Tomás Pendola, a chemistry teacher at one of Florida’s best high schools, arrived in Miami at the age of 10 and now feels more a US citizen than an Argentine one. But his way of life and his plans for the future have been drastically altered, thanks to a stroke of Donald Trump’s pen.
The president on Tuesday said his administration would scrap the so-called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme but would give Congress six months to take action on it.
The scheme, established by former US president Barack Obama in 2012 has protected from deportation some 800,000 people who arrived in the county illegally as minors. These are people who had no say in the decision to jump the border fence or overstay their visas, as Tomás’ parents did.
His family emigrated in 2001, fleeing the financial crisis that had pushed half of Argentina below the poverty line. Tomas was a child. Now, 16 years later, he is a professional who educates 150 students at MAST Academy, a prestigious Miami high school dubbed “the Harvard of secondary schools.” But he is living in migratory limbo.
“You feel trapped. You are free, but you have so many limitations that you basically feel trapped,” he said, telling his story in the Little Havana apartment he shares with his father, a carpenter who has no papers. Tomas gave the example of The Terminal, the 2004 film in which the main character is trapped in an airport. “That’s kind of how people who were brought here when they were young feel. You don’t feel like you belong to your country because most of us don’t remember it,” he said. “And at the same time you grew up in a country where they’re telling you that you don’t belong.”
A livelihood. In June 2012, Obama approved the DACA programme to shield from deportation undocumented immigrants who arrived before they were 16, a group who have come to be known as “Dreamers.” DACA gave them permission to work or study, and in most states to get drivers’ licences. Before, the “dreamers” were raised as US citizens but worked illegally and lived under threat of deportation to home countries they barely knew.
“DACA enabled me to have a new life,” said Tomás. But his permit must be renewed every two years and now he’s not sure if he’ll be able to pursue postgraduate studies in organic chemistry. A Fox News report last week said Trump will stop issuing ‘Dreamers’ with work permits and won’t renew the existing ones. If that happens, DACA beneficiaries could find themselves living in fear once again of immigration round-ups.
“There are some people for whom returning to their countries means death,” said Tomás, contrasting his home country other Latin American nations like Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela are a different story. Over the five years that DACA has been in effect, young immigrants have opened lines of credit, bought cars and houses and raised children. If the programme is eliminated, “you are losing your livelihood,” he said.
“You lose your ability to pay off your loans, which not only affects you, it will affect the banks, it affects the economy. Having thousands of people defaulting on one or two loans, that’s a lot of money,” he said. There is also the psychological impact. “You feel useless. We feel like we don’t belong. We are scared,” he added.
Claudia Quinones, a community organizer with the group United We Dream, told AFP “there is much uncertainty. But I am certain that we are going to mobilise until broad measures are approved that protect us and our families.”
For her, as well as for Tomás Pendola, the pressure to eliminate DACA is attributable to a “fascist climate” that has followed Trump’s election. Tomas fears he might eventually end up on the street. “But I’ve been preparing for not having a work permit, saving financially, and I’ll try to figure out my life afterwards.”