Living the Dream

In 2000 when Lucas Codognolla was 9, he immigrated with his family from Pocos De Caldas, Brazil, to Connecticut. He adjusted well to his new surroundings; in fact he thrived here, excelling academically and later becoming class president while at West Hill High School in Stamford. But when Codognolla began to think about going to college, maybe at an Ivy League school, he got a cold splash of reality.

Codognolla, now 23, and his family were undocumented immigrants. Although Codognolla had always been vaguely aware of that fact, he didn’t fully understand its implications until that point.

“When you go through elementary school, middle school it’s all fine. [The problems start] once you get to high school and you start talking about getting a driver’s license or start talking about college,” he says. “At that point my parents sat down and told me I couldn’t go to college because I didn’t’ have a social security card.”

Today, Codognolla is one of more than 3,400 undocumented immigrants in Connecticut benefiting from a policy instituted by the Obama administration in 2012 known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The policy allows immigrants like Codognolla, who were brought here when they were children, to apply for employment authorization and a two-year reprieve from deportation. The program was enacted in 2012 after the DREAM Act failed to pass through Congress. Though it provides some of the same benefits to undocumented immigrants who arrived as children as the DREAM Act would have, DACA is not nearly as sweeping, nor as permanent as an act of Congress would have been. Additionally, DACA does not grant those here illegally actual legal status, it only grants a reprieve from prosecution.

“DACA is simply an act of prosecutorial discretion on the part of Department of Homeland Security,” explains Sr. Mary Ellen Burns, attorney and director of Apostle Immigrant Services, a New Haven nonprofit that provides legal services and education to immigrants. She adds prosecutorial discretion is a standard part of the federal and state legal system. “For example, a city’s parking patrol can’t be at all the streets all the time making sure everybody has put their money in the meter. So they have to, in a sense, exercise discretion by deciding which streets to patrol. The same is true of prosecutors­—they don’t throw the book at every single person they can because they don’t have the resources to do that.”

DACA is a formalized version of that process and legal principle, and although it affords many advantages to undocumented immigrants who arrived as children, Burns points out that it has some serious limitations. “Because DACA is an exercise of executive discretion, it’s a matter of agency policy, so it’s a policy that could be reversed at anytime,” she says. “I don’t think any administration of either party would renege on a grant of deferred action that had already been given. But it could not be renewed should the party in control of the White House, or should the person in control of the White House, decide to change it.”

Even still, many like Codognolla have benefited from the policy. Codognolla remembers hearing about it at 7 a.m. the day the Obama administration announced it and applying shortly thereafter. It was a big moment when his application was accepted.

“I was able to get my driver’s license and able to get a credit card. It was a really positive thing for a lot of youth—we were able to fully contribute to the economy, to our communities, etc.,” he says. He adds the reprieve from deportation provides huge psychological relief. “We don’t live in fear anymore.”

Codognolla and others like him throughout the country played a significant role in getting the policy enacted. After Codognolla’s parents told him he couldn’t attend college, he learned from a high school guidance counselor that they were (happily) wrong. Codognolla could attend college, it just wouldn’t be easy. Because of his undocumented status Codognolla was ineligible for federal student loans, which ruled out traveling and living on campus at an expensive college outside of Connecticut.

Instead, he attended Norwalk Community College, a more affordable option even though at the time he was required to pay out-of-state tuition. He went on to graduate from UConn Stamford and currently works as a paralegal for a Stamford law firm. At Norwalk Community College, he got involved with Connecticut Students for a Dream, a nonprofit organization that was then lobbying for the DREAM Act. Codognolla currently serves as the lead coordinator for the group.

Working with Connecticut Students for a Dream, Codognolla met others with similar backgrounds including Carolina Bortolleto (right), who co-founded the group, which is the Connecticut branch of a national organization. Bortolleto is also a successful DACA applicant; she now works guiding others through the process at the Hispanic Center of Greater Danbury. Since starting the job (which is the first she was able to hold because of her undocumented status), she has screened 50 DACA applicants and helped complete about 20 applications. Like others, she acknowledges the benefits DACA affords, but believes it is too limited in its scope.

“Only a small number of people are able to qualify. I know many high school youth who arrived after the June 2007 cutoff and so are not able to benefit from DACA,” she says. “Further, our parents and families are not able to qualify and still live in fear.”

That last point is increasingly a focus of the youth immigration movement that initially pushed for DACA. There has been speculation that the Obama administration will expand DACA to offer the same protection to a variety of immigrants who currently do not qualify.

Whatever the future holds, young immigrants like Bortolleto and Codognolla believe their voices can be heard.

“If the DACA victory has shown the immigrant youth movement one thing, it’s that we do have the power to make our voices heard and affect real change in policy,” Bortolleto says. “Now that the youth movement won relief for undocumented youth, we are continuing to build the pressure to demand that President Obama expand DACA to our families.”

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