Indira Islas and her family typically spend the 4th of July just like most Americans. Independence Day cookouts and fireworks have been familiar and comfortable experiences for Islas ever since her family immigrated from Mexico to Gainesville in 2004.
Islas is one of over half a million beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which grants immigrants brought to the U.S. as children rights to work, study and live in the country on a renewable permit — a group that has come to be known as “dreamers.” A recent Supreme Court decision upheld DACA — preventing the Trump administration’s attempt to dismantle the program — and while Islas said the decision brought some immediate relief to her and her family, she believes it is far from the ultimate solution that she and other dreamers around the country are hoping for.
“Once this country realizes what we have to give, I hope that they will give us the opportunity to be fully part of it, as in being able to vote and be citizens,” she said. “I think one day we’ll be able to say that we are citizens of this country, acknowledged by everyone here without there being controversy.”
In many ways, Islas has been able to live the American dream her parents wanted for her when they decided to come to Gainesville more than 15 years ago.
Though she did not speak any English at the time, Islas said her family emphasized the importance of education to her from the get-go, enrolling her in kindergarten at Riverbend Elementary shortly after arriving in the U.S. School and overcoming the language barrier were difficult for Islas, but the constant support of her parents kept her motivated.
“I remember my mom coming to eat with me pretty often at school, which is something that wasn’t seen so often,” she said. “I didn’t see that with a lot of my classmates. So that showed me that my parents wanted to be involved, and they always pushed me to be better in school. That’s what kind of started my want to excel in school. I knew it was going to be the best way that I could give back to my parents.”
Islas grew to excel in her classes, and after graduating from Gainesville High School she received a scholarship from TheDream.Us, an organization offering financial aid to dreamers who wish to pursue higher education. She chose to attend Delaware State University because of the school’s diversity and its proximity to Washington D.C., Baltimore and other nearby areas that she felt would provide her with the best opportunities for her future.
Islas graduated earlier this summer, and while her graduation had to happen at her Gainesville home rather than in Delaware due to precautions related to COVID-19, she said the experience was incredibly special for her and her family.
“Just holding the degree in my hand is still kind of unbelievable,” she said. “It’s kind of the American dream that my family and I were striving for. Although it’s only the beginning, it feels like an accomplishment for our entire family.”
Islas now plans to pursue a master’s in public health, and after that she wants to go to medical school to become a doctor. Yet despite all the positive experiences she’s had as a dreamer, uncertainty has continued to follow Islas and her family from the moment she arrived in Gainesville.
For now, the upholding of DACA keeps them safe from deportation. But unless more legislation is passed allowing the Islas family to earn permanent citizenship, she will always carry with her the fear that at any moment the government may take away the lives her family members have struggled to build in the U.S.
But that anxiety is nothing new for Islas and her family. It’s simply another uncertainty keeping dreamers like Islas from feeling truly free on Independence Day.
“Just imagine what it feels like in this pandemic, with so much uncertainty, not knowing what the future is going to be like,” she said. “That’s what we’ve been feeling our whole lives in this country, is not knowing what’s going to happen. We have to live with that.
“I hope that people can relate to that.”