NEW YORK ― On June 15, 2012, President Barack Obama established the landmark Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provided a lifeline for a portion of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. as children.
It was also a compromise, implemented after Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act in 2010, which would have guaranteed much broader protections for Dreamers, including a path to citizenship. DACA’s fate has been turbulent, particularly under Obama’s successor, President Donald Trump, who attempted to end DACA in 2017, as part of his administration’s racist and anti-immigrant policies. The program has remained intact after surviving several court challenges, including a 2020 Supreme Court decision determining the Trump administration wrongly ended DACA. On day 1 of his presidency in 2021, President Joe Biden launched an effort to preserve the program. However, last summer, a federal judge ruled DACA was illegal and barred the Biden administration from accepting new applicants, plunging its fate into further limbo.
While the program has continued to provide relief and safety for the more than 600,000 current DACA recipients, they’ve had to live through a decade of highs and lows. To mark DACA’s 10th anniversary and reflect on the unfinished political fight, Obama and a panel of five DACA recipients and young leaders held a discussion, released Wednesday by the Obama Foundation and filmed in late May at New World Stages in New York.
That setting added an extra layer of significance to the conversation, which HuffPost attended. The group convened on the stage where the new musical “¡Americano!” is running through June 19. It tells the story of Dreamer and political organizer Tony Valdovinos, one of the participants in the discussion. In setting the context for the group’s conversation, the former president underscored the vital role DACA recipients’ personal stories have played in advocating for political change.
“None of that would have happened had it not been for a bunch of young people at that time, who, at great risk to themselves, were willing to announce their status,” Obama said. “The courage to tell your stories is what led people to understand just how unfair the status quo was and why we need to change. And so, I think my main message on this 10th anniversary is just to thank you and the hundreds of thousands that you represent, because had it not been for your courage and example that you set, we might not have gotten this done, or got the ball as far down the field as we had.”
Many of them brought up how DACA itself gave them the security to tell their stories ― and, in turn, pursue opportunities that could help others. Valdovinos noted how being a DACA recipient allowed him to get his first jobs as a political organizer and then “push harder for what we were originally fighting for, which is the freedom to exist in this country and have opportunities,” he told Obama.
Josue de Paz, the CEO and co-founder of First Tech Fund, a technology non-profit, described how DACA meant being able to think “beyond just today and thinking about, you know, ‘Am I going to be safe? Is my mom gonna be safe?’” Prior to DACA, “I didn’t have space to hope for the future. I didn’t have space to hope for: ‘What can I do for the community?’” he said.
Similarly, Sumbul Siddiqui, a medical student at Loyola University Chicago, said DACA has given her the peace of mind to “think about your studies, and we’ll take care of the rest.”
She recounted the loneliness she felt prior to DACA in 2011, when she graduated from high school. “I was just learning about my immigration status, and I didn’t know that there was anyone else out there like me. So it was a very, very depressing time,” she said, describing how she had to enroll in college as an international student, despite not being one. “Now that I’m looking back, I’m a different person because of DACA. I am where I am now because of DACA and all the people who’ve been advocating for us. I’m not alone. I was in 2011, but now I’m open.”
Siddiqui also referenced the “roller coaster” of watching DACA’s political and legal fate hang in the balance over the last few years. It’s an uncertainty with which Devashish Basnet is also intimately familiar, explaining he was in high school during the 2016 election and early years of the Trump presidency.
“It’s a really strange feeling that anyone that’s not a DACA recipient could have some difficulty understanding. The news notifications tell you that the future of DACA is at stake, and the future of your status in this country is at stake,” said Basnet, who just graduated from Hunter College and was named a Rhodes Scholar, with plans to pursue a masters’ degree in refugee and forced migration studies at Oxford. “Juggling college applications and checking your phone to see if your status is going to be the same is a harrowing kind of experience. When I think about the mobilizing and what that did for me, I think DACA gave me the opportunity to advocate for myself, because as much as mobilizing and organizing is critical, it’s about changing hearts and minds.”
At the same time, Basnet noted being an advocate is a delicate balance. DACA recipients have had to be public advocates while also personally advocating for their own family’s basic survival.
“It’s a really interesting experience to grow up being an advocate, whether for yourself or for your parents,” Basnet said. “We all serve as second translators, and I think all of us understood immigration policy more than young students should have.”
Jessica Astudillo’s early experiences of having to be a translator for her parents helped shape her path toward becoming a doctor and taught her how to be resourceful. “Part of the reason why I got into healthcare was because I was that person at seven, eight years of age trying to translate medical terminology for my parents,” said Astudillo, a resident physician in pediatrics at NYU Langone. “Even now, you know, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to help a couple of my family members obtain citizenship. Obviously, I’m not a lawyer, but I know how to find the answers. I think that’s something important that even now, as a physician, I might not know everything. I absolutely don’t know everything. But I can figure it out, and I know where to look.”
In framing the discussion, Obama also referenced the challenge of balancing the benefits and burdens of advocacy. “I wish I could say that you don’t have to be courageous anymore, and you can just focus on a different kind of courage: All the good work you guys are doing in the community. But this is something that we’re still gonna have to keep on advocating for,” he told the group, noting that the fight is unfinished.
In response, Valdovinos had a question for the former president. “What do we do next? We lost a lot of steam, watching Congress vote down the DREAM Act, and obviously, you left office, and other folks took office, and here we are now,” he said. “Ultimately, I think a lot of Dreamers really lost the unity of working with each other for a solution. So I guess my question is: How do you advise us to continue organizing?”
“I spend most of my time now working with young people like yourselves because it’s my view that on a whole spectrum of issues, it’s your voices that are going to come up with a solution. My generation, I think, moved forward on some fronts, but have stalled, as you said, on others,” Obama told Valdovinos. “One thing I’ve learned with young people, they can sniff out if somebody’s BSing them.”
Obama went on to cite the power of “storytelling, whether it’s through plays or movies or articles or books or TikTok — I mean, whatever it is, right?” he said. “It puts a human face on the issue in a way that it’s harder to not do the right thing.”
But he also acknowledged how much the country has changed politically in the last decade, and the uphill battle Dreamers continue to face. “We’re at a moment in time where the political gears are stuck,” he said. “And it’s gonna take some work for us to unstick ’em.”
Later, Valdovinos said Obama’s answer to his question, as well as the discussion itself, was sobering. It was also a full-circle moment for him personally, and a realization that his outlook has changed too, as he recalled in a phone interview from his office in Phoenix, where he is the founder of La Machine, a political consulting firm.
Early in his career, Valdovinos met Obama briefly at a rally in 2012. “We asked him for help on how to organize. And he told us to organize, organize, organize, and that really, just for me, tremendously made a difference. And then, to be an adult and not be a 22-year-old, to be 31 and sitting there in front of him, was very different,” he said. “It was tough to hear his story on immigration, and it was tough to realize that we’re in a tougher moment. And I think all the hopefulness and eagerness of organizing in your 20s wears up when you become an adult. And the world feels very differently, looks very differently and the road looks longer.”
“I’m actually looking at one of his stickers I still have to this day,” he continued, referring to Obama’s famous “HOPE” campaign poster, designed by Shepard Fairey. Today, Valdovinos said, that youthful sense of hope has now turned into a hardened “resilience.”
“When I first joined organizing, I legitimately believed as a young adult that we were going to see this country move forward, that the DREAM Act was going to be passed, that we were going to be able to earn citizenship through military service or academic achievements. And then, none of that happened,” he said. “You talk to me today, the objectives are different, the future is different. And I don’t think it has anything really to do with feeling hopeful. I think it has everything to do with resilience, and ultimately sharing our stories, our stories of contribution in this country and fighting back the narratives from our former president that put a very negative light on our communities. And I think that’s what I do. I try and share our culture, our story, our commitment.”
As portrayed in “¡Americano!,” Valdovinos’ childhood dream was joining the Marines. When he turned 18 and went to enlist, he found out he was an undocumented immigrant, forcing him to redirect his dream into a different path. Finding a mentor in Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), a Marine veteran whom he helped elect to Congress, Valdovinos realized he could serve his country on the political battlefield instead. As founder of La Machine, he has run various campaigns in Arizona. For example, La Machine recently helped elect Yassamin Ansari, the first Iranian American to be an elected official in Arizona’s history, and the youngest woman ever elected to Phoenix’s city council.
“I’ve really enjoyed creating new opportunities and showing communities that we can be represented, that we can have a voice,” he said.
For years, Valdovinos has told his story as an organizer and advocate, and helped others craft their stories for voters. In an unexpected turn of events, his organizing career is also what led to a new chapter of telling his story: A musical based on his life. One of the musical’s co-writers, Jonathan Rosenberg, heard Valdovinos on NPR, talking about his work organizing Latino voters during the 2016 election. Compelled by his story, Rosenberg reached out to Valdovinos and then brought the idea to Michael Barnard, the artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre Company. Over the next several years, a team of collaborators developed “¡Americano!,” which premiered in Phoenix in early 2020, before its current run in New York.
Valdovinos, who consulted on the production, describes it as a tale of “realities and circumstances and choices,” as well as a love story about the Marines, public service and what it means to be an American. The team behind the musical hopes it will head to Broadway next, particularly as one of the few major productions with a predominantly Latinx cast. Valdovinos said he’s particularly proud the musical reflects “just the honest human experience, and it’s not a Disney story.”
Like the discussion between Obama and the DACA recipients, the musical is also sobering at times. Toward the end, actor Sean Ewing, who plays Valdovinos, reminds the audience of the jeopardy that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. continue to face every day.
While Valdovinos is excited about the musical’s success and hopes it will continue to reach new audiences, he noted that “ultimately, it’s based off of a reality politically, which is that there’s a significant amount of human beings in this country that are stuck, that are in danger, or hiding, or whatever — it’s so many different stories.”
“One of my only hopes is to humanize, honestly, our contribution in this country, because it has been very brutal to be seen as a negative addition in this country,” he said. “For me, being an American is doing what you can for this country, and being the best you can for your community. And that’s been my life’s pursuit.”