By: Belen de Leon, YWCA Columbus Program Coordinator
June 15, 2022 marks the tenth anniversary of DACA, the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. YWCA Columbus celebrates this milestone by revisiting DACA’s history and impact, and by joining DACA recipients in calling for much-needed change to our immigration system.
What is DACA?
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a kind of administrative relief from deportation for eligible immigrant youth who came to the United States when they were children. DACA applicants must meet certain requirements, including possession of a high school diploma or GED (if not in school), and having no felony convictions or serious misdemeanors. In return, recipients are granted temporary protection from deportation and a two-year work permit.
How did it come about?
First introduced as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act in 2001, the DREAM Act sought to address the growing population of young people who had been largely raised in the United States, but who were systematically segregated because of their immigration status. The act initially failed to pass in 2001 and failed again in subsequent years, in a xenophobic, post-9/11 Congress, before president Obama finally established a tenuous version of the program through an Executive Order on June 15, 2012. The program was seen as a temporary band-aid measure to a systemic problem that required surgical attention. However, today DACA remains the only large-scale policy change implemented in decades to address the rights of a subset of undocumented immigrants raised in this country.
Impact & reception
Almost immediately upon taking effect, DACA transformed the lives of ‘DREAMERS’. Young people who had lived their lives on the margins, unable to work and made vulnerable by immigration policing, were finally free to step out of the shadows into a world of new opportunities. Over the past 10 years, about 800,000 people have benefited from DACA and consequent access to social security numbers, driver’s licenses, and employment. Beyond allowing DACA recipients to improve their lives and those of their families, these opportunities have benefitted the country overall, allowing individuals who have spent most of their lives in the United States to more fully realize their potential, with social and economic benefits for employers and communities. DACA recipients have gone on to pursue higher education, start businesses, join the workforce, buy homes, work at the frontlines of the covid pandemic, and pay taxes – just like everybody else.
Unfortunately, this program’s reception has been controversial from the beginning, and unpopular with immigration hardliners. Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency in the 2016 election relied on this anti-immigrant sentiment, capitalizing on racist tropes about the supposed threat posed by Latin American immigrants, and profusely promised to end DACA in order to secure campaign wins. On September 5, 2017, the Trump administration set out to fulfill this campaign promise, announcing it was terminating the program. After back-and-forth lawsuits, several injunctions, and furious organizing by immigrant communities and their allies, the Supreme Court conceded in 2020 that the termination of DACA had been “arbitrary and capricious” and blocked the roll-back of DACA. However, the court didn’t rule on the merits of DACA itself thus leaving the program unprotected from future repeal efforts. On January 20th, 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order reinstating DACA, but state-led challenges to the program continue.
Today – and why DACA was never enough
On today’s 10th anniversary, DACA still stands, though not entirely unscathed.
The average DACA recipient has lived in the United States for over twenty years and has spent that time in an uneasy state of limbo. According to a study by The Society for the Study of Social Problems, recipients report improvements to their quality of life, but also document “anxiety and insecurity … because [DACA recipients] have parents and other family who are still subject to deportation.”1
Notably, there is still no immigration reform addressing the broader population of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who continue to dwell in the shadows. Even among the select group of DREAMERS that DACA aimed to protect, the program did not reach everyone. Of the 3.6 million undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, only about 800,000 DREAMERS were ever protected. This number is dwindling, as about 110,000 of this group are no longer enrolled.
And because DACA eligibility requirements include living in the United States since 2007, the population of DREAMERS who don’t qualify for the program is growing. This year alone, around 100,000 undocumented students will graduate high school in 2022 without any viable opportunities, safety, or a shot at work permits, because they don’t meet this requirement. Complicating the issue is the fact that the government is not accepting applications from first-time DACA applicants, or anyone whose DACA status expired more than one year ago.
A racial justice issue
The lack of a pathway to citizenship, and the intentional criminalization and withholding of state resources from this tax-paying population, have exacerbated racial inequality in the US. Considering the white supremacist roots of our immigration laws, which have always maintained a preference for “whiteness”, it is no surprise that most DACA recipients (and the broader undocumented population) are overwhelmingly people of color – with the majority coming from countries in Central and Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia. This means we have a growing population of Black and Brown people who have resided in America for decades and who are systematically disenfranchised, marginalized, and violently repressed by our nation’s immigration laws.
This also has chilling implications for U.S. citizens born to immigrant parents. More than 90% of children in immigrant families are US citizens, and over 250,000 DACA recipients are now parents to US-born children. But these children are often subjected to the same limited access to government programs and resources as their undocumented family members, which, according to research by the American Pediatric Association, results in higher rates of poverty – 20.9% vs 9.9%2 – along with higher rates of health and developmental risks.
DACA was never enough
Today, undocumented immigrants are largely united in calling for large-scale reforms to our immigration system. After all, DACA was never meant to be anything more than a temporary stop-gap measure and is not nearly enough to correct the harms caused by our punitive ‘crimmigration’ system, what some academics call the enmeshed conglomerate systems of immigration and criminal punishment.
On this tenth anniversary, it is more important than ever that allies take a critical, anti-racist lens to our immigration system, and that they join the chorus of immigrant voices demanding permanent change and justice for all undocumented immigrants.
Here are a few ways allies can support DREAMERS and other immigrants at this critical moment.
- Sign this petition calling on President Biden and Congress to lead and deliver permanent protections now
- Be mindful of your language. Avoid othering and pejorative terms like “alien” or “illegal immigration”.
- Donate money, time, and resources to immigrant rights groups. A few local and national organizations to consider:
- Avanza Together – Located in Central Ohio, supports undocumented families and helps people at risk of deportation.
- United We Dream – A national migrant youth-led network advocating for all immigrants.
- NAKASEC – The National Korean American Service & Education Consortium organizes Koreans and Asian Americans for immigrant justice.
- CRIS – Community Refugee and Immigration Services is a Central Ohio organization that serves immigrant and refugee communities.
- Educate yourself on immigrant rights issues. The experiences of undocumented immigrants or the laws that govern them are not well known by native born Americans, but are important to understand in order to support immigrant advocacy.
- Read this Atlantic essay by Jesus A. Rodriguez.
- Read and watch this feature by the American Psychological Association.
- Check out this demographic profile of the U.S. undocumented immigrant population
- Read this article by the Center for American Progress laying out the case for permanent immigration relief.
- Watch Living Undocumented to see the real-life impacts of immigration policy.
- Elizabeth Vaquera; Elizabeth Aranda; Isabel Sousa-Rodriguez (May 2017). “Emotional Challenges of Undocumented Young Adults: Ontological Security, Emotional Capital, and Well-being”. Social Problems. 64 (2): 298–314. doi:10.1093/socpro/spx010
- Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, Pamela KJoshi, Emily Ruskin, Abigail N Walters, Nomi Sofer, Carlos A. Guevara (2021). Including Children in Immigrant Families in Policy Approaches to Reduce Child Poverty, Academic Pediatrics. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.acap.2021.06.016.