Opinions

Why failing to protect Dreamers harms all Alaskans

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As a Lower 48 transplant who took a position in Anchorage teaching clinical community psychology four years ago, I’ve come to admire the Alaskan spirit: People are fiercely independent, yet they stick together and help their neighbors. However, when an important segment of society is denied basic American rights and protections, that spirit — and our community well-being — suffers.

Dreamers are young immigrant adults who came here as children — at age six on average. They’ve grown up in Alaska neighborhoods alongside our own children, attended our public schools and have contributed to the growth of our economy, especially as frontline workers during the pandemic. They’re Americans in nearly every way; in fact, about one-quarter of Dreamers nationally are parents to at least one U.S.-born child.

Yet these 1.2 million American residents are by no means treated as equals. They’re ineligible for permanent residency or citizenship and can’t join the military or vote. In Alaska, they can’t receive their share of the Permanent Fund dividend.

That’s not only unfair to them — but also to the communities and employers who rely on their contributions. That’s why I’m calling on Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan to support the Dream and Promise Act that would give Dreamers a long-awaited pathway to citizenship. The bill already passed in the House of Representatives. If the Senate can get behind it, we can finally give Dreamers the security they’ve waited their lives for.

Dreamers live in cruel legal limbo. About half have temporary security through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But they must renew their visas every two years, and any bureaucratic delay could make them vulnerable to deportation. They also know the program could disappear in a heartbeat. Just two years ago, its legality was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In my research, I’ve studied the psychological harm of living with the threat of deportation. Living with this lingering threat takes an unbearable toll, leading to anxiety, depression, and nightmares. Dreamers often feel “stuck,” unable to move forward with the milestones we take for granted — college degrees, marriages, home ownership.

Fewer than 1000 Dreamers are estimated to live in Alaska, so their plight is often thought of as a Lower 48 issue. But these young adults live in communities with families and vast social networks; there’s a good chance you know a Dreamer. Their constant anxiety and instability take a toll on our communities. Alaska is small, and we depend on everyone here. When one of us lives with insecurity, the ripple effect is tremendous.

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Never mind the fact that threatening these workers with deportation makes no economic sense given our state’s record worker shortages. That includes our dire need for health care workers. Some 62,000 Dreamers work nationally as nurses, nursing assistants and home health aides, according to New American Economy. Sensible immigration reform would give them permanent legal status to answer the call and invest in careers that benefit us all.

Forcibly removing Dreamers from the only home they’ve ever known is unthinkable. I don’t know any Alaskans who would tolerate such unfairness. But Congress’ refusal to fix this problem grows more shocking — and frankly absurd — as time ticks by. Through inaction, we’re teaching our children that allowing a two-class society is somehow okay.

Worse, it goes against everything Alaska stands for. We can’t afford to turn our backs on Dreamers when we finally have a chance to do right by them. Senate, please show some leadership and do the right thing.

Sara Buckingham, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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