A congressional delegation comprised of U.S. Representatives Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala, Democrats from Florida, along with their Texas colleagues Joaquín Castro and Sylvia García, on Tuesday visited the temporary shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in Homestead, Florida – the largest and now only facility in the country housing migrant youth. They called the experience “chilling” and decried it as having a “prison-like feeling.”
The legislators call for the facility to shut down, similar to what happened to one in Texas that was shuttered after protests.
Shalala, Health and Human Services secretary during the Clinton administration and former University of Miami president, has said it was President Trump’s policies on immigration, education and health care that angered her and motivated her to run for Congress. And she has been a vocal critic on those key issues, blasting the administration for its policy of separating detained immigrant families and for its plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – DACA – which shields from deportation nearly 800,000 undocumented minors brought to the United States as minors.
Reporter Ymaris Tejeda of the South Florida Media Network’s Washington Bureau, sat down with Congresswoman Shalala at her office on Capitol Hill. Her guest at the recent State of the Union speech, FIU student and DACA recipient Edwin Herrera, was also part of the chat.
SFMN: With your long career dedicated to education, health and environment, and as a congresswoman, what legacy do you want to leave during your time here?
Shalala: I think the same legacy that I’ve left my whole career, and that is giving people opportunities and making certain that there is fairness in everything we do. Whether it’s in education or making sure that everybody has good health care.
I have a particular passion for public education, whether it’s higher education or elementary and secondary education. I spent part of my career running private universities. But everybody ought to have an opportunity not based on where you live who your parents are. We should not discriminate against youth and they ought to have opportunities. So my career has been about opportunities and that’s why I’m here in Congress.
SFMN: Why choose a DACA recipient as your guest during the State of the Union?
Shalala: My invited guest, Edwin Herrera, is a graduate student in architecture at Florida International University. He’s was born in Honduras, came here when he was eight years old and he’s on his third adjustment for DACA; probably his last unless we really get something going terms of immigration reform.
I wanted to make a very clear point that these young people are future. They came here through no strategy of their own. And they’re Americans, as American as a kid that was born in the United States.
They deserve to stay here. They’re making contributions to our community. They’ll make contributions in the future. And so we have to find a way not just to give them a legal status forever but a pathway to citizenship.
SFMN: With regard to DACA, what sort of solutions are we looking for in 2019; any permanent solutions?
Shalala: There are always permanent solutions. We would like a DACA program that actually allows the DREAMers to have a pathway to citizenship. Not just a temporary status or another temporary fix, but a pathway to citizenship. There are already great citizens of this country. They’re going to school, they’re working, they’re making contributions, and we ought to find a way in which they have a permanent citizenship path.
I think the Republicans are anti-immigration. Unless you’re rich and you’re high-skilled they’ve forgotten that this country was built by people who didn’t have a lot of education but had a passion for education, and had a passion for the country, who served in our military who made contributions to build this country.
My grandfather arrived with seven dollars in his pocket. My grandmother came over as an undocumented immigrant. She snuck across the Mexican border. They made enormous contributions to their children and grandchildren to this country. And for the DACA young people it ought to be a permanent solution, it should be citizenship.
SFMN: How many DACA recipients are in Florida?
Shalala: We have literally thousands in Florida, both that registered and those that were afraid to register. I think it’s very important that the president keeps saying 700,000 but it’s really more than a million. And we want to make sure that we keep our eye on the larger number because the way in which this president has run immigration policy. People are scared to death. [And they should] sign up. Edwin was strong about this and he did sign up but he took a risk in the process. (Estimates put the number of DACA recipients in Florida at 27,000 – most of them in South Florida)
SFMN (to Herrera): How did you feel when you submitted the paperwork for DACA?
Herrera: I think I almost had a heart attack to be able to renew it, because I was telling [the congresswoman] that [the President] had already blocked it and cancelled before. Then the judicial system forced him to start accepting renewals again and I just happened to land in that process to be renewed and I was lucky enough to renew for two more years.
SFMN: How does that sort of put your outlook on life, your goals and what you want to accomplish every two years?
Herrera: I guess my life has always been uncertain ever since I was little. So I guess I’ve never planned in the long run. What can I do today, and go day by day, as sad as that sounds.
But when I was in high school I actually did have scholarships and I did have goals but everything got brought down little by little. Everybody telling me no, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. So after that it just became about doing the simple things first and maybe being able to do the most difficult things after that.
SFMN: What would you say to your classmates, and other U.S. citizens who don’t really realize the type of struggles you’re going through?
Herrera: I think a lot of people don’t realize that what they actually have, the voice, and the power that they have. And I think that’s what makes [DACA recipients] want to strive for more. And because U.S. citizens are able to study, and sometimes they don’t study, they can go to school for free and sometimes they don’t even do it. And I can’t even accept the most simple things, such as financial aid. I can’t accept that. I have to reject it because I’m not a citizen and that’s what drives you to do more work hard because it’s not given, it’s earned.
Ymaris Tejeda is a reporter in the South Florida Media Network’s Washington, D.C., Bureau.