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A year after deferred action, Dreamers change their lives, and the immigration debate

Jose Aguiluz was stuck.

When he was a young boy, Aguiluz was in a car crash in his native Honduras. He was so impressed by the care that the nurses gave him that since that very moment he dreamed of one day becoming a nurse himself. But his status as an undocumented immigrant stopped him short of pursuing a career in nursing. All of that changed on June 15, 2012.

Aguiluz is one of 291,000 immigrants who are temporarily safe from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that President Obama announced last June. The program allows undocumented people brought to the country at a young age to get a social security number, driver’s license, and work permit.

As the program reaches its one-year anniversary this Saturday, Aguiluz doesn’t hesitate to explain how much his life has changed.

“I had graduated with my Associates Degree in nursing in December 2011, but I couldn’t continue because of my status. I couldn’t get a work permit and I couldn’t afford to continue my education,” he recalls.

Aguiluz, who was fifteen years old when he first came to the United States, instead found himself doing electrical work. Once President Obama announced DACA, Aguiluz could follow his dreams without fears of deportation.

Making the personal political 

As the Senate officially began its debate on comprehensive immigration reform this week, both Dreamers and political scientists alike agree that young immigrants like Aguiluz  have been instrumental in bringing the issue to the forefront.

Gabriel Sanchez, Director of Research for Latino Decisions and political scientist at the University of New Mexico, says that DACA gave the comprehensive immigration reform bill the momentum to get to the Senate one year later.

“What the Dreamers have really done is get a major policy victory that folks pushing for reform really needed. It’s a powerful element,” he says.

A key role of the increasingly vocal young immigrants has been  making the personal political in a whole new way. The Dreamers have put some of the most intimate moments of their lives out on display for the public to see.

Political scientist Cristina Beltrán, associate professor of social and cultural analysis and the director of Latino Studies at New York University, says Dreamers have single-handedly changed the narrative around immigration.

“One of the most exciting aspects of the immigration debate has been the role that immigrants themselves are playing in shaping the debate. We didn’t see that back in 06 and other times where immigration was debated,” says Beltrán, who has written a book on Latino politics. “Dreamers have been a critical component of that and changed the way reform looks.”

RELATED: Dreamers come of age: a bolder, more inclusive agenda

Earlier this week, a group of undocumented immigrants videotaped and invited the press to an emotional border reunion between deported mothers and their children. On Thursday, a group of Dreamers headed to Capitol Hill in graduation gowns, attempting to speak to members of Congress and push reform.

But Myrna Orozco, a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant who came to the United States from Mexico when she was four years old, says it hasn’t always been easy to have her personal life take center stage.

‘”It was scary to come out and say ‘yeah I’m undocumented’ to the entire world,” she recalls. “But it’s so empowering when I see Dreamers younger than me do the same thing. It shows how far we’ve come.”

Orozco, who is also the field manager of the largest immigrant youth led organization in the country, United We Dream, believes that their tactics have thus far been successful.

“Our role is one of finding and changing the narrative of how people view immigrants. We want to show America what real immigration reform looks like,” Orozco says. “Coming together to share our stories was something that people told us wasn’t possible- that we could not do it. But we turned around and we did it.”

According to Sanchez, Dreamers have put a face to what used to be an abstract debate.

“They have put a very human element to this whole policy debate. They symbolize that they’re young people and didn’t consciously choose to enter the country illegally,” he explains.

Making demands 

Dreamers, says NYU’s Beltrán, are unlike other mainstream immigrant groups in one way: challenging politicians.

“The fact that they were willing to confront President Obama about this the summer before an election, that is pretty crucial,” she says.

Since the election, Dreamers have continued pressure on both Congress and the White House alike. Dozens of Dreamers visited the White House last week to call for a pathway of return for deported family members. Earlier this week United We Dream took to Capitol Hill and paid visits to Speaker Boehner and Rep. Steve King’s office in graduation cap and gowns.

RELATED: Rep. Steve King tweets “brazen illegal aliens” invaded his office

Julieta Garibay, legislative affairs associate with United We Dream, says that many immigrants are not willing to push politicians who have already supported them.

“So many times people say ‘the president did this for us, we should just be greatful,’ But in reality dreamers are still being deported,” she says. “Senator Rubio is Latino and part of the Gang of Eight, but one day he says hes going to support the bill, another day he says he’s not. We’re willing to call him out and ask him to stop flip flopping.”

RELATED: Does Marco Rubio support his own immigration bill

New challenges

As the Gang of Eight bill is debated on the Senate floor, the challenge for Dreamers is to stay as involved, says Beltrán.

“Once a social movement moves into the legislative phase, you’re dealing with representatives speaking on everybody else’s behalf,” she explains.

If immigration legislation fails and the deferred action program is cancelled by the next president, Dreamers could once again face deportation. Deferred action has already faced opposition from some House Republicans. Iowa Republican Congressman Steve King introduced an amendment last week to strip DACA; it was passed 224-201 last Thursday, though it is not expected to become law.

Still, Dreamers like Aguiluz are hopeful that they will be able to stay in the country- this time permanently.

“I am worried about it, but I have high hopes that immigration reform will pass and that we can finally have the stability of actually knowing we can stay,” he says.

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