It’s been five years since the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative granted undocumented immigrants the ability to receive temporary deportation relief and work authorization. In this time, upwards of 800,000 immigrants have began their first jobs, opened their first bank account, bought cars and other major consumer products, and contributed millions of dollars in taxes to the country.
Year after year, the program has come under successive waves of attacks from Republican lawmakers who say the program was an executive overreach by then-President Barack Obama. With a Democrat president and a Democrat-controlled Senate, the threats to rescind DACA without the promise to carve out a pathway to citizenship for so-called DREAMers have always remained largely empty. But now, the program is at an inflection point where it could end immediately. There already is a looming legal challenge against the White House by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) and nine other state lawmakers to stop DACA by September 5. On the other side however, the program enjoys broad defense from at least 20 state attorney generals and more than 100 law professors across the country.
The fate of the program is clearly unclear: President Donald Trump promised to rescind any executive actions from his predecessor, but he also has said he would treat these so-called DREAMers “with heart.” In June, a White House official told Reuters that “no final determination has been made” about the future of the program. With less than one month until Paxton’s deadline, Trump has remained mum so far.
Until the president makes a move, some DACA recipients are living their lives cautiously. That makes sense given the flurry of enforcement operations that have led to seemingly indiscriminate arrests. Over the past seven months, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has relentlessly detained all types of undocumented immigrants, including DREAMers like Daniel Ramirez, a “collateral” arrest when his relatives were the main targets and Daniela Vargas, an advocate detained soon after she spoke out against ICE at a press conference. The agency has also deported DREAMers like Mario, a high school graduate handed over by local law enforcement authorities to the federal immigration agency; Juan Montes, the first DREAMer reportedly forced across the Mexican border by federal agents; and the Claros Saravia brothers, two soccer stars on their way to college and job opportunities in North Carolina.
Advocacy groups largely led by undocumented leaders are changing how they will fight legal challenges against the DACA program. For Greisa Martinez Rosas, the director of advocacy and policy at the undocumented immigrant advocacy group United We Dream, that fight will mean bringing in new allies that aren’t already part of the immigration movement and calling out the president’s white nationalist ties to people like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, who have espoused harsh anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim positions. Martinez Rosas is a DACA recipient who has been critical against Obama’s record number of deportations in the past and has been just as vocal in her criticism of the Trump administration.
Like they do every year, United We Dream members will celebrate DACA’s fifth birthday with a cake, but this year will be “bittersweet,” Martinez Rosas said on a press call Monday. She said that the urgency of the September 5 deadline will makes clear that her group will have a “campaign that is fighting back against Trump’s white nationalist agenda.”
“What’s changed is that the way we respond to the moment.”
“Since election day when we heard the result of the election, we’ve known that this was a whole new ball game for us,” Martinez Rosas explained, referencing Trump’s harsh anti-immigration policies. “What’s changed is that the way we respond to the moment. Before, there was a clear cut pathway to victory, but now we are in an exciting phase and having to rethink our strategy and using resources we have that to bring new allies… so that [people know] Donald Trump and his associates are trying to get rid of the people of color in this country.”
United We Dream leaders can no longer assure parents of undocumented organizers that their children won’t get hurt. Hate is on the rise nationwide and if the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia has proved anything, it’s that there is plenty of gory, shocking, and even deadly proof that Trump supporters will stop at nothing to silence people who do not agree with them.
But that doesn’t mean that DACA recipients won’t stop organizing or that they won’t make it known that they also contribute to the country.
“There’s more concern with young people… but I will tell you that the energy is strong and young people know this is our time that we’re laying the groundwork for America,” Martinez said.
Damaris Gonzalez, a DACA leader at the United We Dream–Houston chapter, said that she would continue to fight for the program because her life had changed completely since she became a beneficiary.
“When I was young, I was afraid of walking outside because… I knew what being undocumented meant.”
“What [DACA] means to me– it’s a means for me to support me and my family,” Gonzalez said on the same call. “We’re hardworking immigrants and it’s been a whole new experience for me. When I was young, I was afraid of walking outside because… I knew what being undocumented meant.”
“[DACA] has opened many doors for me,” Gonzalez added. She said that she wanted to clear up some of the falsehoods Paxton had spread about undocumented immigrants taking from Americans and insisted that her family doesn’t get government benefits, that they do pay taxes, and that her family members do not qualify for scholarships and financial aid for school. Last week, Gonzalez confronted Paxton over the viability of the DACA program, repeatedly asking him why he wanted to deport people like her. Paxton, in turn, insisted that the program was unconstitutional.
As of now, the future of 787,580 immigrants approved for DACA still remains in limbo — which will also undoubtedly have an effect on the U.S. economy. According to a report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), DACA recipients pay roughly $2 billion in state and local taxes.
If DACA remains in place, Trump may be assuaged by the fact that American voters, including Republicans, broadly want DREAMers to stay in the country.
“It enjoys broad public support– the idea that we should take work permits and jobs away from Americans who are American in all but paperwork, doesn’t make sense to even a large swath of Trump supporters,” Frank Sharry, the executive director at the advocacy group America’s Voice, said on the call. An April 2017 Morning Consult poll, which came on the heels of Trump’s executive orders to seriously restrict immigration, backs up Sharry’s claim. That poll found that 78 percent of voters want to see DREAMer stay in the country, with 56 percent wanting to see a pathway to citizenship. Among Trump voters, 73 percent want DREAMers to stay in the country, and 48 percent want a pathway to citizenship for them.