For years, Paul’s friends didn’t know he was an undocumented immigrant.
His family moved to Racine when he was 7 years old. He graduated with honors from . He drives a car and has a job. He’ll start taking classes at Gateway Technical College as a freshman this fall, then transfer to a four-year college and eventually continue his college education until he becomes a psychologist.
People who know his story call him a Dream Act Dreamer or just Dreamer, which means his immigrant parents brought him into the United States illegally when he was a child.
Paul is one of 300 people who came to the Racine Labor Center on Tuesday to learn more about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and fill out an application. One of his brothers, him and two of his cousins qualify for DACA, which provides protection from deportation, a work permit and the opportunity to get a driver’s license. But other family members don’t qualify because the program only allows people under the age of 31 to apply.
"You grow up in a society and act the same as everyone else, then you get to the point where that just stops and you think — rejection," Paul said. "But now that is changing."
Being an undocumented and illegal immigrant without a Social Security number, a work permit or a driver’s license has been a challenge. He can't qualify for scholarships or grants, can’t legally drive, can’t legally get a job to pay for school and even if he could pay for school, he still couldn’t legally get a job after graduation — until now, thanks to DACA.
Kate Werning is a Youth Organizer for Voces de la Frontera — an immigrant and worker rights center in southeastern Wisconsin — as well as its student-lead group, Youth Empowered in the Struggle, which focuses on immigration reform. She said the DACA program is a temporary fix that can be rescinded at any time.
"The program protects students from deportation actions, but it’s not a road to citizenship," said Werning. "Still, it was a process we celebrated because we had been asking Obama to have this for over a year-and-a-half now."
Paul believes it’s a good first step because the program allows him to get a work permit and a driver’s license. Being a member of YES, Paul has been a part of protests in Washington DC and in Racine. He's fought to have the Dream Act, which would have promised a path to citizenship.
"But this is one of the biggest things we could have gotten, other than the Dream Act, which we fought really hard for," Paul said.
For Paul, the DACA program is as close to citizenship as you can get because it unlocks his future, one that he could have only obtained illegally by using someone else's Social Security number. Ninety-nine percent of the Dreamers Paul knows currently are using or have used someone else's Social Security number to work, including him, he said.
"If I ever get caught with that, that’s a problem," Paul said. "You can’t get a permanent job with benefits if you don’t have a Social Security number, and then you have to work through temp agencies."
Initially, Paul worked at a local factory through a temporary agency and, when they wanted to hire him on a permanent basis, they couldn't because his Social Security number didn't match his name — and they had to let him go. He then worked with another temporary agency at another local factory and they, too, wanted to hire him full-time, but he didn't go to the job interview because they also used E-Verify, a Social Security number verification system.
"I lost all of that and it was kind of a setback, but that’s why I’m involved with this group," Paul said ,referring to YES. "That’s why this is a really big accomplishment for us."
Having been rejected for jobs, Paul said he’s often felt unwanted by society. He didn’t ask to be brought to the United States, he said. Still, he thinks of himself as an American, and now he feels as if he’s gotten the golden ticket to his future — sort of.
"It’s everything we need to be successful in the U.S., you know?" he said with a smile. "What more do we need than to be able to work legally and have a driver’s license and have a work permit?"
But the application can be revoked at any time and because Paul isn't a citizen he can't vote for the politicians he believes will support the continuation of the program. He’ll find out in December if he's been accepted into the program. Meanwhile, he’ll continue to work with YES in their effort to get others to vote.
"This is one of the years where we have to work the hardest to keep this law in the system," Paul said.