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‘It’s crushing’: A D.C. college student from Guyana worries about the end of immigration program for ‘dreamers’

Sadhana Singh is a senior at Trinity Washington University. She was born in Guyana and moved to the United States as a teenager.  (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Sadhana Singh didn’t go to the rally at the White House Tuesday; she was studying before class.

But it was hard to concentrate, with all the messages she was getting from professors and friends wondering if President Trump would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, wondering if she would be able to legally finish her college degree or if she could be deported.

“I have been bracing myself,” she said Tuesday. “I always thought it would be canceled.”

But when she heard the attorney general actually make the announcement, she said, “It was crushing. Because they put an end date on it.”

Trump administration announces end of immigration protection program for ‘dreamers’

Singh is one of more than 100 students at Trinity Washington University with provisional legal status through DACA. They now make up about 10 percent of the private school’s enrollment — enough to have a profound impact on campus culture. The 31-year-old senior is part of the first group that will graduate in spring.

For Trinity’s president, Patricia McGuire, the decision to be one of the schools partnering with TheDream.US scholarship program was an easy one, a moral imperative. “It is so consistent with our mission,” she said. “Real Catholic social justice.” And despite the expense, it has benefited the school. “They are extraordinary, outstanding students,” she said. “Almost all are on the dean’s list, very practical and very motivated.”

She said from a conference of Catholic University leaders Tuesday that they were all outraged. “To use these young people as pawns in a political game with Congress is reprehensible. … There’s nothing about this that we believe reflects American values.”

But for many of those worried about the impacts of illegal immigration, DACA was never legal because it was enacted by President Barack Obama by executive action, and it creates a loophole that could worsen the problem of illegal immigration with a clear incentive for coming to the United States. If the students were able to become U.S. citizens, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration, “then they would petition for their parents, and there’s no numerical limit.”

Key GOP senator claims DACA is a pathway to citizenship

As activists, lawmakers and attorneys prepared to fight, Singh kept preparing for her French and Energy and International Affairs classes that afternoon. “I’m overwhelmed,” she said, “by all the feelings streaming in.”

It had been such a long journey to college.

When the tourist visa her parents had to visit the United States expired, she knew. At 13, she took care of a lot of paperwork for the family, because of her parents’ lack of education. And so, even as she marveled at the scale and expanse of everything in the United States — the highways, the stores, the possibilities all so much more vast than anything at home in Guyana — she worried.

But they stayed.

And the longer they stayed, the more she learned about the promise of this place. “I came to America, and this whole world opened to me that I never saw before,” she said. “All these opportunities — all these things.”

No one knew her secret in the small town in Georgia where they settled. The thing she wanted most, she said, was just to blend in, to be American. She faked a local accent. She picked an American-sounding name and told everyone to just call her Ashley.

She loved reading and writing and learning. She worked hard, becoming one of the top students in her class. She dreamed of college. But while her classmates ticked off milestones — learner’s permit, driver’s license, college applications — she just kept pretending to fit in.

After graduation, Singh finally told a few friends that she was not in the country legally, and one of their parents hired her. Her father, who had been a chauffeur in Guyana and kept his international driver’s license, drove her to work. At the end of the day, he drove her home.

She felt as though she were looking through glass at everyone else traveling and learning and starting exciting new careers, while she stood still. For nine years.

“I felt so left behind and so repressed,” she said. “I couldn’t move on to achieve any of my goals, my dreams.”

She questioned why her parents had left Guyana, and she thought about going back there herself, even though it seemed entirely foreign to her. In her family’s culture there, she wouldn’t be expected to continue her education, either. But at least she would be there legally. She could drive, do things, travel without fear.

Then the DACA program was created. She applied immediately — it seemed too good to be true. And a co-worker told her about a new scholarship he had heard about on the radio.

“It was incredible,” she said. “It was a salvation.”

With a TheDream.US National Scholarship, she came to Trinity, one of the program’s partner schools.

She was 28 years old and a college freshman. “I was 18 again,” she said. “Everything excited me — the cafeteria, walking around campus, my dorm. I embraced the experience of being a normal college student.”

Calculus tripped her up a little. But her other classes she found easier than she had expected; she had read so much in her years out of school that she hadn’t fallen too far behind.

Her parents had been hesitant about college — it wasn’t something they had thought much about. They needed her income, and they were surprised to think of her moving out of their home. But then they saw how happy she was and began to understand that she was doing this to help the whole family, by opening up much greater opportunities for herself.

This past year, she had to stop following the news so closely: All the political campaign rhetoric about cracking down on illegal immigration and ending the DACA program made her so anxious it was hard to concentrate on studying. “The fear was very real to me,” she said, “knowing I had come so far and achieved so much and it was all going to be taken away from me in an instant.”

She has DACA protection until October 2018, so she hopes to be able to graduate. Even if she had to leave the country to work, she would be grateful to have her degree. Knowing now that she has six months gives her time to plan, she said, although she has no idea what she’ll do. And she has little confidence that Congress will be able to help.

As she watched the attorney general Tuesday, she had a sudden urge to scream at him.  “The constitutional overreach, the politics of the situation. … It’s human beings that are involved.”

As she heard from friends worried about how they would support their families, she thought about how many people were affected, vastly more than the hundreds of thousands of beneficiaries of DACA. “It was really devastating now to pull the rug [out] from … under us.”

“We’re all thinking about someone else more than we’re thinking about ourselves,” she said. She was most upset for her brother, who has been able to work at Home Depot after getting DACA status. Her parents depend on his income as well. The program has changed all of their lives, she said.

“It pulled us into American society,” she said. “We were there all along — but we couldn’t participate.”