DACA Has Never Been Enough

Supporting justice for all undocumented people

by Neidin Hernandez

Illustration by Amos Jackson

published September 29, 2017

On September 18, over 70 undocumented students disrupted House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s news conference in San Francisco. They were protesting a recent series of closed-door talks between Democrats and President Trump, which aimed to bolster border security in exchange for preserving DACA. The students eventually shut down the conference, with chants calling for the inclusion of all 11 million undocumented immigrants in new legislation: “We undocumented youth demand a clean bill…We undocumented youth demand that you do not sell out our community and our values…We undocumented youth will not be a bargaining chip for Trump.”

Established in 2012 by President Obama, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allows for a select group of undocumented immigrants—those who were brought to the United States as minors—to apply for a two-year reprieve from deportation, along with a temporary work permit. The 800,000 undocumented immigrants presently protected under DACA woke up on September 5 to news that Trump had rescinded the program, with six months for Congress to reinstate DACA with new legislation before it expires in 2018.

DACA has always been an inadequate solution. Despite the mainstream media panic, for those who understood the program, its dissolution came as no surprise. As Barack Obama himself admitted, his administration created the program as a “temporary stop-gap measure” until Congress could come up with legislation that allowed those eligible for DACA to remain in the country. In the years since Obama’s declaration, no such piece of legislation ever made it to the Congress floor. Now DACA faces termination under Trump, and its only hope for salvation is a deal that jeopardizes those 10.2 million who are ineligible for the program. 

In a bid to save DACA, Senator Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi met with Donald Trump over a White House dinner to discuss a deal that would preserve DACA in exchange for measures strengthening border security. In a joint statement released the next morning, Schumer and Pelosi announced that they had “agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly, and to work out a package of border security, excluding the wall, that’s acceptable to both sides.” A tweet from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee denied that funding for the wall had been left off the negotiating table.

Should the deal go through, undocumented minors would retain their protected status—but only at the expense of the safety of their parents and communities. Strengthening border security would likely mean increasing funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for the arrest and deportation of undocumented immigrants. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the number of undocumented immigrants arrested by ICE has increased by 40 percent under the Trump administration. Due to the wreckage wrought by Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, a large-scale deportation raid scheduled for mid-September called Operation Mega—set to target 8,400 undocumented immigrants nationwide—has been postponed indefinitely. Increased funding for ICE, which any political compromise would likely include, would facilitate the execution of such raids, and help Trump make good on his campaign promises to crack down on illegal immigration.

Popular rhetoric identifies DACA recipients as some of the “best and brightest,” to use words from Obama’s September 5 Facebook post in response to President Trump’s decision on DACA. DACA recipients, often called DREAMers (in reference to DACA’s precursor, the DREAM Act), are considered separate from the immigrant community—an exceptional subset deserving different privileges and protections. “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated, and accomplished young people who have jobs,” tweeted Donald Trump. “They have been in our country for many years through no fault of their own—brought in by parents at young age [sic].” 

DREAMers are framed as blameless because their parents brought them to the United States illegally. While it’s true that DREAMers had no say in the matter, to position them as blameless is to imply that there is blame to be placed for crossing into the United States as an undocumented immigrant, ignoring the political and economic factors that drive people from their homes. The notion, however, of DREAMers as faultless places them in opposition to their parents and guardians, the very people who brought them into this country. Parents of dreamers are thus criminalized for their decisions to bring their families into the country, and marked as undeserving of the same protections granted to their children. 

Since its inception, politicians have used DACA to create a dichotomy between the deserving and the undeserving immigrant. In his 2012 announcement of the policy, President Obama described DREAMers as those who “have done everything right [their] entire [lives] – studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of [their] class.” He wasn’t exaggerating. There is little room for error for a DREAMer, since the eligibility requirements for DACA are stringent. Candidates must have a spotless criminal record and a high school diploma or GED. Exceptions are made only for those who are still currently enrolled in school or have been honorably discharged from the armed services. Further restrictions limit the number of people eligible for DACA based on age, date of arrival into the country, and length of continuous residency. 

Gloria Montiel, a DACA recipient and current an adjunct professor at Claremont Graduate University, was initially wary of the program, and held off applying until a year after its induction. “I was opposed to the idea that so many people were left out, including some people that were very close to me like my parents,” she told the Independent. “This program didn’t really capture enough people, and it was treating this group of people [DREAMers] as a commodity.” 

DREAMers are touted as the quintessential embodiment of the American dream—proof that with hard work and tenacity one can bootstrap one’s way to markers of respectability such as a job and a college education even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 71 percent of all undocumented immigrants come from Mexico or Central America and roughly a third live at or below the poverty line. Despite the fact that low-income people of color are less likely than their peers to graduate high school and more likely to have run-ins with the law, DACA recipients have necessarily managed to both finish school and maintain a clean criminal record. Politicians and business leaders who frame DREAMers’ worth in terms of economic contributions to the country estimate that if DACA recipients were deported, “our economy would lose $460.3 billion from the national GDP and $24.6 billion in Social Security and Medicare tax contributions,” according to an open letter circulated by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. They are often held up as examples of American exceptionalism, the immigrant portion of the population that makes this country great. This allows for politicians to use DREAMers as a tool to leverage new policies like the current backdoor deal being worked out between between Pelosi, Schumer, and Trump. “I knew it was going to come,” DACA recipient Alejandra Gonzalez told the Independent about the deal. “I’m used to them using DREAMers as a chess piece,” said Gonzalez. 

DACA passed into law because of the massive pressure immigrant rights movements put on President Obama and his administration. These activists organized sit-ins, hunger strikes, and rallies outside national and local democratic campaign offices. Such protests in advance of Obama’s reelection garnered widespread media attention and helped bring immigration reform to the forefront of national political discourse. On election night, three months after he announced the roll-out of DACA, Obama received 67 percent of the Latinx vote, helping him win key battleground states including Nevada and Colorado. 

Luis Serrano-Taha, a DACA recipient and community organizer with the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, argues that the passage of DACA in 2012 under Obama mollified the immigrant rights movement while leaving a vast majority of the undocumented population vulnerable to deportation. “DACA didn’t really empower a lot of folks. It actually made a lot of folks complacent,” Serrano-Taha told the Independent. 

Gloria Montiel told the Independent that her parents “are very cautious, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens…but even in their case that is not enough and for me that is both a cause of anger and anguish.” While she is protected by DACA until 2019, she says she still worries about people in her community “who never qualified [for DACA, and] are still living in fear. Unlike me, they have never had a day of rest in the past five years, and so it is for them that we need a solution that is truly not based on how much [we] can give to [our] community but on the fact that we are human and no one deserves to be confined to the shadows.”

Alejandra Gonzalez, a DACA recipient and current student at Alverno College, told the Independent that although it is easy to fight for the rights of DREAMers, the immigrant rights movement must strive to adopt more inclusive strategies and narratives that support all undocumented immigrants. “Dreamers are the most sympathetic group of undocumented immigrants, but I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for my parents,” said Gonzalez. “My parents were the original dreamers.” 

NEIDIN HERNANDEZ B’19 stands with all immigrants.