominican University who were also undocumented. And I joined them and I started to realize how much power there was in people. They held a “coming out of the shadows” rally and we all very publicly, very proudly proclaimed that we were undocumented and unafraid. And I remember I was the first one to have to go on stage and kind of pull everybody together. And so I just did what I knew kind of had to happen. So I started chanting, “undocumented, unafraid.” And then 200 people shouted back.
I think education continues to be a safety net, pardon this metaphor, a crutch, because this is how I learned to survive. By trading my intellectualism for housing, for a stipend, I think I have more autonomy. But every so often I realize that I’m getting a Ph.D., and I actually don’t know if I’m going to be able to get a job, that I’m going to have citizenship, that I’m going to be able to work legally at an institution. And that’s where the dreamer narrative crumbles for me because I’ve done the things that are supposedly exemplary of an immigrant who deserves to get citizenship. All 11 million undocumented people deserve citizenship.
I do not call myself a dreamer. I’m just an undocumented person. Because the Dream Act didn’t work. And I’m not dreaming. This is my reality. I don’t want to dream for something. I want something to happen. I want something to happen for me, my family, my friends, my neighbors and everybody in my community. I’m not dreaming.