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Isabel Johnston, Law Student and Dreamer, Shares Her Story

On September 5, 2017 President Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, the immigration policy that allowed minors who illegally entered or remained in the US to receive deferment from deportation, as well as eligibility for work permits. The rescission was delayed six months to allow Congress to work out a resolution.

Isabel JohnstonThe young people affected by DACA are called “Dreamers,” and their fate is uncertain. As they have increasing reason to worry that they may be soon forced out of the country, most keep secret their identities as Dreamers.

Some Dreamers, however, have spoken out with the hope that sharing their stories will dispel the myths surrounding the immigration issue. Isabel Johnston, a first-year law student, is one such Dreamer.

Johnston’s father was the first in her immediate family to travel from Peru to the states. After eight months apart, the rest of the family flew in to join him.

Johnston, who was six at the time, recalls, “There was this long hallway, and my dad’s at the end of it, and I’m with my mom and my siblings. He gets down on one knee and opens his arms for us to run into them.

I looked up to my mom, because I didn’t know who he was. My dad [had been] a big guy. I thought it was my uncle who looks like my dad but is much thinner. My dad had been working three jobs, sleeping two hours, and not actually eating anything. I didn’t recognize him.”

Despite this initial shock, Johnston and her family settled in. They first lived in Florence, Kentucky, but later moved to Texas for two years. When she was 15, Johnston’s parents sat her down and informed her that they were undocumented immigrants and explained the legal implications. Johnston says, “I [already] knew we weren’t citizens and that my parents didn’t vote. I didn't know what being undocumented meant. All I really knew was that it was bad and ugly and shameful.” They instructed her not to share this information with her siblings – or anyone.

Johnston was worried and disheartened. She knew that her family came from Peru, but she had not previously felt like a foreigner. She notes, “we were well integrated, I think. I don’t have an accent.” Johnston recalls classmates, unaware of her immigration status, making occasional green card jokes, but she maintains that she fit in with her peers.

Her first major complication came when she was in high school and wanted to sign up for college courses. She needed to fill out forms that asked for a social security number. Confused, she came to realize that she did not have one. Her instructors did not know what to do. Eventually, she found out that she could use her father’s Tax ID, but the episode stirred her. “I was embarrassed, really.”

Things got worse as friends started getting their first jobs and drivers’ licenses. “I just told people that my parents were strict and wouldn’t let me drive, which was only partially true.” The family’s undocumented status remained a secret to her peers the whole time.

But, notably, not a secret to the government. Like many migrants, the Johnstons came on tourist visas and overstayed them. They have paid taxes from day one. “The government has always known that we’re here,” states Johnston. Of paying taxes she notes, “we don’t get anything from it. We’re never going to see any of that money.”

The situation looked up with DACA’s passage. During her senior year of high school, Johnston got a work permit, a driver's license, and a social security number. She saw doors opening to her that she previously could not have counted on.

She graduated from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. There, she completed a self-designed program of study that focused on social justice issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. While in college, johnston began to share her status with her closest friends, feeling safe under the protection of DACA.

After college, she came here to Cincinnati Law. This fall semester, she was in class when she learned about DACA’s rescission. She saw reports on social media and saw she had messages on her family’s group-text. She remembers, “my dad had opened with ‘don’t worry, you guys are safe right now.’” Johnston's immediate reaction was to cry--for herself, her family, and the hundreds of thousands of other young people affected by the decision.  Then she got to work, researching the issue to better understand what the future had in store for Dreamers.

Around this time, an immigration lawyer from Kentucky with whom Johnston had previously worked, contacted her and encouraged her to speak to a local news outlet about DACA. She thought, “no way my parents want me to do that.” They had always kept their identity secret.

But when Johnston mentioned to her father that she had been contacted by the news, he encouraged her to consider it. “My mind was blown,” she said. “We’ve been talking about the situation in a very different way than we would have before. I’ve been sharing my story and doing a lot more publicly.”

Coming out this way was not easy. Her decision initially left her mother worried, and her brother upset. Her father and sister, however, were supportive from the start. Johnston says they want her to “make sure that my message is clear and that there’s no confusion about what DACA is or was and what we’re looking for in the future.”

Johnston continues to be open about her status as a Dreamer. "Not only have I been open about my status, but I have been actively trying to make change," she said. (She plans to focus on human rights and immigration law as a career.) "I was interviewed on Fox19, I have spoken on immigration and Dreamer panels, and I have become more involved in the UC community. In October, I travelled to DC with and over 100 other DACA recipients from 25 states to meet with our members of Congress. I shared my story with Senator Portman, KY Representatives Barr and Yarmuth, and staff of other members. I was empowered through this experience by making connections with so many other people in the same situation—something I have never been able to do before.

"I am continuously educating my peers and fighting for immigrants. Next summer, I will be returning to DC for an internship at an immigration firm which focuses on asylum work. In addition to working with HRQ, I am the 1L rep for Latino Law Student Association and have helped to create informative material to share with others at the law school, so they too can participate in this fight."


Writer: Pete Mills