We were driving in the car listening to the radio. The news report toggled between the Boston Marathon bombing and the recently proposed Senate immigration reform bill. I paused for a moment, thinking how best to explain this to a four-year-old.
“Citizenship is the right to live, work and vote in a country. Citizens belong to a country,” I said, thinking of the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, including two million undocumented youths or young adults also called DREAMers. Most of them were brought to this country when they were even younger than my four-year-old, and without a choice.
The name “DREAMers” comes from the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), a Senate bill proposed over a decade ago that would provide conditional permanent residency to qualified undocumented youths. Today, approximately ten percent of DREAMers are Asian; about 250,000 of these are Filipino youths and young adults. DREAMers, like many young people in America, attend school, go to work and consider this country the only place they belong.
Katherina May Lacap, a 25-year-old DREAMer and student at Skyline College in San Bruno, California, recounts her family’s journey to this country ten years ago. At the time she was aware of her parent’s plan to overstay their tourist visa to give her and her siblings a better life. They believed there were more opportunities in America than in the Philippines.
Often in the Filipino community, stories like Katherina’s are a long-held secret. “None of my friends know that I am undocumented. I have been scared to tell them…natatakot ako talaga (I’m really scared) …scared that I could be deported. But I’ve had enough, I don’t want to live in the shadows, I want to speak out!” This is a common sentiment among many DREAMers who have lived most of their lives here in America–they want to liberate themselves from the labels of “illegal” or “TNT–tago nang tago” (“always in hiding”) – a derogatory Tagalog word describing their experience. They want a fair chance at education and applying this to a career they care about. They want to shape a new conversation on what it means to be a “citizen.”
Almost 20 years ago, Catherine Eusebio, at four years old, arrived in the United States on a tourist visa with her mother, father and brother from Paranaque, Philippines. Her parents’ intent was to stay in the country “na walang papeles” (“without papers”).
It wasn’t until high school that Catherine realized her family’s immigration situation. Her older brother wanted a part-time job. Their mother explained that he couldn’t work because he didn’t have the right papers. Catherine began to understand her immigration status was tied to so many things--her economic place in America, her inability to access resources for college and the limited options she had for employment.
“I didn’t want to let that discourage me. I wanted to prove to my family that I could do everything that other people could do,” said Catherine. She excelled in school, yet was unable to accept an offer to her dream university because she could not apply for financial aid. She recoiled and attended community college before heading to UC Berkeley. She was a political science major and wanted to use her education towards crafting policies for immigrant rights. However, as she neared graduation she had to face the reality that her status would drastically limit her employment options. Her ambition to change the world shrunk to surviving day to day.
On 15 June 2012, President Obama announced his executive order known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which grants undocumented people between the ages of 16-30, who arrived in the US before the age of 16 and graduated from a US high school or received a GED: a work permit to work legally, a driver's license in some states and deferment of possible deportation for 2 years.
Both Katherina and Catherine applied and were granted DACA status. Among the estimated 250,000 Filipino DREAMers, only 3,000 have applied. Many advocates point to community stigma for not applying. “There is still a lot of fear in the community that other Filipinos might report them,” said Jerry Clarito of the Alliance of Filipinos for Immigrants Rights and Empowerment in Chicago, Illinois.
Whatever their status, Katherina and Catherine remain committed to reach their dreams. Catherine is currently a Social Justice Fellow at the Asian American/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy. Katherina is finishing up her Associate Degree in Business while working part-time. She hopes to transfer to a California State University. She participates in TIGRA’s (Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research & Action) Immigrant Community Leadership Apprenticeship Program (I-CLAP) that brings together immigrant families to create an economic voice in their communities.
On April 18, the Senate’s Gang of Eight released the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, which includes the DREAM Act. The broad strokes include no age cap, exemption from penalties and triggers, and a five-year path to citizenship. As the bill works its way through a contentious Congress, Catherine and Katherina continue to hope and to dream, reminding those of us in better circumstances of what it means to be a “citizen.”
Lisa Juachon is a consultant with the Transnational Institute for Grassroots Research and Action (TIGRA) based in Oakland, CA and Manila, Philippines.
Fiel Limjap is a second-year apprentice with the Immigrant Community Leadership Apprentice Program of TIGRA and is a newly arrived immigrant from Antipolo, Philippines.