The Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, turned 20 this March. It was launched in 2003, right around the time I moved to the United States from the Philippines at age 6. I didn’t yet know the impact this gargantuan department would have on my life.
I loved my life as a new American. I learned English quickly, read TIME magazine for kids, and embraced my new red, white, and blue terrain. In those early post-9/11 years, I even shared the belief that strict immigration enforcement was necessary to protect our country from outside “Others.”
It hadn’t occurred to me then that, as a child whose family overstayed a tourist visa, I was one of those “Others” too. But gradually, that became all too clear.
As I grew up, I watched news of ICE raiding homes and separating families that looked a lot like mine. While my classmates traveled abroad for summer vacation, I stayed tucked away in my family’s Chicago apartment. Afraid of coming face-to-face with police or immigration authorities, I started to fear all authority figures — even my school principals.
But after 10 years of this, a new window opened: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an Obama administration policy to help Dreamers like me stay in the country legally. I studied the qualifications and meticulously compared them to my life story. I checked all the boxes. I applied right away.
In the decade since, I’ve seen both the bad and good of U.S. immigration policy.
On the one hand, I felt a sense of belonging among the 600,000 Dreamers who qualified for the program. I relished being able to drive a car and work a job as soon as I could.
As a high schooler I committed my life to learning, telling my story, and advocating for immigrants. I even got to tell a packed audience at the 2013 National Immigrant Justice Center Human Rights Awards, including members of Congress and Supreme Court judges, that DACA changes lives for the better.
On the other hand, DACA wasn’t as secure as we’d hoped.
When Trump was elected during my first semester of college, all I could focus on was my fear that ICE would take me away — especially when Trump rescinded DACA in 2017. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that Trump didn’t end the program correctly, but DACA still faces legal jeopardy.
Meanwhile, Dreamers must renew our DACA status, pay a hefty application fee every two years, and keep a squeaky clean record. We can only travel abroad for education, work, or the death of a loved one.
Amid this insecurity, I’ve seen so much promise for a better system.
When Trump established the Muslim travel ban, thousands of protesters roared across cities and airports. Coalitions like the Defund Hate Campaign have blocked nearly $12 billion and counting of federal funding to ICE and CBP, calling to reinvest those funds in vital programs for communities.
The vast majority of Americans continue to support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Still, our country has funneled $1.4 trillion into DHS in these past two decades. Over that time, 5 million people have been deported. Countless others have been raided, assaulted, and imprisoned just for trying to escape war, poverty, or climate chaos.
Twenty years after the launch of DHS, what does security mean for the land of the free — and for a country of immigrants? Does it mean the gut-wrenching horrors of detention and deportation, or a path to lawful residency or citizenship?
This country deserves an immigration policy that makes us all feel secure. I’m a Dreamer whose only dream is to not be bound by walls, cages, or borders. I want to exist freely — not have my right to live equated to my immigration status.