Editor’s Note: Santiago Tobar Potes was brought to the United States by his parents from Colombia undocumented at age 4 and is now a student at Columbia University in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @stobarpotes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Santiago Tobar Potes: President Trump recently said he would announce a policy about DACA recipients
Please, Mr. President, give us the opportunity that your family had to make this country our home as well, he writes
I am one of an estimated 750,000 Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, now facing possible deportation by President Donald Trump. I worry that the President – whose grandfather, mother and wife all immigrated to America – will turn my dream into a nightmare and throw me out of the land where I grew up.
A few weeks ago I felt like I was dreaming when I was at a White House event and met first lady Michelle Obama. I had just been appointed to the student advisory board for her Better Make Room initiative, which encourages young people to go to college. I am inspired by Better Make Room and want to help more young people improve their lives through higher education.
But as I watched President Trump being inaugurated, I found it hard to believe he might make it impossible for me to go to college in this country.
For the time being, I am here legally under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program created by President Obama through an executive order in 2012. But how long that will last is anyone’s guess.
I came to America in 2002 as a 4-year-old, brought to Miami from my native Colombia by my parents. It should be obvious that at such a young age I did not ask to come here. Nor did I assist my parents in crossing the border without documentation. Nor did I assist my parents in overstaying our visas.
It should also be obvious that while President Trump described undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists, drug dealers and other criminals when he announced his candidacy in 2015, I was none of these things when I was a 4-year-old. And I have not become one in the years since.
My family fled Cali in Colombia – home of the infamous drug cartel – after rebel forces of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) killed my grandparents. My parents felt that our lives would be in danger if we stayed.
Today I live in New York as a freshman at Columbia University. My education is funded by scholarships from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, the Alexander Hamilton Scholars, Questbridge and Golden Doors Scholars. These organizations have judged me by my ability rather than my birthplace.
I hope to go on to law school, study constitutional law and become a US citizen.
It’s impossible to know if any of these things will happen, because it is impossible to know if President Trump will end DACA. He and his top aides have made numerous contradictory statements. During his presidential campaign, Trump said he would support a deportation force but at other times he has been far more conciliatory.
In an interview with ABC News on January 25, President Trump said we Dreamers “are here illegally” but then said we “shouldn’t be very worried.” He refused to say if he will let us stay in the United States under DACA and said he’ll announce a policy in the next four weeks.
With such uncertainty, how can we Dreamers not worry? Our future is in President Trump’s hands.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved America. But I have felt overwhelming pain because America refused to accept me until President Obama signed the DACA executive order that President Trump may now revoke.
Growing up undocumented meant living with a fear of going to school and being discovered. Telling teachers that I couldn’t sleep because I feared that my family and I would be deported was out of the question. Talking to friends about my undocumented status was too dangerous. I felt like a fugitive in hiding, branded a criminal who would never be accepted.
But despite the fear that haunted me every day, I always viewed school as a place of endless inspiration and marvel. I poured all my energies into my studies, becoming a straight-A student and scoring at the highest levels on standardized tests.
I can speak six languages. I held internships with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, who has been a supporter of immigration reform, and I am a member of McKinsey & Co.’s Leadership Development Program. I became an accomplished violinist, playing an instrument given to me, and volunteered to give free violin lessons to impoverished Miami youth. I studied classical Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu and received a full scholarship from the Chinese government to travel to China to study Chinese.
I read about President Barack Obama’s life right after the 2008 election, when I was in the fifth grade. Ever since, he has been an inspiration to me. I thought that if a person of color could be elected president of the United States, a boy born in Colombia could do anything in America.
Yet I feared that going to college in the United States would be impossible, because many colleges don’t provide financial aid to undocumented students or refuse to even admit us. My family was too poor to pay my way. Fortunately, the scholarships I earned through hard work and good grades enabled me to come to Columbia University.
With the threat of deportation hanging over me now, I wish I could have the opportunity to meet President Trump, as I met Mrs. Obama. I would ask him to look at me and other Dreamers protected under DACA as individuals, not as some menacing horde.
I would tell President Trump that a small percentage of people from every nationality and ethnic group commit crimes, but the vast majority of Dreamers are law-abiding and we are strengthening America, not weakening it.
We would have a conversation about how Dreamers have lived in the United States for the majority of our lives. Many have attended elementary, middle and high school here and speak English fluently. While I speak fluent Spanish, many Dreamers have little or no ability to converse in the language of the countries of their birth. Deporting us to homelands we barely remember or don’t remember at all would be an enormous hardship.
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I would go on to tell the President that while we don’t have the papers stating we are American citizens, we live the same lives as our neighbors who were born here or immigrated legally. Growing up, we were taught to celebrate the same holidays, mourn the same national tragedies and celebrate the same national triumphs. Members of our families hold jobs and pay taxes to support government at all levels.
And I would say that we Dreamers are just as American as anyone else, even though we lack a piece of paper to validate our American identity.
Finally, I would tell President Trump that I’ve read that his grandfather came to America from Germany. And I would ask him how he would have felt as a young man to be sent to Germany with no money and told to learn a new language and start a new way of life because America had no room for him.
President Trump has accomplished great things in America. We Dreamers can as well. Please, Mr. President, give us the opportunity that your grandfather, your mother and your wife had to make this country our home as well.