Sioux Falls Dreamer urges Congress to extend DACA protections
Katherine Escalante grew up as undocumented immigrant but now is a thriving college student.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The window is very small.
Backers of a immigration reform in the United States are focused on protecting the beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program before the new Congress is seated in January.
Katherine Escalante is accustomed to crawling through small windows.
Escalante, who grew up in Sioux Falls, was among about 300 so-called Dreamers who descended on the nation’s capitol recently hoping to sway lawmakers to take action during the lame-duck session of Congress.
Born in El Salvador, Escalante’s family brought her to South Dakota when she was 4 years old. She attended Cleveland Elementary, Whittier Middle and Washington High schools.
Growing up as an undocumented immigrant, life was uncertain and at times frightening. She couldn’t get a job or a driver’s license, couldn’t tell any but her closest friends about her tenuous status.
“I grew up with a firm understanding of what it meant to be undocumented,” Escalante said during an interview with Forum News Service.
The DACA program, implemented by the Obama administration in 2012, held the potential to change that. But in 2017, a month shy of her 15th birthday and eligibility for protection, the Trump administration ended the policy.
That window closed.
A series of court rulings in 2020, however, opened it again, though just briefly, and Escalante leapt through.
The timing was divine as the fresh high school graduate, then 18 years old, contemplated how to continue her education, key to plans for realizing the immigrant dream of college, and beyond. Without a visa, there’s no in-state tuition and financial aid is a near impossibility.
DACA changed her life completely.
“I have been able to do so much because I had that protection,” she said. “I am incredibly lucky. I have been on both sides of being included by a couple weeks and excluded by a couple weeks.”
During the fly-in event, Dreamers and their supporters met with as many members of Congress or their staff.
Escalante said she was able to meet with staff for Sen. Mike Rounds and Rep. Dusty Johnson, both Republicans from South Dakota.
Both Rounds and Johnson told Forum News Service that any move to extend DACA protection would need to come with additional reforms and tightening of security at the Mexican border.
“I have supported appropriate DACA legislation in the past when combined with additional border security,” Rounds said in a statement. “I intend to continue to pursue improvements in our legal immigration system. It must be in combination with creating strong border security.”
Johnson said he’s open to solutions on the issue.
“It’s near impossible to imagine any meaningful work visa, immigration, or DACA proposal advancing as long as this (Biden) administration allows two million people a year to illegally cross the border,” he said.
Escalante’s story is familiar to Taneeza Islam, executive director at South Dakota Voices for Peace in Sioux Falls.
Islam’s organization advocates for immigrants and refugees in the state, including assisting with pathways to resident status and citizenship.
While not working directly on the current DACA push, Islam said Dreamers such as Escalante are woven into the community.
“Some of them are nurses, some of them have opened their own hair salons, some of them are teachers in our school district,” she said. “They want to work. This is the only home they know. They were brought here when they were kids. Going back to their parent’s home country would be like dropping them off on the moon.
“I don’t know why people don’t understand that, but they don’t.”
Now 20 years old, Escalante attends Eastern Connecticut State University, which participates in a program that provides access and financial support to Dreamers to attend college. Covered by DACA, Escalante was able to have her first internship, get a real job and her first-ever paycheck.
“I stopped just short of framing it,” she said.
Escalante is studying political science and philosophy at Eastern Connecticut. Career and life opportunities are opening up that wouldn’t have been possible without the DACA status and she’s energized by the stories she’s heard about fellow Dreamers achievements.
“We don’t exist in a vacuum,” she said. “We are positive assets to our communities. The people I’ve become acquainted with are resilient and hardworking, incredible people with incredible stories.”