Cruel and unusual punishment: A personal reflection on the DACA decision

Yesterday, 800,000 dreams were shattered as the Republican administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. This is a cruel and unusual punishment for young people who have not committed any crimes, often don’t know any other country but the United States, and want to stay here to contribute to our society and economy.

As I watched the news unfold, I was reminded of the time when I too was an undocumented migrant, a visa overstayer who sought refuge in the United States because the political situation in my native Poland became untenable as martial law was declared, Solidarity activists put in internment camps, academic freedoms curtailed, and college professors required to sign an oath of loyalty to the communist regime.

In the early 1980s, the Regan administration provided Poles with a port in this political storm by granting us—even those who were undocumented–extended voluntary departure (EVD). Poles were not the only recipients of EVD. The United States granted extended voluntary departure to Ugandans who were here during Idi Amin’s bloody last days and the Iranian students in colleges across the country when the Ayatollah came to power. Over the years, the same safe haven was provided to other nationalities, too – Cubans, Czechs, Chileans, Ethiopians, Nicaraguans, and Afghans. These past actions fly in the face of the current administration’s assertion that DACA is unconstitutional. Nobody was accusing President Regan or Bush of passing unconstitutional protection to those who needed it badly.

The EVD, like DACA, was not an amnesty. In fact, many of the Polish recipients of EVD did not qualify for the amnesty that arrived in the form of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. We were not here long enough to meet the eligibility criteria.

The EVD was a welcomed but a temporary measure. Just like DACA recipients, we had to reapply for the status when the provision was extended. I remember that it was costly and required the assistance of an immigration lawyer. I also had to use the assistance of an immigration lawyer every time I wanted to travel abroad for work. He skillfully prepared numerous advance parole applications so I could do research on Hungarian refugees fleeing Ceausescu’s Romania or Germans leaving the DDR for the West or simply give papers or represent the Refugee Policy Group (RPG) at international conferences and safely return to my adopted homeland.

Indeed, the work permit was the major benefit of the EVD. We all wanted to work, no matter what. Despite arriving in the U.S. with a Ph.D., I started like many other immigrants, working my way up from a job selling baby clothes in a department store to a research associate, civil servant in the U.S. federal government, and finally research professor at Georgetown University.

I count my many blessings! I had the support of my U.S.-born cousin and her husband who housed and fed me until I became financially independent. I had a boss, Susan Martin, who knew more about immigration law than my lawyer. Susan and the Refugee Policy Group sponsored me for my green card using the now extinct sixth category preference for distinguished artists and highly skilled professionals. I got my green card using the same immigration provision Mikhail Baryshnikov utilized. Sadly, the DACAmented do not have the same avenue available to them.

My undocumented life was not easy, but it was greatly aided by the fact that I was a young white woman. White privilege coupled with a lot less xenophobia than today, made my American dream a reality.

I am writing this blog this morning not to boast about my accomplishments, but to encourage young DREAMERS to persist and persevere against all odds. I pledge to support undocumented students on the Georgetown campus and beyond. I will continue to attend rallies and donate to legal organizations representing DREAMERS. As a DC resident, I do not have a representative in Congress who can cast a vote when a bipartisan effort to protect DACA recipients is launched, but I will urge my friends and colleagues in all states in the U.S. to exert pressure on their representatives. I urge all of you to do the same! The DREAMERS deserve to stay. Period.

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