Why we need to keep fighting for Dreamers, for STEM’s sake

At age 15, my mother immigrated from Matamoros, Mexico to Brownsville, Texas with her mother, a working class woman with little secondary education. My mother overcame many barriers to earn a degree in chemical engineering, work as a chemist, and become a U.S. citizen at age 40. She inspired me and my sister to study science and engineering; now, I am a Biology PhD student and my sister recently graduated with a Mechanical Engineering degree. I recognize the opportunity our U.S. citizenship grants us, and how easily a different immigration policy would have altered my grandmother and mother’s path.

Our STEM success story and that of countless other scientists and engineers in this country would not have been possible in a world with restrictive and exclusionary immigration policies. Today, there’s a generation of immigrants who have lived in the U.S. since childhood and only know this country as home, yet current immigration laws and policy do not offer them a feasible opportunity to obtain citizenship. Through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, thousands of these Dreamers were able to pursue studies in STEM and succeed in these fields. Yet even the DACA program, never a permanent or perfect solution for Dreamers, is in jeopardy. Here I explain why advocating for Dreamers is a STEM responsibility.

DACA, Diversity, and Inclusion in STEM

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an executive action put in place by the previous Administration in 2012, was life changing for undocumented immigrant youth. The DACA program allows hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrant youth to receive temporary work permits and a two-year reprieve from the threat of deportation. To become a DACA recipient, individuals must meet several requirements with regard to age and time of immigration, and must pass a background check. Nearly 1.2 million undocumented youth were immediately eligible for DACA as of 2013, and nearly 800,000 applications for DACA were accepted as of 2017.

The DACA program was an important step to open up opportunities in STEM and medicine for nearly a million young people raised and educated in the U.S.

The DACA program was an important step to open up opportunities in STEM and medicine for nearly a million young people raised and educated in the U.S. One survey of DACA recipients showed that 30% of respondents began postsecondary education after receiving DACA and the largest percent of survey respondents envisioned a STEM career. A separate survey of undocumented undergraduates showed that more than 28% are currently pursuing a STEM degree. Dreamers are engineers, medical school students, and PhD candidates. Ending their ability to get an education and work in this country as productive members of the community is not only unjust but self-defeating.

Notably, of DACA recipients surveyed in 2015, over 90% identified as Hispanic/Latinx, with origins from 19 countries. People from Latinx and Hispanic backgrounds are severely underrepresented in STEM fields in the U.S. People from Hispanic backgrounds are 16% of the US population, but earn less than 10% of the bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences, biological sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics. These statistics are even worse for Hispanic women, who in 2014 earned less than 1.79% of the total bachelor’s degrees earned in computer science, 2.08% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, and 3.33% in the physical sciences. We need to recognize that those enrolled or eligible for DACA are young people who may be interested in becoming STEM professionals, but face a tremendous barrier.

To practice what we preach about diversifying STEM, we must advocate on behalf of Dreamers. We must firmly support the legislative solution that offers them a pathway to citizenship: the DREAM Act.

STEM Voices in the Border Security and Immigration Debate

In today’s political climate, advocacy for a legislative solution for Dreamers is intertwined with debate about security measures for the U.S. border with Mexico — including the proposed construction of a physical southern border wall and the actual implementation of a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ that has caused the family separation crisis.

However, the reality at the southern border does not warrant the multibillion dollars to construct a border wall or the hard-stop denial of entry to Latin American asylum seekers. In 2017, the Department of Homeland Security reported an estimate of illegal entries below 200,000 individuals, the lowest number since 2000 and likely since the early 1970s. Less than 0.1% of total migrants apprehended are affiliated with gangs, and while drug cartels are a border security concern, street gangs like MS-13 will not be affected by border policy. Despite the rhetoric, no southern border communities appear in the list of top 100 most dangerous cities, a rating based on FBI data. Brownsville, Texas, my birthplace and still the home of my grandmother, is not in crisis.

As the Administration’s southern border policies have made national news, scientists have spoken up in opposition. Scientists have expressed concern about the border wall’s threat to biodiversity and environmental disruption. Psychologists quickly denounced family separation. Women scientists called on us to recognize that suffering migrant families are not data points.

As a Latina scientist with roots in the Rio Grande Valley, I am grateful for these voices from the STEM community who speak up in defense of Latin American immigrants and the southwest’s ecological integrity. But I also believe we must do more for the immigrants already trying to make their lives in the U.S.

What we must do

The STEM community, privileged with higher education and technical expertise, can and must do more to push for a clean DREAM Act.

Geologists and civil engineers must speak out about the impracticality of border wall construction in the southwest terrain and floodplains. Experts in technology and engineering fields must weigh in on alternative plans for border security that employ sensor technology to monitor drug cartels, like the SMART Proposal sponsored by U.S. House representatives from border districts. We all must insist that intensifying deporations, cracking down on “sanctuary cities,” and restrictive immigration policies do not address legitimate security needs and are not in line with our values. If you have the privilege of U.S. citizenship, I implore you to vote this November and in every election thereafter for leaders who support Dreamers. At your institutions and in your local communities, work to change unjust policies that prevent Dreamers from pursuing education and careers.

Our most important message must be that we emphatically and wholeheartedly support a path to citizenship for Dreamers. Such legislation will open the doors for hundred of thousands of young people to pursue higher education and careers in STEM, largely from populations that are presently underrepresented in STEM. We support them, and we want to welcome them into STEM with no barriers to their dreams.

An earlier version of this article was published by 500 Women Scientists.

Jewel Tomasula
Jewel Tomasula

Jewel Tomasula is a Biology PhD student at Georgetown University, researching ecological resilience in the salt marsh system. She is a member of 500 Women Scientists. Though she was raised as a Texan, she has made herself at home in the Washington, DC area. Read more from Jewel on Twitter (@JewelTomasula) or on her blog, jeweltheecologist.weebly.com.

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