Undocumented immigrant youth are entering the chemical sciences and related fields, in part because of a 2012 Obama Administration immigration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows some undocumented youth who entered the U.S. as minors to apply for deferred action from deportation as well as temporary work permits. DACA has provided educational and work opportunities never before available to undocumented youth, but their future remains in limbo as President Donald J. Trump considers policies to crack down on undocumented immigrants. Read on to learn how these young people are speaking out and helping each other, despite the risk of deportation.
“I was going through reactions in my head as I was waking up, and all of a sudden, my dad comes into my room, and he’s crying,” says Acuña, who at the time was a student at Montgomery College in Rockville, Md. “Behind him were these two huge ICE [U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement] officers. They were like, ‘Get up, get dressed, and come downstairs.’ They handcuffed us, ankles and wrists, and they put us into this car.”
For the next six days, Acuña and his parents were locked up at a detention center near Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “There was no space in the regular cells, so they sent us to the maximum security cells,” says Acuña, who was then 18. “People were yelling at us. We were terrified.”
Amid all of that, Acuña’s thoughts drifted back to school. “I remember being in jail and wondering what my professor was thinking when I didn’t show up to class,” Acuña says. “Even when I was in jail, I was worried about my organic chemistry exam.”
Acuña was eight years old when his parents, seeking political asylum, brought him to the U.S. from Colombia, where his mother, who worked for a politician fighting the narcotics trade, was routinely receiving death threats.
Now 23 and a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park, and preparing to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, Acuña is among the estimated 11.1 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., according to data from the Pew Research Center.
Despite living in the shadows, undocumented immigrants such as Acuña who were brought to the U.S. as children continue to pursue careers in chemistry and chemical engineering, in part because of a 2012 Obama Administration immigration policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows some undocumented youth who entered the U.S. as minors to apply for deferred action from deportation as well as temporary work permits.
To be eligible for DACA, undocumented youth must have come to the U.S. before their 16th birthday; be under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012; have continuously resided in the U.S. since June 15, 2007; be currently in school or have a high school degree or General Educational Development certificate; and not have been convicted of a felony or significant misdemeanor, among other requirements.
DACA also presents a significant financial burden to families living in poverty. It currently costs $495 to apply for the work authorization card, and the permit needs to be renewed every two years with a recurring fee of $495.
According to the latest data available from U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, more than 900,000 first-time applications for DACA have been received, and 770,000 first-time DACA applications have been approved to date. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 1.3 million unauthorized young adults aged 15 and older were immediately eligible for DACA in 2016.
DACA has provided opportunities never before available to undocumented youth. But their future remains in limbo as President Donald J. Trump considers policies to crack down on undocumented immigrants. Even if Trump were to keep DACA unchanged, there are virtually no avenues aside from marrying a U.S. citizen to legalize a person’s status.
“It’s as bleak as it’s ever been,” says Jim Hacking, an immigration lawyer with Hacking Law Practice in St. Louis. Before DACA, “people were operating in the shadows, and the government didn’t know where they were. Now, these people are operating in the shadows, but the government knows where they are. That means they can come get them pretty readily.
“It looks like the window is closing more and more, and it’s going to be really hard for these people to find any kind of long-term solution in the U.S.,” Hacking adds.
C&EN spoke with undocumented youth in the chemical sciences about the challenges and opportunities they see ahead and what motivates them to keep pursuing their dreams. In some cases, sources have requested that only their first names be used.