The (Unauthorized) American Dream

“For me, the DREAM Act is pivotal,” Eliel says. “It determines my future here in the United States.”

 

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Eliel Adan Acosta, portrait by Kevin Shaw

By David Kortava

Eliel Adan Acosta, 20, is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. This stubborn fact sits uncomfortably alongside another: Eliel Adan Acosta says he has “no recollection of ever having been in Mexico.”

Eliel is neither lying nor suffering amnesia. He is one of some 2.1 million undocumented Americans who arrived to the United States as children – in Eliel’s case, at the forgetful age of three.

In sympathetic circles, the designation accorded to these young men and women is ‘Dreamers’, which derives from the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act). If passed, the bill would put a small subset of undocumented immigrants like Eliel on a path to permanent residency, and then citizenship. To qualify, one must have: arrived to the US before having turned sixteen; lived continuously in the country for a minimum of five years prior to the bill’s enactment; committed no serious criminal offense; graduated from a US high school, secured a GED, or been admitted to a US college or university; and met a number of other requirements.

Speaking by phone, Eliel told me that, for years, he had no idea that such legislation – a version of which was first introduced in 2001 – would even be of use to him. Until just before he entered high school, he was not even aware that he was undocumented.

In the eighth grade, Eliel won a school essay contest and was entered into a statewide competition. Eliel’s parents panicked over the attention their son was receiving, and chose this as the moment to apprise him of the unwelcome fact that he, like them, was without papers warranting his presence in his hometown of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania – and everywhere else this side of the Mexico-US border.

In that instant, Eliel’s life took on the dimensions of a Kafka novel: a young man wakes up to find he does not have citizenship in the only country he has ever known, and that there are government operatives out to apprehend and expel him. “But I’ve done nothing wrong,” Eliel remembers protesting, “I just want to live freely and give back to my community.”

Mercifully, the knowledge that he was not a US citizen did not send Eliel spiraling into an existential crisis. He certainly still feels like a US citizen, even if, on a purely cerebral level, he accepts that he is not. His attachment to Mexico remains as slight as it has always been, no more than any other first or second generation American’s is to the old country of his or her forebears. He would like to see the town he was born in and to meet the people who, in another life, would have been his friends and neighbors. More than anything, he wishes to meet his maternal grandmother while there is still time.

But these yearnings are tempered by another thought: “Every time I hear news of innocent people being killed by drug cartels [in Mexico], I worry that I can easily be thrown into that war.” Eliel does hope to make it to Mexico one day, but only if the voyage be of his own accord, and the stay short-lived.

When the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas came out as an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times last year, it galvanized Dreamers everywhere to step out of the shadows. In increasing numbers, many Dreamers now refuse to live in fear or in secret in the only country they consider home.

Reaping strength from their example, Eliel joined Manos Unidas, an organization that champions immigrants’ rights and campaigns for, among other noble ends, legislation that would allow Dreamers to access in-state tuition. From hence forth, Eliel would count himself among the ranks of undocumented Americans who – having grown up in the US – regard citizenship as their due.

Now in his junior year at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Eliel is in many ways already a model citizen. He has made the Dean’s List three out of four semesters, hopes to go on to graduate school to pursue his studies in psychology, and intends to one day become a professor. He is active in civic life on campus, has never been so much as pulled over, and has a command of the English language that should be the envy of most citizens. Yet, it is still very much within the realm of possibility that Eliel will someday be deported to Mexico, a country that is as foreign to him as it is to most Americans who support his deportation.

President Obama’s announcement this past June – that the Department of Homeland Security will allow the children of undocumented immigrants to stay in the US for two years (pending further action by Congress) – granted Eliel a modicum of reprieve. But like Sisyphus pushing his boulder, he can already foresee tribulations to come. “I was very glad when I heard the President’s announcement, but didn’t want to get my hopes too high,” Eliel says. “I don’t want to be let down later on.”

The only solution that would permanently extinguish the insecurity felt by Eliel and his loved ones remains the passage of the DREAM Act by Congress. Anything less leaves Eliel, and all Dreamers, in a precarious limbo, forever subject to raids and hounding by police and immigration authorities. “For me, the DREAM Act is pivotal,” Eliel says. “It determines my future here in the United States.”

When asked what message he would like to convey to US citizens debating the DREAM Act, he asks only that they get to know a Dreamer – and now you have.

Perhaps you even believe Eliel when he says, “Papers or no papers, I am an American.”

 

This article first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Communiqué Magazine.

 

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David Kortava is a Russian-American writer currently based in New York City. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa and holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University.

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