America is a nation of immigrants. We should bring humanity back to America’s immigration system.

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“I don’t regret anything,” my mother told me recently. “My priority was your sister and you.”

Our conversation started after the newest wave of anti-immigrant sentiment hit the airwaves. I asked her when she first heard the phrase “American Dream.” She said that she didn’t hear it until we arrived in California in the late ’90s to be with my grandmother. My mother knew that she had to find a place where she could provide for us and give us the future we could not have in Guatemala. A future with more opportunity. A future full of hope. A future full of success that transcended monetary wealth.

A teacher by profession, she was a single mother of two girls. She found herself confronted with two choices. She could relocate to a rural mountainous region with the only available teacher vacancy and an unlivable monthly salary of 700 quetzales (less than $100), or she could find better opportunities for her daughters.

Pursuing her dreams would mean that she and her daughters would be far from her father’s home and further away from her family already in the U.S. because there were few resources in the border-town they were born in. We were in a place where dreams could not be achieved through sacrifice, nor risk-taking, nor working hard.

She heard about the “land of opportunity,” where she could find work to support her daughters. A land where her daughters’ education would go beyond 6th grade, a land with proper medical care to help with my sister’s special eye surgery. A land where she would be close to her siblings and have a continued family bond. Fearful but determined, we made our way to the U.S. — a mystical land, where she gave away her youth to odd jobs and the poultry industry, where she endured humiliation, mistreatment and grueling work hours. All for hope of a better future for her daughters.

Although coming to the U.S. over 20 years ago meant abandoning her profession, my mother taught us that faith, an education and compassion for our peers was the key to success. Being the oldest, she would teach me all she had learned as a teacher in Spanish. She would tell me, “I will show you what I know. You will have to try to find out what this means in English.” I strived to test out of the English as a Second Language Program, to get as many straight As as I could, join the Academically and Intellectually Gifted Program, and to spend many hours volunteering in our faith-based community and in school clubs.

I was grateful to be chosen as president of various clubs and organizations, and I tried my best to keep pushing through high school, but I was falling apart. Life had forced me to grow up quickly. I couldn’t carry the weight of being the oldest amongst my siblings and cousins and all it entailed. Family life had taken a toll and my academic and community dedication faltered. I was denied entry at the local community college, which crushed my hopes of resetting my path.

Without hope and the promise of a future, I let go of my dreams.

Fast forward to June 2012, when the Secretary of Homeland Security announced that “certain people who came to the United States as children and meet several guidelines could request consideration of deferred action (a use of prosecutorial power to defer removal action against an individual for a certain period of time) for a period of two years, subject to renewal, and may be eligible for employment authorization.” In other words, DACA recipients could work, go to school, along with other rights, and were shielded from deportation during the approved period, but Deferred Action did not provide long-term lawful status.

DACA requests must be renewed every two years.

I am one of over 616 million DACA recipients, as reported by USCIS. You may know us as “DREAMers”, in part because of the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) and in larger part because we have big dreams and hopes for a better future. We are young people who have grown up as Americans, identify as Americans, and form part of America’s melting pot. We call the U.S. home. Yes, many of us are proud of our heritage, of our culture, our ancestry, our community’s strive for betterment, sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work — and rightfully so.

Because of DACA, we have turned our parents’ sacrifices into a commitment to our communities. We are essential workers. We are healthcare workers. We are teachers. We are community workers. We are part of the faith community.

All these accomplishments are a beautiful representation of what we want to showcase for our current and future generations.

DACA has allowed me to work legally, obtain a driver’s license and strive for my family. That said, trying to plan my life for two-year intervals has been difficult, especially because of the back-and-forth over DACA’s future and the ongoing hostility towards undocumented immigrants. It feels like I’m living in limbo; I’m holding my breath while worrying about my family and community members who don’t even have DACA.

One thing is certain: A society living individualistically and permitting its members to live in fear suffers and finds itself with weakened community and institutional frameworks. Like the negative impact that fear can have on our body, it can lead to poor health and even premature death. If left untreated, these negative impacts can spread like wildfire.

We all want healthy and thriving communities. We need to restore the humanity and American values into our immigration system.

We need to join forces with trusted civic organizations, such as El Vínculo Hispano, an institution grounded in Hispanic culture that collaborates with many other agencies to help them understand the issues our community faces.

We need to empower our community members to voice their concerns and speak up for themselves. The time is now to push and move for healing. We must correct our outdated immigration laws that no longer serve their purposes and that force millions of people into the shadows of our society.

A just immigration system must bring into light the millions of immigrants who are part of the fabric of our society, who have lived here for years — in many cases decades. A just immigration system must include a pathway to citizenship. It must keep families together and protect vulnerable communities. It must embrace our diversity. It must promote integration and inclusion of immigrants and refugees. A just immigration system would foster economic growth and prosperity and ensure greater worker protections.

Guatemalan native Hannia Benitez is the Hispanic Liaison’s Deputy Director for its new Lee County office in Sanford, where she works to advance the rights of Hispanics at local and state levels. She also serves as the president of Siler City’s newly formed Immigrant Community Advisory Council. Benitez lives in Siler City with her husband and three children.

This column was first published in the December print edition of La Voz de Chatham.

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