Keep DACA and the Dreamers. They'll Make America Even Greater

The following article appeared Dec. 18, 2017, in USA Today.

I came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant. My parents, brother and I fled Cuba for refuge in Miami when I was 8. We were able to bring $300, a change of clothes and lived in a one-bedroom apartment with six other people. We ate at a refugee center and learned English by immersion.

Today, I am a U.S. citizen, a university professor, the president of my professional organization and the head of a clinic that serves disadvantaged people in Wilmington, N.C.

Because of my personal experience, I am convinced that repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, would be detrimental to the future of our nation. I hope Congress can reach a bipartisan resolution to this matter by the end of the year.

If Congress authorizes the DREAM Act, a group of immigrants who came to the United States as children would be able to earn lawful permanent residence and, eventually, U.S. citizenship, if they meet certain requirements. Most immigrants who are eligible for the DREAM Act are studious, law-abiding individuals. If these young people are forced to leave the U.S., we will lose many talented individuals who might otherwise make substantive contributions to American society. If uprooted from the country that is now their home, these Dreamers — who are now our neighbors and friends — are likely to face financial and personal hardships, which pose significant harm to their physical and mental health.

We psychologists know from our research that separating families, through deportation or other means, is detrimental to people’s mental health and can be especially problematic for children. Psychological research shows that immigrants who fear deportation are much more vulnerable to heart disease, asthma, diabetes, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Furthermore, in one study, more than 75% of adolescent immigrants reported being separated from one or both parents for six months to 10 years. The longer the period of separation, the more likely they were to report symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

Scientific research also reveals that clandestine entry into the United States increases the risk of trauma and subsequent development of post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in foreign-born adolescents and their parents. Symptoms of psychological trauma decreased by half when parents were granted amnesty under DACA.

As psychologists, we have serious concerns about sending young immigrants back to dangerous and unstable conditions in their home countries when many Dreamers came to the U.S. to escape those very surroundings. Furthermore, many of these young people have no recollection of, or connection with, their country of origin. The DREAM Act is not a free pass to U.S. citizenship. To be eligible for the DREAM Act, individuals must meet specific requirements, such as at least two years of military service; graduation from a college or university or completion of two years of a bachelor’s or higher degree program in the United States; or at least three years of employment. Dreamers must also demonstrate an ability to read, write and speak English, and an understanding of American history. They must pass a background check, undergo a biometric and medical exam, and demonstrate “good moral character” by avoiding felony or misdemeanor convictions. 

These are requirements that many current U.S. citizens could not meet.

This country offered me amazing opportunities, for which I am indebted and most grateful. Had I been forced as a young adult to return to Cuba, I strongly doubt that I would have been as successful and have contributed to our society as I have. Today’s Dreamers deserve the same chances. If Congress does not pass the DREAM Act, America will lose this pool of untapped talent and extinguish the hope — and possibly the spirit — of tens of thousands of immigrants who are already contributing in meaningful ways to our society.

Antonio E. Puente is president of the American Psychological Association and professor of neuropsychology at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.