Who Are the Dreamers? White, Black and Asian DACA Youth Explain Why Immigration Reform Matters

Gosia Labno remembers the night police suddenly turned up as she hung out with friends at a high school party. Panic immediately washed over her. 

Labno wasn't worried about getting a citation for underage drinking or being grounded. For her, the consequences were potentially far more serious. If police singled her out and asked for identification, she faced the possibility of being deported. 

Labno, a Polish national, is undocumented. But her worst fears weren't realized that night. 

"I think as a white girl I just got let off the hook...If I was Hispanic it could’ve been different," Labno tells Newsweek

Today, Labno is among the hundreds of thousands of "Dreamers" facing the prospect of leaving the only home they've ever really known after President Donald Trump moved to end DACA, the Obama-era program that protects people brought into the U.S. illegally as children from being deported. Approximately 800,000 people have been approved for DACA since it began and roughly 690,000 are currently enrolled in the program, according to the latest federal figures. They could all face deportation, regardless of their skin color or country of origin, if Congress doesn't take action before March, when Trump plans to begin phasing DACA's protections out

Labno might not be the person who police stop on the street and ask for documents, but she knows the fear of being forced from her home. Labno, now 25, came to the United States from Poland back in 2001 when she was nine years old. Her mother wanted to reunite with family already living in the U.S. 

They settled in Chicago, where Labno still lives today. For the most part, the assimilation process wasn't very difficult for her. She already spoke English and Chicago was a diverse place where immigrants were generally pretty welcome. Because of her pale skin, most people never considered the possibility of her being undocumented. 

"Friends would ask why you don’t have a state ID, why don’t you work, why don’t you have a job," Labno says. When she revealed her situation, she was often met with shock. People couldn't seem to wrap their head around the idea that white people can be undocumented, too.  

Labno doesn't describe herself as an activist, but became far more vocal on social media about her politics when Trump got elected. This led to backlash online. 

"The morning after Trump won the election I got so many tweets from random people that said, 'You’re going to get deported. You think you’re safe because you’re white, but you’re not,'" Labno says.

Labno can't imagine being sent back to Poland and hasn't prepared for the possibility whatsoever.  

"The only way to get me out of this country is to deport me -- I’m not going to self-deport. As cruel as this administration and country have been to [Dreamers], this is our home," she said.

"Dreamers" refers to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, but not all Dreamers are current DACA recipients. 

Dreamers get their name from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bill that aimed to grant legal status to young immigrants brought here illegally by their parents.

President Barack Obama wasn't able to push the DREAM Act through Congress, which ultimately prompted him to institute DACA via an executive action in 2012 after years of activists calling for greater civil rights for undocumented immigrants.

Along with preventing deportations, DACA also provides recipients with a work permit, allows them to enroll in college and to obtain valid driver's licenses. Recipients are able to apply for a renewal after two years. 

14_09_DACA_Obama Pedro Leon Martinez receives help from volunteer Maria Peralta in filing up his application for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program at Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles on August 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California. Getty Images

The vast majority of DACA recipients -- more than 618,000 -- have hailed from Mexico, according to the latest available figures. But roughly 200,000 come from everywhere from India to Jamaica, despite a national immigration debate that tends to focus on Latino immigrants. 

"I want to get up on the biggest microphone ever and say immigration is an issue that affects more than just Latinos...We come in all genders, all shapes and sizes," says Tony Choi, who was born in South Korea and now lives in New York City.

Choi, 28, moved to the U.S. in 1998 when he was nine. At the time, East Asia was crippled by a major economic crisis. Choi's family was among those hit the hardest. 

“My father owned a small business -- a lumber factory. With the financial crisis, we lost everything. We lost our business, we lost our home," Choi says. “I still remember coming home one day and seeing everything covered in pink stickers because the bank had foreclosed on our house."

The family moved in with his grandmother, who abused his mother. His father couldn't find work. It was humiliating. Soon, Choi's family packed up and moved to the U.S. to seek opportunity.

Choi's family first ended up in Hawaii. "I sat in school all day and stared out the window," Choi says. "I had no friends, it was very difficult. It was just me and my sister. My parents were out working all day."

Not long after moving to America, Choi's parents split up. Eventually, his family made to New Jesey, where the situation wasn't much better. Choi didn't know English and struggled to grasp American culture. At one point, a teacher ripped into him for not looking her in the eye. Choi was just trying to be polite. In Korea, making eye contact is rude.

17_09_Tony_Choi Tony Choi, 28, came to the U.S. from South Korea when he was 9-years-old. Tony Choi

DACA changed Choi's life. 

"I still remember getting [DACA]. It didn’t feel real that I got this document that said I had legal presence in America -- it was a huge relief," Choi says. "It felt that everything my family had worked for, all the challenges my mom, my sister and I went through, things were finally working.”

The day Trump's DACA decision was announced, Choi attended four separate rallies in New York City. "I turned on my battle mode," he says. "The constant rhetoric against immigrants and Asian-Americans sometimes make me feel that I don’t quite belong here. But, in my heart of hearts I feel that I belong [in America], with my friends, with my family, with the life I’ve built around me." 

Choi works for 18 Million Rising, an organization that focuses on empowering Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States.

The fact Choi is both employed and a DACA recipient is not unique. Roughly 91 percent of all DACA recipients collectively pay roughly $2 billion a year in taxes

"What is the argument for us to go back to the informal sector so the U.S. can never see the tax dollars from our work?" Choi says.

For Choi, going to back to South Korea would also mean having to join the military, where 21 months of service is mandatory for all males between the ages of 18 and 35.

Choi is openly gay and same-sex activity is a crime in the South Korean military. In recent months, the South Korean military has arrested dozens of gay soldiers in what human rights groups have referred to as a "gay witch-hunt." Choi doesn't want to get caught up in this. “I’m really afraid of what might happen," he says. 

To convince lawmakers to save DACA, Choi contends there needs to be increased awareness about how diverse Dreamers are. He's concerned people don't realize how many people and groups are impacted by Trump's decision.  

Asian immigrants account for an estimated 1.6 million of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S, according to a University of California, Riverside project called AAPI Data. Meanwhile, there are roughly 575,000 black undocumented immigrants in the U.S., according to a report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and the NYU School of Law. In all, black immigrants make up around 7.2 percent of the noncitizen population in the U.S., but comprise 20.3 percent of immigrants facing deportation before the Executive Office for Immigration Review on criminal grounds, according to the BAJI report. 

Joel Sati, 24, came to the U.S. from Kenya when he was 9-years-old. With few opportunities in Kenya, Sati's mother decided to move the family to the U.S. in 2002. At his school in Maryland, the other children had a certain idea of what being from an African country meant and he was often bullied. 

"There still is an underrepresentation of black undocumented immigrant stories," he says.

15_09_Joel_Sati Joel Sati, 24, a Dreamer who came to the U.S. from Kenya when he was 9-years-old in 2002. Joel Sati

Sati is now a grad student at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studies jurisprudence and social policy. He doesn't consider America his home, in part because he says he never truly felt welcome. "I have built a life here, but there are also aspects of my experience that make it apparent that I’m a stranger here," Sati says. 

For Sati, who's been a DACA recipient since 2012, the concept of moving back to Kenya is so foreign he says he can't bring himself to even think about it. He might not feel accepted by America, but that doesn't mean he looks to his country of birth as home. This is where the community he's built around him lives -- and he doesnt want to leave them. 

14_09_DACA_immigrants_Trump_Mexico Young immigrants and supporters walk holding signs during a rally in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in Los Angeles, California on September 1, 2017. Getty Images

For Bartosz Kumor, having white skin helped make for an easier tranistion to the U.S. He moved from Poland in 1994 with his grandmother when he was 10. They were reuniting with other family members already living here. G.I. Joe and Nintendo quickly became staples of his childhood. In the summer, he visited amusement parks. 

Kumor, 33, now lives in Detroit. He knows his life in the U.S. has been easy, despite not having legal status, in part because he is white. 

"People of color, particularly black and brown people, face challenges from our legal system, from the enforcement of our immigration laws, from ICE, that I don’t face. Whether it is profiling or legal protections, I simply don’t face the same challenges," he says.

Kumor lived in the U.S. legally for a long period, primarily on a student visa, but that expired when he finished law school. He was ultimately able to apply for DACA and was accepted, which meant he regained legal status.  

He said he can barely fathom what it would mean to lose legal status in the U.S. and have to go back to Poland. 

"Almost every friend I have, almost every person I deeply care about, lives here. My entire career is here...I can’t imagine my life anywhere but here. This is home," he says.