Coronavirus, unemployment, DACA: A ‘Dreamer’ graduates into an especially uncertain world

If it was a normal graduation, Indira Islas may have been speaking from a podium. She’d probably feel her parents watching her, but their faces would blur in the crowd.

But the world is not normal. So Islas sits on her living room couch on a Saturday afternoon in Gainesville, Georgia, and practices her speech. Her family is in the next room because she doesn’t want to feel them watching her, get nervous and mess up. She’s about to give the commencement speech she’s practiced for weeks, including the part where she always gets stuck.

Islas is a 2020 graduate of Delaware State University. She’s one of seven children. She sneaks past campus security to study in the lab after hours, and she’ll go out and get fast food with her friends at 2 a.m.

She’s a “Dreamer.”

Islas is one of more than 600 students graduating from universities who received help from TheDream.US, the nation’s biggest college scholarship provider for immigrants brought to the USA illegally as children. She was chosen to speak at their virtual commencement.

TheDream.US students have faced more hardship than the average graduate. They’re graduating into what might be the worst economy since the Depression, just like everyone else. But they also have to worry about their lives being ripped away at any moment.

Indira Islas, a Dreamer whose parents fled violence in Mexico, graduated from Delaware State University.

Indira Islas, a Dreamer whose parents fled violence in Mexico, graduated from Delaware State University.Handout

Across the country, nearly 650,000 people wait for the Supreme Court to decide whether they will continue to receive temporary protection from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or risk losing their jobs or even deportation. A decision is likely by the end of June.

Islas wants to attend medical school to become a doctor like her parents. Before her family fled violence in Mexico, her parents were the only doctors in town. Their house doubled as a clinic, so any time a patient came in, Islas got a front row seat.

One of her favorite photos is from when she was only a few years old: She’s sitting on a folding table with her dad’s white coat lying on a chair next to her. She’s fiddling with his stethoscope, curious to figure out how it works.

Ever since, she’s wanted to be like them.

“I want to continue the dream that my parents couldn’t continue,” she said.

Islas has spent most of her life in Georgia, a state that doesn’t allow in-state college tuition for DACA recipients, commonly referred to as “Dreamers.” Before she learned about TheDream.US, she had gathered just enough scholarship money to attend community college for a year. 

That first walk through the DSU campus was the first time she felt like she belonged. She met Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who said the state was thrilled to have her. She met other DACA recipients attending DSU – sitting with them in the lounge was the first time she felt comfortable enough to tell a group of strangers her life story.

On Nov. 8, 2016, she cried in that same lounge with her friends after learning the country had elected a president who wanted to deport them. She said she remembers trying to study her algebra textbook through the tears.

When she was a sophomore, Islas’ dad was threatened with deportation. She still thinks about sitting on a courtroom bench with her siblings hearing the news. She remembers returning to school and how her calculus professor hugged her until she stopped crying.

Her family fought for her dad to stay in the USA, but his fate could change at any time. For now, he sits in the living room in Georgia, watching his daughter, beaming.

Islas reads over her speech one last time before the real thing. She makes sure she has the Zoom link ready so she’s on time. 

She knows that within a few days, her life could be upended. But she feels OK. Better than that – she feels proud that she’s made it this far. She takes a deep breath.

“Good afternoon, friends, family and class of 2020,” she begins. “We finally made it.”

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