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'US immigration system is broken'

Interview: Helena KaschelJuly 19, 2016

Donald Trump's controversial comments about undocumented immigrants have spread fear among people like 24-year-old PhD student Saba Nafees, who has been living in the US without legal permission since she was a child.

Saba Nafees
Image: Privat

DW: Recently the tone around immigration has become very coarse. Have you experienced hostility for being undocumented?

Saba Nafees: A while ago, I spoke to a Republican congressman who is adamantly against Obama's immigration policy. We got into this amazing conversation about science and technology. At the end, I told him: "By the way, I'm undocumented and I hope that leaders like you can make the change that will benefit millions of young people like me." His demeanor changed 180 degrees. A minute ago, he had been amazed by what I was doing, had asked me a million questions, had been so excited about my research, and all of a sudden his face was full of contempt.

I used to let prejudiced opinions get to me when I was younger and I thought this problem was restricted to me and my family. But then I realized that it's a huge issue, that people are talking about it and that there might be some hope. That's when I became more mature about it and decided I wanted to help others understand.

Many undocumented immigrants keep their status a secret for fear of being deported. How present has that fear been in your life?

That fear was always there. My family rarely traveled - we were too afraid we would run into a border protection patrol or other authorities. We didn't and really don't talk much about what had happened to our immigration status. But the problem with not talking about these things is that you don't meet other people who've gone through the same thing. I had no one to ask about college.

In 2012, someone went to Immigration Customs Enforcement and told them about my family's undocumented status. It was the most terrible thing that could have happened to us. We could have continued living in the shadows until Obama's executive order came out. Now my parents are in removal proceedings and could be sent back.

You and your family entered the US from Pakistan legally with a visa in 2004. How did you end up being unauthorized?

My grandparents sponsored us. They were US citizens, they owned a business, they gave back to the economy, they were just full-on Americans. We were only a couple of years away from getting our Green Card when they passed away, leaving us undocumented. My father was faced with the decision of taking all of us back to live in a place that was being bombed or letting us stay.

Demonstrators protest against a Supreme Court decision outside New York's Supreme Court
The latest Supreme Court decision could separate millions of immigrant familiesImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Altaffer

How restricted did you feel in your daily life growing up as an undocumented teen in Texas?

It really hit me hard when I got to high school. I realized I didn't have the same rights as my friends, that I couldn't get a drivers license, I wouldn't be able to apply for colleges as easily, I wouldn't be able to get scholarships, I wouldn't be able to get federal financial aid. Every part of my life was restricted. My father worked really, really hard. He went from being a corporate executive for Lufthansa to making minimum wage. It was very difficult to make ends meet.

Many undocumented students face barriers when it comes to higher education. How was your experience applying for college?

I was lucky because the state of Texas allows undocumented kids to attend college and pay in-state tuition rather than high international student fees. I had good grades and the university offered me a lot of help.

But administrators wouldn't know what to do with us and would put us in an international students category. When I was in grad school teaching undergrads, they made me take an English language test, they made me go through this horrendous interview and read out a paragraph to see if my accent was good enough to teach. They were very sympathetic about it and said there was just no infrastructure for people like me and they were simply following the rules, but I still felt humiliated.

Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy saved you from being deported in 2012. So far, the program has supported 1,4 million young undocumented immigrants. What impact has that policy had on your life?

When DACA came out, I was finally able to earn my own money and get a drivers license. Before, I would have to ask friends for rides home since my university is five hours away from where my parents live. I would often camp out at school when I wouldn't have a ride home, and I would think to myself: "What did I do to deserve this? All I want to do is give back to this country that has been my home for half my life." But even if DACA has been great, I don't think it's the answer. It's more like a temporary band-aid.

Why do you feel DACA isn't a permanent solution?

DACA allows me to travel internationally, but if you're unlucky, you can go through a lot of harassment when re-entering the US. One time I was traveling back from a conference in Ireland and they almost didn't let me come back. Also, your DACA is only valid for two years and in order to renew it you have to apply months before it expires. The first time I went through this process, many young people didn't receive renewals in time. I lost my job at the university and had to ask my older siblings for money. That process made most of us realize this can't be a permanent solution.

If DACA isn't the answer, what change would you like to see?

I think comprehensive immigration reform just needs to be passed. It would allow millions of people to pursue citizenship. If it doesn't pass, we will continue to live this way. For me, it's really scary to think about what could happen if Mr. Trump becomes president, if he really does mean everything he's been saying.

How do you feel the public discussion on immigration has changed since you came to the US?

I feel it's become more of a sensitive topic recently, especially with the political climate right now. Many Americans don't have an international perspective. I don't think it's okay for a globally leading country to be ignorant of world politics. The argument is: "If you're going to come here, you should do it the right way."

But America's immigration system is broken, so the right way has become an impossible way. Sometimes you don't have the time to pursue the right way when you have a young child and you're trying to run away from violence or persecution or terrorism or trafficking.