With the election of a new U.S. president, a long-unresponsive Congress, and a Supreme Court vacancy, the future of President Obama’s immigration executive actions—and the young immigrant lives it affects—is uncertain.
In November 2014, after years of Congressional gridlock on immigration reform, President Obama issued an executive order to provide temporary relief for up to 5 million undocumented immigrants. The action would offer work visas and deportation deferment to parents of children with legal status (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA), and expand an existing program allowing non-citizens brought to the U.S. as children—often called DREAMers—to apply for renewable 2-year stays of deportation to work and study in the U.S. (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA). A Supreme Court decision in June upheld an injunction against the order rendering DAPA defunct before it started and DACA, begun in 2012, also by executive order, intact in its original form, at least until January 20, 2017 when Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president.
The President-elect’s promise to rescind Obama’s immigration actions and initiate deportation proceedings against millions of undocumented immigrants casts the future of DACA in doubt. And the reversal of DACA can come about easily, in the same way it was instituted—with a presidential signature. Moreover, immigration reform may continue to be stalled by Congress or fail to address issues of human dignity and family unity, and the Supreme Court with a newly appointed justice may be unlikely to rule favorably on questions impacting the rights and due process of immigrants.
Until the new president takes office, we cannot know exactly what will happen, but concerns are already mounting for the 742,000 DREAMers working and studying under DACA. Immigrant advocacy groups and civil rights organizations have been besieged with calls in recent weeks. At the same time there has been a surge of harassment and antagonist expressions of anti-immigrant sentiments, such as students chanting “Build a wall!” in the school cafeteria soon after the election and spray-painted messages to “Go home!” appearing in public places throughout the country. For individuals and families without legal status who have spent years living in fear of separation and deportation, these acts have contributed to a heightened atmosphere of fear, distrust, and threat in countless communities.
What are the fears among DACA-protected students and employees? Are they realistic? What actions are to be taken as we wait for resolution?
When DACA was first begun in 2012, eligible immigrants—young undocumented people with no criminal record who were brought to the U.S. as children—overcame their worries about identifying themselves to federal agencies in order to obtain work visas, the opportunity to study without risk of deportation, and the assurance that they could remain with their families in the U.S. legally. Their DACA status does not confer amnesty, as some critics claim, but is an accommodation providing temporary relief from deportation. The rationale behind DACA is that these individuals have lived most of their lives in the U.S.; are culturally American (often having no memories of their birthplace); contribute to the vibrant fabric of communities throughout the country (many having served in the military) and can become even more valuable participants as they develop their skills and talents; and from a legal perspective, are not responsible for the actions of their parents who brought them to the U.S.
If DACA is terminated, the DREAMers will have to contend with derailed educational plans; loss of jobs, professional prospects, and income; and possible deportation, not only for them, but for family members who were identified in the application process. The threat of family separation, always a danger for mixed-status families, would increase. Currently, as crimes against immigrants have escalated, their very safety is at risk. With so much in jeopardy, it is no wonder that DACA immigrants and their families are scared, and that immigrant organizations are coping with an onslaught of inquiries and are hard at work to develop strategies to deal with the possible termination of DACA.
The fears and anxieties are real enough, but until the new administration is in place, no one knows what will happen to the DREAMers. We know that DACA has been a success and a benefit to individuals, families, and communities. Recipients have obtained more education and training, becoming teachers, accountants, paramedics, and more. They are supporting their children, buying new cars and homes, and paying more taxes, all made possible with the specter of deportation held at bay. If DACA were terminated, the U.S. would lose as much as $433.4 billion in GDP over the next decade.*
We also know that eliminating DACA is a priority for President-elect Trump. He ran on an anti-immigrant platform, and his supporters have been outspoken in their support of this position. So far, Trump’s selections for his transition team and cabinet are troubling: Steve Bannon, former head of the far-right Breitbart News and the source of well-publicized remarks against immigrants, people of color, and non-Christians, as chief strategist and senior counselor; Senator Jeff Sessions (R–AL), a vigorous opponent of DACA and a failed judicial nominee to the district court of the Southern District of Alabama, as attorney general; and Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, co-writer of Arizona’s controversial immigrant-targeting SB 1070 law, several parts of which were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and filer of a dismissed 2012 lawsuit against DACA, as an advisor.
So DACA’s termination may well be likely, though it is uncertain if Trump will allow existing work permits to lapse or if they will become immediately null and void. Less likely is deportation, at least not imminently. Trump has declared his intention to focus on deporting immigrants with criminal records (he asserts there are 2–3 million, but accurate statistics indicate approximately 820,000), and the DREAMers, subjected to stringent vetting during their application process, are not among this group. Still, it is not clear if family members may be at risk here; DACA recipients submitted their applications and detailed information to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) which enforces immigration laws. Only a memorandum prevents that info from being shared, and it could be revised by the new administration.
As for an increase in deportation overall, the Obama administration has deported 2.5 million people, a 23% increase over the George W. Bush terms. Congressional appropriations for deportation have allowed for about 400,000 individuals to be deported each year. This funding is unlikely to increase substantially in the next administration. At this rate, any mass deportation plan would take 20 years to accomplish, cost up to $600 million, and decrease the GDP by $1 trillion over that time. Even so, these statistics do little to ease worries among undocumented families.
Finally, whether or not DACA continues, there are already massive flaws in our deportation system—asylum cases falling through the cracks due to expedited processing and other reasons; strict interpretations of “credible fear”; and inadequate legal representation and self-representation, even among children. Under an administration unsympathetic to immigrants, these scenarios are likely to escalate.
The Future and the Present
For now, immigrant advocacy agencies have encouraged DREAMers to renew applications before January 20, though with an application fee of close to $500, some may deem this an unaffordable investment for a program that could be halted. First-time applicants are advised not to apply, since there is not enough time to process applications before the inauguration, and those studying outside of the country are urged to return by mid-January.
These agencies are currently mobilizing to advocate even more strongly for immigrants should that become necessary. Their commitment was instrumental in harnessing and consolidating public pressure to help bring DACA into being. The DREAMers themselves have been a vital source of advocacy, through organizations such as United We Dream and social media campaigns such as the newly initiated #With DACA, Twitter posts of goals realized through the DACA program. In addition, a number of cities, such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and, Washington D.C., as well as universities and churches have pledged to uphold their sanctuary policies regardless of any changes in federal immigration policies.
As citizens, we can join these efforts of support and accompaniment through letters and calls to congressional leaders to call for immigration reform. We can donate to organizations like the KBI who use their resources to educate and advocate. And we can stay informed about the latest news about immigration and deportation policies, the better to respond swiftly, sensibly, and compassionately. The KBI newsletter will continue to keep you up-to-date on these critical issues.
DACA UPDATE: Senators Lindsay Graham (R–SC) and Dick Durbin (D–IL) are currently drafting legislation to offer protection to DREAMers and their families should Trump decide to reverse DACA: http://www.politico.com/story/2016/11/lindsey-graham-dreamers-bill-immigration-232017.
* The GDP calculation is based on statistics from USCIS and an October 2016 survey of DACA recipients by political scientist Tom K. Wong, United We Dream, the National Immigration Law Center, and CAP.
NOTE: Please see the following Passages articles from July and May 2016 for more background on the history of DACA: