The only life Monica Acosta has ever known is in America. But her Mexican birth and her mother’s illegal crossing into the United States back when she was 3 relegated Monica to a life in the shadows.
Her mother spent her adult years working menial jobs in the informal economy, and that was where Monica appeared to be headed too. Lack of legal status seemed likely to fate her to cash-in-hand work, or to a life of deception and stolen Social Security numbers. For the 12 million undocumented people who came here seeking a better life, the employers who hire them, and the country they all call home, the gray landscape of informal work constitutes an economic and social disaster.
Our system is based on the idea of transparency, yet our inability to deal with the current immigration situation — our inability to bring millions of people out of the shadows — creates an engine of hypocrisy at the heart of our civic life. And the events of this week will make it even worse.
Monica knows all about the shadows. From that dark corner of society, she watched her friends obtain driver’s licenses, land part-time jobs, and travel on school trips — all things she couldn’t do herself. She couldn’t even muster the photo ID needed to rent a movie at Blockbuster.
When they enter the workforce, people like Monica must accept lower wages, and the disempowerment of living without a voice in society. Young people who want to follow the rules instead find themselves practicing evasion or lying, and their employers risk heavy fines and slip into petty crime themselves when hiring people without legal status. Meanwhile, the ability of our government to oversee the labor market, keep accurate statistics, and know who lives within our borders is seriously compromised.
I first met Monica when she was a senior in high school, a slim, quiet 17-year-old with straight A's and a perfect GPA. She was the kind of student who took assiduous notes, her planner filled with what was due when. But undocumented status is an especially cruel predicament for a student like her looking to go to college — without a legitimate Social Security number, she couldn’t fill out the FAFSA paperwork, meaning she couldn’t qualify for a Pell Grant, other forms of public aid, in-state tuition, or most private scholarships. She was as smart as any student at her school, yet her life looked like a dead end.
She decided to speak up. After she told her story to a reporter at the Denver Post, a private benefactor stepped forward and paid her way through college, enabling her to attend the University of Denver. Even as she voiced her struggle, however, she used a pseudonym, fearing deportation if her real identity became known. I spent six years following her progress through high school and college, and even the process of keeping her identity secret in my own reporting taught me about how hard it is to hide one’s illegal status. You live on the edge of society, running scared, all the time.
When the book I wrote about her was published, I looked out at the sea of faces who showed up at the Tattered Cover Book Store for a launch party and spotted Monica standing at the back of the room. She was petrified that appearing at the event would somehow unmask her — one mistake by me could turn her entire life upside down. Yet there she was. The book’s release terrified her, but she had shown up — she wanted the rest of the world to understand what a life like hers cost.
Two and a half years after that book launch, President Obama introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals system — a chance for kids like Monica to finally come out of the shadows.
DACA wasn’t easy to get. Monica hired an attorney to help her through the process, and she worked hard to assemble a paper trail proving she had been living inside the United States continuously from the moment her mother had brought her across the border, 23 years earlier. Luckily, her mother knew that documents matter in a place like the United States. Although she spoke no English and had done only unskilled labor in all her years here, Monica’s mother had kept a suitcase filled with every piece of paper related to her eldest daughter’s life. She kept every report card, from kindergarten through 12th grade, every prize, every commendation. Obtaining DACA gave Monica the chance to accept her first formal job, doing outreach work to families like her own on behalf of a Denver high school.
As she had assembled the dossier that let her step into the light of the formal economy, however, Monica worried that the information she was providing also formed a detailed declaration to the government outlining her lack of legal status. She worried that if the political winds one day shifted, the federal government could use this same information to hunt her down.
When the Trump administration announced it would rescind DACA, it created exactly the situation Monica had dreaded — because she dared to step out of hiding, she has put herself at risk. The Trump administration already appears to be walking back Obama-era promises that DACA information provided by people like Monica would not be shared with ICE; where guarantees once said such data would be “protected from disclosure," the Department of Homeland Security said this week that it merely "will not be proactively provided."
In that context, Trump's tweet on Wednesday, saying DACA recipients shouldn't worry about their status for the coming six months, doesn't mean much.
Phasing out DACA, and allowing the information it collected to be used against hundreds of thousands of promising young people willing to trust the American government, is entirely wrongheaded. It means that we may be moving into a grim phase where the young people who were brave enough to declare their status openly, as Monica did, will be punished for doing so. Meanwhile, those who stayed underground, wary of tipping off the authorities, will feel vindicated.
Trump’s ill-advised step erodes goodwill, amplifies fear, and magnifies the desire to remain hidden. This runs contrary to what is best for this country. We should reward young people like Monica, who want to rectify the wrongs they inherited. We should be generating more openness, not bigger shadows.
And that’s why Monica decided to respond by going public. Despite the threats to her new life, she has not retreated back into the gray zone of fear and hiding. When Trump made his DACA announcement, she spoke openly about her predicament at an event inside the gold-domed statehouse in downtown Denver. She asked if other young people who cared about DACA recipients would join her in the streets, and she called for massive walkouts.
All over Denver, young people who knew Monica’s story from her many moments of speaking up throughout the years joined her in the streets. North High walked out. West High did too. And East and South. “Proud of our kids today,” I wrote on Facebook. “We raised them right, to stand by one another. Also proud of the organizers and all they’ve done to educate this community.” I was of course speaking about Monica, whom I have now known for more than 10 years.
And this time, she used her real name.
Helen Thorpe is the author of Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America. Her forthcoming book, The Newcomers, about refugee resettlement, is due out in November.
Contact Helen Thorpe at email@example.com.
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