Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month is a time for all of us to reflect on the heroes whose struggle and sacrifice have too often gone unrecognized. It is also a time to look to the future, to the challenges AAPI communities still face and how we can address them together. We recently had the opportunity to reflect when we inducted Chinese Railroad Workers into the Labor Department’s Hall of Honor – the first time AAPI leaders have received this tribute.
This week, I had the opportunity to look to the future when I met with eight inspirational young people of Asian heritage who have benefited under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (known as DACA), a program implemented in 2012 by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. DACA offers two-year relief from deportation and the ability to obtain temporary work authorization to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and who meet several other criteria.
These young people have overcome remarkable obstacles. Many hold down two jobs to support their families and save for college. Some work long hours and attend school at the same time, while others have been forced to live apart from their parents for seven or more years because of the mixed immigration status of their families.
One senior at the University of Maryland described how his parents, immigrants from India and Bangladesh, came to the U.S. to escape religious persecution. Growing up in Silver Spring, Md., from the age of one, he learned English by watching the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” Although his parents were able to obtain work permits, they were eventually denied refuge and deported to India. DACA has allowed him to remain in the country, and he now works at a pharmacy and takes care of his younger brother. He misses his parents, but when asked about returning to India says, “I don’t know what it’s like to live in India; I grew up in this culture.”
Many told stories of their families emigrating because they were told that they were going to be able to live and work in the country legally, only to realize that they had been scammed. They spoke of the loss of dignity, and of childhoods filled with the fear of deportation. Many of these young people and their parents were mistreated by employers − working in unsafe environments, paid below the minimum wage and regularly threatened with deportation. In the words of one DACA recipient, “everything stops because of that fear of being deported. [DACA] gave me a sense of normalcy, and now I have options.”
I was struck by the remarkable optimism that these young people had about their future. They embody the qualities of what it means to be American – hardworking, courageous, innovative and resilient. And for all of them, DACA has changed the course of their lives, giving them a path to upward mobility, normalcy, and safety.
I am heartened that over a half million young people have obtained DACA status. But there is more work to do. There are potentially another half million eligible individuals who have not sought DACA, and the first wave of DACA recipients from the fall of 2012 are soon going to need to renew their two-year status. DACA also does not fix our broken immigration system.
That is why President Obama and this administration are doing everything we can to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year. We need reform that creates an earned path to citizenship, strengthens our borders, protects workers and holds employers accountable. We need reform that keeps families together and brings the system into the 21st century.
Despite facing so much hardship, these youth have contributed to our nation’s strength and vitality. They deserve more than the uncertainty and anxiety of their current status; they deserve the embrace of the nation they know as home.
Follow Secretary Perez on Twitter as @LaborSec.