Growing up in Michigan as an undocumented immigrant, Nejvi Bejko says few people outside of her inner circle knew about her status. She thinks that being white had a lot to do with it.
“No one’s really looking at me and thinking, ‘She should be deported,’ or all these hateful words that don’t necessarily apply to me because of what I look like,” says Bejko, who came to Sterling Heights, Michigan, from Albania at 9 years old with her parents and younger brother.
She says her family didn’t hide her immigration status, but they hardly talked about it. In middle school, she began to realize that her life in the US was different from her peers’.
“You hide why you can’t drive or move away for college,” she says. “So, you become this antisocial person essentially because you have to.”
As an undocumented immigrant, Bejko couldn’t afford many of Michigan’s top schools; her undocumented status meant she wasn’t eligible for in-state tuition. Her only option was to stay in her small town and earn an associate's degree at a local community college. She eventually got an apprenticeship with a clothing company in Washington, DC.
Then in 2012, President Barack Obama used an executive action to create DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which temporarily protected some undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children from deportation. It allowed Bejko to obtain a driver’s license and a work permit. So she left her apprenticeship and went to Michigan State University — since 2013, the school has allow residents who went a Michigan high school to pay in-state tuition regardless of immigration status — to pursue a bachelor’s degree in apparel and textile design.
When President Donald Trump announced last September that his administration is ending DACA, Bejko decided to join the fight for immigration reform. She connected with an immigrant advocacy group and started talking with lawmakers and the media about her immigration status.
“I understand what everyone is going through. So while it was easier for me to go unnoticed and blend in, there’s too much at stake now,” says Bejko, whose DACA work permit expires in October. In February, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to block the Trump administration from ending DACA while a lawsuit moves forward. This means Bejko will be able to renew her status for now, but things could change again depending on the outcome of the lawsuit and whether Congress takes any action.
Just before the annual White House Easter Egg Roll on Monday, April 2, Trump posted on Twitter that “DACA is dead,” and blamed Democrats for inaction. He inaccurately proclaimed that “everyone wants to get onto the DACA bandwagon.” In fact, DACA has many restrictions, including requirements that recipients have been in the US continuously since 2007 and arrived before age 16.
Bejko says, as limited as the program is, DACA gave her the confidence to talk about her undocumented status publicly and to share her experiences with lawmakers. The Pew Research Center estimates that 5,200 DACA recipients are from Europe, making them an often overlooked group, considering that the majority of immigrants with DACA come from Mexico.
“It’s always very strange to be like, ‘No, I’m from Eastern Europe, and there’s others like me,’” she says. “[People] always just shake their heads and nod, but still look confused as to how I might be a DACA recipient.”
Leezia Dhalla feels the same way. She is from Canada and moved to Texas with her family when she was 6 years old. Although she knew her family migrated to the US for better economic opportunities, she first learned she was undocumented during her junior year of college. She turned 21 and received an order to appear in immigration court arrived in the mail. She is one of an estimated 750 Canadian DACA recipients, according to government figures.
Dhalla works at FWD.us, a Washington, DC-based immigrant advocacy group founded by leaders of technology companies, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The organization lobbies for immigration reform and access to education for immigrants. Dhalla says that as DACA faces an uncertain future, it’s important for immigrants like her to share their stories to counter perceptions of who is undocumented.
“It’s a teaching moment to show people that Dreamers are from all around the world,” Dhalla says. “What matters is that we are here and want our immigration statuses to reflect how American we already feel.”
“Dreamers” is a term advocates use that takes its name from the DREAM Act, which would have given some undocumented people brought to the US as children a path to legal citizenship but failed to pass in the Senate in 2010.
“I wanted to go to law school, but I know nothing about the laws in Canada,” she says. “Without these [DACA] protections I will likely lose my job, my apartment and my ability to be a productive member of society.”
Jason Finkelman, an immigration attorney based in Austin, Texas, says that since Trump decided to end DACA, he has fielded dozens of calls from European and Canadian recipients worried about deportation or their personal information now being available to the government.
“It’s a very scary situation for anyone who may fear being deported to countries they hardly know, even if that country is just our neighbor to the north,” he says. “Some acknowledge that in their communities they perhaps aren’t being targeted by law enforcement as much as their Latino counterparts, but it doesn’t change the risks.”
Critics of immigration enforcement policies argue that they often result in racial profiling, regardless of someone’s immigration status. The Center for American Progress, a progressive policy institute, writes that agreements between the federal immigration agency and local law enforcement can exacerbate these issues. Black immigrants are deported and detained at rates more than three times their percentage of the immigrant population, because they are more likely to be profiled by police and often live in areas with higher police presence, according to 2016 report published by the New York University School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic and Black Alliance for Just Immigration. In contrast, immigrants from Europe have among the lowest levels of deportation.
In 2016, the highest numbers of deportees were from Mexico and Central American countries, according to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Dhalla says that, still, immigration policy isn’t solely a Latino issue. It's important for non-Latino immigrants, especially those who are targeted less, to challenge that narrative, she says. It also makes diversity within immigrant advocacy circles all the more important.
“Our conversations about immigration must represent the true makeup of who is here in this country,” Dhalla says. “So there’s a shared responsibility to allow those who are underrepresented to speak, as well as for those who are better represented to make space for us to.”
Only 32 immigrants were deported to Albania in 2016. Bejko says she understands how other activists may criticize her and other white immigrants who’ve spoken out only after immigration policies affected them. But she says it’s not always because they don’t care about others who have been deported.
“No matter what your background may be, living in the country forces to you to keep a low profile and not draw unnecessary attention to yourself,” she says. “I spent so long doing exactly that, for a while I didn’t realize that maybe being successful at it had nothing to do with me at all, but because others assumed I’m American based on how I look.”
Finally recognizing that privilege, she says, is also why also she came forward. Bejko now volunteers with Dhalla’s organization, FWD.us. The organization maintains a database of DACA recipients of diverse backgrounds who volunteer to share their experiences for policymakers in their home states and on Capitol Hill.
Gosia Labno is also a FWD.us volunteer. A DACA recipient from Poland, Labno grew up in Chicago and says she’s never felt targeted. She came to the US from Poland at the age of 6, initially on a tourist visa with her family. She became undocumented after a family member’s attempt to sponsor her failed. Few people knew about her status, something she thinks was easier to hide in Chicago, which then had the largest population of Poles of any city outside of Warsaw, Poland.
Obama announced DACA on Labno’s college graduation day. She decided to apply and then to talk more about being an immigrant. DACA was “a call to action,” she says. Still, she was hesitant about revealing her undocumented status. But then Trump was elected and rumors of DACA’s end began circulating.
“I decided that I have to fight for this,” she says. “Otherwise people will just assume it's solely a Latin American problem, when it’s really everyone’s issue.”
Bejko, Dhalla and Labno all say they often get comments from both opponents of immigration reform and pro-immigrant activists that being deported to Canada, Poland or Albania is not as bad as returning to countries that are experiencing conflict or extreme poverty.
FWD.us has itself been criticized for excluding many immigrants from its advocacy. Immigration activists, including writer Shaun Raviv in a column for The Atlantic, criticized the organization and Zuckerberg for having too narrow of a scope. Others have called out the organization for prioritizing high-skilled immigrants and those who would primarily benefit the tech industry.
Zuckerberg himself has acknowledged this criticism by responding to comments on his Facebook posts about immigration reform. He told commenters in 2013, the year FWD.us was founded, that he is interested in comprehensive immigration reform, not just “tech immigration.” Dhalla says the organization has evolved since they began work but that FWD.us has always pressed for “policies that keep our country competitive in a global economy, first related to immigration and now additionally through criminal justice reform efforts.”
“Inclusivity can be challenging within the immigrant space because when trying to advocate for one group, you’re alienating others,” says Mwewa Mwange of Undocublack, an advocacy group for undocumented black immigrants. Mwange is not her real family name — she asked that we not use her real name because of her immigration status. “By advocating just for DACA recipients or college students,” she says as an example, “you’re isolating those who may not fit the stereotype of an immigrant with exceptional academic or professional abilities.”
“FWD.us was created after [Zuckerberg] was teaching a class on entrepreneurship at an after-school program and realized that many of the students couldn't pursue a college education because of their undocumented status,” Dhalla says. “This has largely driven our work to advocate for an earned pathway to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.”
Which includes people from Europe and Canada.
“It’s still a complete uprooting of our lives no matter where we’re sent back to, and that can be traumatizing,” Dhalla says. “A lot of Dreamers who are now doctors or lawyers or other professionals — many of their licenses won’t transfer over, they don’t speak the language or don’t have any family there anymore. This has been their home most of their lives so, to them, they’re American.”
Dhalla and Bejko say that they are flexing their proximity to Capitol Hill to lobby Congress, visit elected officials and share their stories. Labno is also petitioning her representatives from Illinois to take action.
Until that day when Congress passes a bill that provides relief, Bejko says she’ll continue to use her voice to advocate for reform, and challenge racial bias directed at immigrant communities.
“That’s worth the risks of being visible,” she says. “Because there are many more Dreamers like me who don’t have that option. We’re in this together.”
From PRI's The World ©2017 PRI