By LISA OKAMOTO
On Sept. 5, 2017, President Trump announced the rescission of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, also known as DACA. DACA is an Obama-era program that allowed for undocumented young people to apply for work permits without the threat of being deported if they were brought to the United States as children before 2007.
DACA recipients, also known as Dreamers or the “DACAmented,” are one of the most sympathetic groups of immigrants to the mainstream because they did not make the choice to come here to the United States. Most of the time, their parents made the decision to come here and to bring their children with them. While the support for Dreamers is currently overflowing, many shift the blame to their parents. “You can’t punish the kids when the parents broke the law.”
I challenge all of us, especially the Nikkei community, to step away from that narrative.
For the past couple of years, I have been representing undocumented children in deportation proceedings. I currently work at a nonprofit law firm that largely serves the Latinx population. (“Latinx” is a gender-neutral term used within the community in place of “Latino” or “Latina.”) I have also met and worked with many DACAmented folks. As a Shin-Nisei, I am often asked why I got into immigration law and why I got into the type of law the Nikkei community is often not exposed to.
The short answer is that it was all serendipitous. I happen to speak Spanish and I graduated law school at a time when there was a surge of children fleeing violence from Central America and placed in deportation proceedings.
Why do I still continue to do this work? There lies my longer answer. My parents are immigrants from Japan. I was born just a year after their arrival. The resources they had and their journey here were completely different from many, and they had an abundance of privilege most families do not have. But I grew up watching my parents, especially my mother, sacrifice everything to make sure that my siblings and I had access to everything in the United States that they did not.
My mom came here when she was in her early 20s and spoke little to no English. She came here because of my father’s work and got thrown into raising three toddlers in a foreign country. Everything she did was for us, to the point where when I asked her how she felt when raising us as babies, she answered, “I have no idea. I think I blacked out during that entire time.”
There was never a doubt in my mind that my parents did everything they could to make sure we felt like we lacked nothing. Despite that, I also grew up watching my mother beating herself up for not understanding something because of language and cultural barriers and feeling like she wasn’t doing enough for us. I saw other mothers like her, mothers of my other Latinx and API friends in the San Gabriel Valley, feeling isolated as non-English speakers and not being taken seriously by others because of their foreign-sounding English.
As I talk to my clients and my DACAmented colleagues, the story that gets repeated over and over again is this same sacrifice that parents make for their children. They battle with the stigma about their decision to come here, that it is criminal in nature. Almost always, the parents had no other choice but to flee their home country and come here to survive. At times, the relationship between the DACAmented folks and their parents can be complicated, as some experience trauma when they discover their legal status later in life. But it is not our position as Nikkei to judge the parents. It is a delicate family issue and we, as allies, should not insert our judgments into their private lives.
We as Nikkei must find compassion for these parents. Somewhere down our family line, we had a family member that took a risk to come here, banking on the dream that life would be better here for themselves and their children. Similar to our history, the Latinx community have been jerked around by constant changes to their legal status. Most of us were born to parents who would do anything for us.
I continue to do this work and stand alongside the immigrants’ rights movement because I think of what my mom and dad went through for me. My clients and my friends know what their parents went through for them. They want to make sure they can do what it takes to take care of their parents. All I want to do is to help in some way so that people don’t feel isolated and “less than” because of the decisions they took to survive. No child, including Dreamers, would want their parents to feel that way. We shouldn’t make them feel like that either.
Lisa Okamoto is the managing attorney of the Children Representation Project at Immigration Defenders Law Center. She writes from Montebello.