How a short-term fix became a monument to failed immigration policy
What was introduced 10 years ago as a palliative to protect young immigrants has endured in the face of legal attacks and failures by Congress to enact a more permanent solution. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, better known as DACA, is simultaneously recognized by immigrant rights advocates as the most significant policy change in decades and as an impermanent change that has left hundreds thousands of people in legal limbo.
To understand what DACA has achieved and where it has failed, Capital & Main spoke with Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, who leads federal advocacy for the nation’s largest immigrant youth-led grassroots network, united we dream. Nascimento was born in Natal, Brazil, and moved to the United States at age 14 with her family. She grew up undocumented in California and is a DACA beneficiary herself.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Capital & Main: What is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and how did it come about?
Juliana Macedo do Nascimento: The DACA was not given to us. We really had to fight for it. DACA was, and still is, one of the greatest victories of the movement for undocumented immigrants in the United States. It protects me from deportation and it allows me to work in the country. What it does not do is pave the way to citizenship. It gives me a legal presence but not a legal status.
DACA was born because the DREAM act, first introduced in 2001 and reintroduced several times thereafter, has still failed to pass Congress. When it failed in 2010, under President Barack Obama, young undocumented people organized around the idea that the executive also has the power to protect us. It’s not all about Congress.
We put the pressure on the Obama administration to protect us from deportation. During his re-election campaign, we went into overdrive. We followed him from event to event. We interrupted town halls and speeches.
The Obama administration has said, “We don’t have the power to do that. But eventually, with enough pressure, they came up with the idea for DACA. It was announced in June 2012 and people could apply for it by September of the same year.
The Department of Homeland Security deprioritized deport people who meet certain criteria, including having arrived in the country before the age of 18 and living in the country for at least five consecutive years. People who meet these criteria, known as Dreamers, can reapply every two years.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have been able to breathe a sigh of relief and live without fear of eviction for 10 years. It’s not nothing. »
DACA was intended as a temporary measure. But 10 years later, Dreamers is still in legal limbo. Why?
When DACA was created, the hope was that Congress would pull itself together enough to pass something to protect the Dreamers. Unfortunately, they didn’t.
Political parties are increasingly drifting apart, with Republicans really doubling down on anti-immigrant rhetoric. We also see Republican attorneys general challenging any immigrant-friendly provision that administrations try to enact, including DACA.
There’s a case brought by the Texas Attorney General challenge the legality of DACA. A federal judge in Texas agreed and stopped all new applicants. Now, only renewals are allowed while the case progresses through the court.
We don’t expect to win in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which unfortunately has handed down decision after decision that harms immigrant communities. This court ended Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), an extension of DACA for parents of US citizens. So we plan to return to the Supreme Court by next year, where we don’t think the Conservative court will rule on our side.
DACA is really under threat. It’s not looking good for us, and it could go away as soon as next year. It was a palliative, and we kept it alive for so long, which is a miracle in itself. But we don’t know how much longer we can wait.
I don’t want to run for office here, but this year is midterm, and it doesn’t look good for Democrats to keep the House and Senate. Next year it may be too late for Congress to do something for us. They really need to act now.
We really hope to use this moment to create that urgency for Congress to really move on permanent protections for our people — and not just for DACA recipients, because that’s not enough anymore.
What has DACA accomplished? More … than 800 000 people were granted work permits and protection from deportation under DACA. But that’s only a fraction of the estimate 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
DACA beneficiaries are a very small subset of the population who need this protection. It’s getting smaller every day. We really need something that will embrace young immigrants, our families and our communities.
But even so, hundreds of thousands of people were able to breathe a sigh of relief and live without fear of eviction for 10 years. It’s not nothing.
I mean, I’m one of them. So, I know how life changing it has been to get a driver’s license and walk past the police without fear, to pursue a career in a field that I really want to work in and that I’m passionate about.
These are all life changing situations that really reverberate throughout an entire community. My parents, even though they are still undocumented themselves, don’t have to live with the fear that I will be deported. I can give my time and money to help my community grow. I am able to do advocacy work and use DACA as a springboard to accomplish more for the rest of our community.
The impact of DACA is not just in our individual lives, but in society in general. DACA recipients have become the owners and business owners. About 343,000 DACA recipients were employed in jobs deemed essential by DHS. Of these, 34,000 were healthcare workers and more than 11,000 worked in healthcare facilities during the pandemic.
“We would like to see this administration be bold in defending DACA in its entirety and expanding it, as it has the power to do.”
Where did DACA fail?
It is not a path to citizenship. It does not even grant legal status. It barely covers 10% of the undocumented population in this country. And it’s really outdated. The majority of adults are not even eligible. United We Dream partner FWD.us found that of the 100,000 undocumented high school students graduating this year, only a quarter would be eligible if DACA were open to new applications now. DACA has a deadline of 2007, but so many people have entered the country since then. DACA did not grow to evolve with the population it is meant to protect.
Even in its early days, DACA had its limitations. I always compare myself to my brother because he chose to return to Brazil six months before DACA was announced. He was really frustrated and tired of living in the United States without papers and being afraid of the police. He had been in a car accident, and fortunately he had not been taken care of or expelled. But he was just tired of living this way. So he left six months before DACA, and thinking about how his life was in Brazil and how my life was here. I haven’t seen him in 10 years because of that.
It’s really heartbreaking to me that he couldn’t have waited six more months, or that DACA couldn’t have come six months earlier, and I could have had my brother with me all this time.
As DACA faces its potential end, the Biden administration has promised to protect it. Alejandro Mayorkas, who was among the original architects of DACA and is now head of DHS, said last year that it is time to “give the Dreamers the certainty they deserve”. How has the administration done so far?
We would like to see this administration be bold in defending DACA in its entirety and expanding it, as it has the power to do.
I really struggle to see how DACA has been a priority for this administration since the beginning, when they didn’t prioritize applications that were coming in when they took office.
There was a window of time, after three years of DACA being blocked by the court, where we won in the Supreme Court and the Biden administration began accepting new DACA applications. The administration had a truly rare opportunity to extend protections to new applicants, and it failed to do so.
Donald Trump’s administration has left US citizenship and immigration services in shambles. There were huge backlogs. And now we’re left with about 80,000 young people who were able to apply for the first time but never received a DACA before it was blocked by the Texas federal judge six months later.
The Biden administration has also promised to dedicate DACA through rulemaking, and they came up with a proposed rule that we didn’t like so much because it separates the two parts of DACA: deportation protection and work permit. Six months later, the final rule has not come out.
We really need this administration to take ownership of this policy and make it as broad and inclusive as possible. Instead, the administration appears to cower at what it thinks the Supreme Court, or any other justice, might say.
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