A DREAMer organizes for others’ dreams

December 6, 2017

Matt Pillischer and Michael Whitehead interview a DACA recipient in Philadelphia about her experiences before and after Donald Trump's heartless decision to end the program for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. in their youth--and about her effort to help others in the same situation.

WITH THE media focused on the Nightmare before Christmas tax heist, another ongoing tragedy has been pushed out of the headlines: the fear of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients and their families are facing an uncertain future after Trump announced earlier this year that the program would be repealed starting next March.

Sydelle O'Brien is one of those DACA "Dreamers."

Now 26, she came to the U.S. at the age of eight, along with her sister, from their native country of Trinidad and Tobago. O'Brien quickly adapted to life in the U.S. The question of where her "home" was didn't really come up, since she had close family both in America and Trinidad.

Like many DREAMers, O'Brien was unaware of her status throughout most of her childhood, until the question of summer jobs and Social Security numbers came up. At that point, her family had to bring her into the undocumented immigrant's reality: don't speak too loudly, don't talk about immigration, try to fly under the radar.

Sydelle O'Brien
Sydelle O'Brien

But this meant that O'Brien was cut off from opportunities all her friends enjoyed. She was unable to join her other honor student friends at top colleges. Although O'Brien was an honors student, too, and an active student leader, with more than a decade already in the U.S., DACA recipients are ineligible for financial aid. Her family didn't have the resources to fund university tuition and living expenses.

After graduation, while her friends were busily settling in to college life, O'Brien was unable to study or even work that first year after high school. In desperation, she consulted an immigration attorney, who advised her to find someone to marry and come see her again in six months.

O'Brien recalls the meeting with some disdain--not so much for the attorney, who could offer no other legal options, but for a system that would effectively coerce a young, strong, independent Black woman of only 19, with her whole life in front of her, into a premature marriage.

Unable to study or work and isolated from her friends, O'Brien fell into depression and spent many days in bed, unsure of what her future would hold.

It took her a couple years to figure out the best path forward: taking courses part-time at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), with a major that truly inspired her-- early childhood education. This began her career as an educator and recharged the drive she'd always had.

IN 2012, after years of congressional failure to pass bills such as the DREAM Act, Barack Obama implemented the DACA program by executive order. The program--which grants temporary work permits and reprieves from removal/deportation, but requires renewal applications every two years--has protected 800,000 former childhood immigrants like Sydelle O'Brien and her sister.

O'Brien says the application process is onerous, complex and demeaning at times, and it costs $500 each time. But she is now permitted to work, and that's allowed her to become self-sufficient and pay for two years of college.

But while paying taxes and contributing to the economy, O'Brien and her sister are still ineligible for financial aid--or most government services, for that matter. "I'm giving to an economy that has never given anything to me," she says in frustration.

O'Brien also laments that if it wasn't for her immigration problems, she likely would have finished a master's degree by now.

Despite this, O'Brien says she has nothing bad to say about DACA except that it had no road to citizenship or residency.

Trump's announcement in September that his administration would end DACA came with a dangerous qualification in an attempt not to appear horrifyingly cruel: Those with up-to-date DACA papers would maintain their status only until their current term expires, unless Congress takes other action to legalize DACA.

According to the Center for American Progress, the policy means that each day that passes from now until March 5, about 122 people a day will lose their protected status as their DACA terms expire, making them arrestable and deportable. After March 5, nearly 1,000 people per day will lose protected status, according to CNN.

Some Democrats are threatening to block a vote on December 8 to keep the federal government funded, possibly resulting in a government shutdown, unless Congress addresses the situation of DACA recipients. But as we have seen before in the Trump era so far, follow-through is another matter when it comes to the Democrats.

O'BRIEN'S HARDSHIPS have not been limited to obstacles to attaining her educational and professional ambitions. Her family hardships are more difficult still.

Sydelle and her sister talk to their mother almost daily by phone, but she lives in Trinidad and Tobago and is barred from entering the U.S.--and the sisters, as DACA recipients, are unable to travel outside the U.S. As a result, the sisters haven't seen their mother in more than 14 years.

Their mother decided that her daughters should make the U.S. their home because of better educational opportunities. She used to travel frequently to the U.S. to see them, spending up to six months every year in the U.S.

Fatefully, she came to visit 14 years ago while pregnant with the girls' brother and happened to give birth while in the U.S., just before her planned return to Trinidad and Tobago. Rushing to obtain to a birth certificate and passport for her U.S. citizen newborn, she had to delay her departure back to Trinidad and Tobago by a few days, thereby overstaying her tourist visa.

Because of this unplanned few days' delay returning to Trinidad, U.S. embassy immigration officials, refusing appeals to reason and basic humanity, have repeatedly denied further visa requests from the mother, despite her son's U.S. citizenship.

For Sydelle, the stress of her situation has often become too much. Two years ago, after the death of her grandmother, she broke out with welts all over her body and began to suffer panic attacks. After Trump's announcement of the cancellation of DACA in September, she suffered insomnia, heart palpitations and anxiety attacks that eventually required hospitalization.

But then, she recalls, "in the midst of my last panic attack at the hospital, I came up with the campaign idea."

She texted her friend and fellow activist Matt Pillischer, an ISO member and co-author of this article, for help in putting together a campaign to help other DACA recipients by raising money for their $500 renewal applications.

Trump's announcement left 30 days for those with expiring DACA papers to renew one last time, leading to a scramble by many recipients to find the money and fill out the paperwork.

During the busiest week of her semester, somehow, O'Brien found the time to work with Matt to make a video for a Go Fund Me campaign around the theme "Buy two years of life for a DACA person." It raised $2,500, enough for five applicants.

In the end, campaign funds went to a larger citywide effort in Philadelphia, since O'Brien's campaign raised more money than they themselves had applicants. "Not knowing the names of the people we helped is, in a way, the best part," she said, laughing.

Talking about the experience, O'Brien mused, "I always pictured myself doing activism work, but somehow, it never really happened before."

But in the moment that she decided to organize the campaign and fight for others, her anxiety attacks ended. Now, she says, "when I think about DACA situation, I no longer think this about me. Now I think about how this is affecting others in a worse situation than me."

In choosing activism, Sydelle, like many DREAMers, is fighting for others despite the possible risk to her own situation.

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