1. Opinion

Column: "Dreamers" represent American values

Last week I met with six recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program from Central Florida, and as they shared their heartfelt stories one by one, I learned they all had one thing in common: a desire to pursue the American Dream.

Dreamers — as DACA recipients are known — are young people who were brought to the United States at a very young age and have grown up, lived, studied and worked in their American communities their whole lives. They rightfully call America home, as it is the only country they have ever known. Yet President Donald Trump is planning to unwind the program, putting nearly 800,000 Dreamers at risk for deportation.

On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security said it would no longer accept new DACA applications, which have provided renewable, two-year work permits. Homeland Security said those already enrolled in DACA will be able to continue working until their permits expire.

One of the students I spoke with, Karen, has lived in Naples since she was 4 years old. In tears, she shared with me that for a long time she has viewed herself as "too brown to be accepted as American and too disconnected from her roots to feel as if she's from anywhere else." Another student, Alejandra, had a similar experience. Although she had lived alongside her peers since age 1, it was not until high school years — when she could not apply for a driver's license while her American friends were already starting to drive — that she realized the extent of her immigration status and the obstacles she'd face from that moment on.

Through DACA, Alejandra obtained a Social Security number. And both young ladies were granted in-state tuition and are now attending college in Florida. Just as they were beginning to feel part of this country, the Trump administration vilifies them and threatens their future. Their touching stories, unfortunately, are just two of the thousands of stories from Dreamers across the United States.

It has been estimated that 1.7 million young immigrants are eligible to benefit from the DACA program. Since it was launched in 2012 by President Barack Obama, thousands of young people have benefitted by qualifying for drivers' licenses, in-state tuition, work authorization and living with the peace of mind they will not be deported. Additionally, there is a rigorous procedure to qualify for the program. Applicants must have entered the United States before the age of 16, lived in the country since 2007, committed no serious crimes, and must be enrolled in school or completed high school/GED/or have been honorably discharged from the armed forces.

Let's dissect this education requirement for Dreamers. Ninety-two percent of DACA-eligible students have received at least a high school education in the United States. That means our government has already invested substantially in these young people. Why wouldn't we want these hard-working, educated Americans to thrive in our country?

During my luncheon, I also met Ivan — a Dreamer from Mexico who came to the United States at the age of 13 and is studying nutrition at the Seminole State College. I was impressed to learn that Ivan is working as an organizer and advocate at the Farmworker Association of Florida. He is ambitious and passionate about the agriculture industry in Central Florida. Like Ivan, all Dreamers are contributing to their local communities and the American economy. A report from the Center for American Progress found that ending DACA would remove at least $433.4 billion from American GDP over a decade.

Each Dreamer I met had endured countless obstacles and setbacks. Yet through it all, each displayed a strong work ethic, ambitious dreams to pursue, and tremendous drive to succeed. They are pursuing advanced degrees, starting small businesses, and helping the community through nonprofit work — while advocating for their right to be here throughout their journeys.

My message for all the young people across the United States who are currently in fear and uncertain of their future is this: You are American and this is your country too. We have won before and can do so again.

It is up to us, the people and those of us who represent the people, to stand with our Dreamers and #DefendDACA.

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto represents Florida's 9th Congressional District in east central Florida, which includes portions of Orange and Polk counties and all of Osceola County.