As the executive director of Connecticut Students for a Dream, Lucas Codognolla is at the center of the maelstrom created when the president said he’s phase out DACA — the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals program — over the next six months.
Born in Minas Gerais, Brazil, Codognolla was brought to the United States with his family when he was 9 years old.
He grew up as an average American child in Connecticut and is a University of Connecticut grad. But President Donald Trump has put his future in this country on shaky ground.
Codognolla, 26, is one of about 10,000 Connecticut youth who benefited from the Obama-era DACA program.
That program gave undocumented youth who qualified protections from deportation and a work permit, renewable every two years, and allowed them to travel outside the United States under certain conditions.
Codognolla said he’s not surprised Trump has taken steps to end DACA and has instead told Congress it has the job of passing a law to protect undocumented youth who call themselves “dreamers.”
But it’s not clear this Congress will approve what the dreamers want – a bill called the DREAM Act that would protect dreamers and give them a path to citizenship.
There’s outrage that the president has put in peril 800,000 children who were brought to the United States by their parents and consider themselves American. Others say the president is right to do away with a program they say was imposed unconstitutionally.
Codognolla, a DACA recipient since 2012, spoke with the Connecticut Mirror about how a dreamer is handling an uncertain future.
Were you surprised by the president’s move?
To be completely honest with you, ever since the elections we’ve been anticipating a moment when he would have to take a decision on DACA. Through his campaign he flip-flopped a couple of times, saying he was going to take the program away and then he said he loved the dreamers and then he said again he was going to take the program away.
In the beginning of the year, there was a big scare that he was going to remove the DACA program though executive order, and there was a lot of pressure put on the administration for him to not take the program away. We kept the program safe until last Tuesday, because there was a lot of pressure from multiple sectors keeping us safe.
So, when the president came out and bent to conservative extremist demands to end the program, for me I just thought he was furthering an agenda based on hate, xenophobia and racism. I wasn’t surprised that he made the decision, but I was a little surprised that he made [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions make the announcement.
Do you think Trump will regret doing something he was apparently conflicted about?
He’s trying to recover from his actions already. He tweeted that if Congress doesn’t take action, he’ll revisit the issue. So, you see he did not really have an understanding of how this program actually impacts people and how this program actually works.
Do you have any faith in Congress, that it will move to protect the dreamers?
I do. I do have faith that Congress can pass something. My biggest concern is that whatever Congress passes could potentially hurt the broader undocumented community. Right now, undocumented youth are pushing for a clean DREAM bill, but we know there could potentially be negotiations happening regarding enforcement measures. So, my biggest concern is how this legislative fight could potentially harm the broader undocumented community — the community outside of dreamers — and it might make pushing for comprehensive immigration reform that much harder.
When did you find out you were undocumented? Was it something that surprised you at some point in life?
When we first came to the United States, we came with a tourist visa. I remember my parents having conversations about our visas expiring and our being undocumented. So, I knew we were undocumented, but I think it wasn’t until I got to high school that I understood what being undocumented meant.
And how did that affect you?
It was a pretty heavy time. Around when I turned 16 or 17 that was the time when you want to drive. And I set my parents down and said: ‘I want to get my permit.” And I was not able to. It was also the time when you start to take the PSAT’s and think about college and my parents also said ‘You will not be able to go to college.’ They did not know at that time that undocumented students were able to go to school. Also, I remember my school had a trip to China that I wanted to go on and I was not able to go. Lastly, my friend’s family was deported back to Brazil around that time.
So, when all those things happened at once I understood what being undocumented meant. If you look at my high school transcript you can see my grades dropped and I got a little bit depressed.
Why did your parents come to the United States?
We were extremely poor. We came for better opportunities. We came for better education. We came to start a clean slate for our family. My parents worked for over a decade to be able to emigrate to the United States.
You are the oldest of four siblings who came to the United States with your parents. What is the legal status of the other members of your family?
I’m the only undocumented person in my family at the moment. My family was able to legalize their status.
How did they do that?
Through an employment petition for my dad. When we came to this country in 2000, my dad’s employer – he worked at a construction company at the time – started a petition for him. At that time, there was a law that allowed undocumented people to adjust their status in the United States through an employment petition. They started their petition in 2000 or 2001 and my family finally got their green card in 2014. By the time they got their green card, I was already past 21 years old. So, I wasn’t able to adjust my status based on my dad’s petition.
The law that allowed immigrants to adjust their status while they are in this country is no longer available…
Right. It’s no longer available. So now if you are here in the United States as an illegal person, you are no longer able to adjust your status… That’s one of many examples of how the immigration system that we have is broken and has to be fixed.
How did you become involved in CT Students for a Dream?
I was recruited for one of the very first meetings. That was in the fall of 2010. I was entering into my first year at Norwalk Community College. I went to Norwalk Community College for two years, then I transferred to UConn-Stamford where I earned a political science degree.
Then you worked for an immigration lawyer for a while before becoming the head of CT Students for a Dream….
I did. I was a paralegal for an immigration lawyer for three years.
Have you been able to go back to Brazil since you and your family moved to Connecticut?
I was able to go back to Brazil last fall, though a process called advanced parole which was something you were able to get with DACA. You were able to travel outside the country for educational, humanitarian and employment reasons.
With the president’s announcement, that’s now gone, right?
Yes, that’s now gone. But I was able to travel to Brazil last fall to visit my grandfather who was extremely ill. He passed away two days after I came back. I was only there for a week and it was my first time back in Brazil in 16 years. It was an extremely overwhelming trip for multiple reasons. It’s been almost a year now since my trip and I feel I still haven’t processed everything.
Could you adjust to life in Brazil if you were deported?
It was amazing to connect with family and experience that culture. But could I be prepared to live in Brazil and be a productive citizen? I’m not sure. I think I would have a lot of struggle with that. I’m still fluent in Portuguese, but I’ve lost a lot of vocabulary.
If Congress doesn’t act, will dreamers go underground?
I don’t think we will. And I can tell you that I’m not. Ever since the DREAM Act fight in 2010 — and if you go back to 2006 when raids were happening across the country — dreamers have been up front about sharing their stories and really pushing the agenda forward. Fighting for our rights and the rights of our families. I think now we are going to double down on pressuring the administration first, but also pressuring Republicans and Democrats to stand with our community. It’s going to be counterproductive of us to go back into the shadows.
You say there are myths about dreamers…
Immigrants being criminals, immigrants mooching off the system… those are two myths that are really false. There are a lot a lot of studies that have shown that crime rates among undocumented people in general are much, much lower than native born citizens. And there’s another false assumption immigrants are eligible for a lot of public benefits, and that’s not true. Even with DACA we were not eligible for Obamacare, which is something a lot of people don’t know.
What Trump has been able to do, and what he’s been able to amplify is the sense of the ‘other,’ of the foreigner who has come in and taken your resources away. And that’s not true. But there’s a lot of fear. And our job, through sharing our stories, is to humanize the issue and combat that fear with stories of hope and stories that show we’re contributing to the economy. We want the country to be great for everybody. We’re the same as everyone. The only thing that separates us is a piece of paper.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.