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The Freedom to Move: My DACA Journey

How DACA gave me the opportunity to help others & make my parents’ sacrifices count.

Before Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was announced in 2012, I spent all my time volunteering while enrolled in community college. When I reflect back on that time, I think I needed an outlet for all the energy I had as a student. My parents always touted the importance of seizing every opportunity–they themselves packed up not once, but twice, from their native homeland of Guangzhou, China to move to Sonora, Mexico (where I was born!) and then from Mexico to Los Angeles, California, sacrificing so much in those years as immigrants to follow the path that would pave the best future for my brother and me.

However, the Catch-22 was that because my family is undocumented, many opportunities were not available to us as we navigated life in the US.

I faced institutional barriers that prevented me from achieving what my parents had dreamed of for their children–unbounded opportunity as long as you try hard and work. They worked under-the-table jobs for $3-4 an hour to support the family and make sure my brother and I could focus on our education– something they believed would allow us, the next generation, to create better lives for ourselves. They worked hard to change the course of the future for us, and those sacrifices created in me a frenetic energy to achieve it. I volunteered somewhere almost every day, including the weekends. It is not to say that time was not valuable–at the local animal rescue, homeless shelter, hospital, library, and the Asian art museum, I found out that I had a passion for community, and I was able to put my energy to use.

I wanted to be part of something, to work and contribute to my community.

I became very involved in the museum, and my role as a volunteer grew to founder and facilitator of their college/museum summer program. One day, my supervisor asked me when I would graduate to see when they could hire me onto the museum staff. In that moment, and many moments like that, I would feel vulnerable and watch as doors seemingly within my reach were shut before I could take advantage of them. I was undocumented and could not legally work in the US, so they could not hire me and compensate me for my work. I also didn’t know if I would ever graduate, since I could not receive federal financial aid, and transferring to a four year university was financially out of reach. It was extremely difficult to battle the feeling that my efforts in school and my volunteer work were fruitless.

DACA changed everything.

The announcement quelled my mother’s years of sleepless nights feeling frustration and guilt for our status–she was brave for herself and her sacrifices, but when it came to her children, she could not bear to watch us so stalled. My parents scrounged up the $465 for the application fee, took out all the records they had so diligently saved, and pushed me to apply quickly. I was approved for DACA a few months later. Almost immediately, the road was cleared for the things that were keeping me from moving forward. Because the CA Dream Act also passed soon after that, I was able to receive financial aid. I finished up my requirements to transfer while working two jobs (I finally had a social security number!), and got my driver’s license/ID. It had such a huge impact on my psychological state when I was able to join friends at places where we had to get carded, when I received this tiny little card that simply, officially stated my name and my date of birth.

Now I had the freedom to move. And move forward I did, graduating this past Spring from the University of California in Santa Cruz with a degree in Anthropology.

After being involved in the Dreamer student movement, learning the causes of inequality through my studies, and taking internships at nonprofit organizations, I am compelled to guide DREAMers and immigrants out of the shadows. It has brought me to really ponder the question: what could people be if they did not have institutional or economic barriers? I have seen the same situation for so many people who work hard but never seem able to catch up – whether they are hourly workers, formerly incarcerated individuals, or those on the other side of the racial wealth divide. So how do we open more doors with programs already in place? Through my own experience and through learning the experiences of my brave undocumented peers and their families, I can firsthand see the impact that policies like DACA can have as at least one solution. In allowing childhood arrivals to work, drive, and live without fear of deportation, DACA allows us to pursue our dreams and aspirations.

Despite the disappointing news that DAPA and DACA+, which would have given relief to thousands more, continue to be blocked in the Supreme Court, I think there is work to be done in making sure DACA benefits as many eligible people as possible.

Working at Mission Asset Fund (MAF) today, after where I have come from, feels like coming full circle. I’ve had the experience of being excluded, but I’ve since become included through programs like DACA. Now I am legally able to work at an organization like MAF, which advocates for those who are most in need. MAF is a nonprofit that provides the community with credit-building social loans and financial assistance with citizenship and DACA applications. MAF is a place where people are  treated with respect regardless of their economic, immigration, or language status. To me, working at MAF means that my work has a direct, tangible impact.

At MAF, I am helping hardworking people come out of the shadows and be part of something, as I myself had so desperately wanted before DACA.

This post was written by Diana Wong, DREAMSF Fellow at Mission Asset Fund