Trust in Your Fellow Americans: Advocating for DREAMers

uvmmedicine blogger Juan Conde '21
uvmmedicine blogger Juan Conde ’21

What is it like to be a student advocate, to rally for change in society, and to bring attention to the education struggles of undocumented youth? It can be difficult, at times uplifting and at other times dispiriting, but always, at least for me, it has been necessary. I know that most Larner College of Medicine students are passionate about different social issues. We have a tradition of advocacy for many worthy causes, such as expanding access to healthcare, improving health equity, and providing leadership in underserved communities. Such advocacy arises not out of superhuman strength but by the passion of our ideals, by our familiarity with those affected, and by the compassion that our friends and colleagues awaken. You do not have to be a lion to give a lion’s roar. You simply have to have the courage of your convictions and believe in your vision of America.

I started helping undocumented youth as soon as DACA started. DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, provides eligible immigrants who arrived in this country as minors legal protection from deportation, and it allows them to earn a work permit.  Since news of the program did not reach everyone and some potential enrollees’ parents knew just enough English to get by, many eligible students were unsure of how to apply. I got involved because I wanted to help the community that had helped me succeed, and I felt a sense of obligation to help others who, like me, had hopes of obtaining higher education. The undying gratitude of parents who knew their children would have more opportunities than they did was reward enough.

One case was particularly important to me, that of Liliana. Liliana’s parents contacted me through a member of a local church. They wanted to know whether I could help them submit their daughter’s application. A very bright, hardworking student with almost a perfect GPA, she was thinking of getting a job right after high school or dropping out to help her family. After she obtained her work authorization and DACA status she was ecstatic. Her plans changed dramatically and she decided that she would finish school and apply to college. Although all the people that I helped to obtain their DACA status were grateful, it was Liliana who had the most impact on me. She reminded me of my own gratefulness when I was told I could attend college, and that being undocumented would not be an obstacle to my education.

The announcement of the end of DACA was a tough day for our community. I answered a lot of texts and calls and reassured many of my students to continue with the struggle. The arc of the DREAMers’ story is the same story of America: Arriving at a strange land, and through hard work and sacrifice embracing the American dream. Going to college, driving a car, working at a meaningful job – these are things some of my generation may take for granted, but for us it is a privilege to have the opportunity to do any of them. We DREAMers know that we cannot take our right to be here lightly. It must be earned every day.

There is often a feeling amongst undocumented students that anonymity brings a feeling of security, and that to speak up is to bring trouble to yourself. What made me want to speak out about this issue was the sense that this change was being instituted by a small anti-immigrant minority. The end of DACA was announced not by the U.S. President but by an appointee, and the reasons given were wrapped in legal discussions and rules about process. But I knew that the value of DREAMers to this nation would not be so casually discarded. When I spoke up it was to give voice to the human element that should not be ignored. When I heard my words in the halls of the U.S. Congress, I understood the simple truth. America was with us. Her values and spirit were on our side.

What I tell my students is this: We have lived our entire lives here; we have struggled with fear but have never broken, and we didn’t come this far to give up. Yes, we live in difficult and uncertain times, and sometimes it seems like our leaders are not up to the task. But trust in your fellow Americans. Earn your place in America like all the generations before you. There will be a tomorrow, and it is up to us to make it happen.

Video: Watch Nancy Pelosi, minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, read a letter from Juan Conde ’21 on the House floor.

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