What Our Current Emphasis on DACA Recipients Says About the Overall Immigration Debate

On February 26, a California district court judge ruled that the Trump administration cannot revoke DACA recipients’ work authorization without giving recipients a chance to contest the decision. The Trump administration originally planned to end DACA on March 5, 2018. News outlets reported the ruling as a “victory” for DACA recipients, while still cautioning that the court orders only act as a temporary fix to the problem of how to protect undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.

Meanwhile, hope for a legislative fix fades. In the context of immigration, bipartisanship can be problematic. The media images and stories of ICE detaining and deporting undocumented parents, ripping families apart, and causing chaos and fear in immigrant communities only highlight a growing problem that advocates have known about for quite a long time—the brokenness of our immigration system. Notably even the current White House refers to the system as broken (admittedly for much different reasons).

Many blame this “broken system” on legislative inaction and inability to pass comprehensive immigration reform. The difficulty of truly providing bipartisan reform lies in the problem that immigration reform can feel like a zero-sum game. Even more moderate Republicans sympathetic to DACA recipients and other groups of immigrants often refuse to pass reforms, or what immigration advocates call “clean” bills, without adding extra border security funding. In its most controversial form, this could include passing the DACA program in exchange for border wall funding, an idea which President Trump has touted as “bipartisan” immigration reform. This type of deal highlights the major problem in immigration reform: calls for added protections for certain immigrant groups usually come with added funding for border protection, which perpetuates the myth that our borders are not properly funded already.

The most frustrating aspect of this dilemma stems from the fact that DACA recipients, undocumented young people who entered the U.S. as children, form the most “sympathetic” group of undocumented immigrants. If we cannot protect this group, then how will comprehensive immigration reform ever pass? The inability to protect DACA holders highlights the brokenness of the system. However, the emphasis on DACA holders without a larger conversation about comprehensive immigration reform reveals more about the problematic way we talk about immigration.

One helpful piece of advice to progressive lawmakers would be not only to stop compromising on DACA protections, but also to demand more comprehensive immigration reform in general. When legislatures first debated the DREAM Act, which sought to protect immigrant youth, activists and the media alike focused on the “deserving” and “hyper-achieving” immigrant. Specifically, the term “Dreamers” referred to undocumented immigrants under the age of 31 who were brought to the U.S. by parents before the age of 16. But by emphasizing this group of immigrants and dividing them from others, notably the parents who brought them here, as well as the other millions of undocumented immigrants in need of a comprehensive immigration solution, the term also caused damage in the overall immigration debate.

Referring to “Dreamers” conveys a message that appeals broadly across the political spectrum in that it directly appeals to the American Dream of hard work that yields success. The appeal of this term is made evident in a recent New York Times Opinion article, which calls for patriotic and Christian Americans to advocate for DACA recipients, who the author describes as an embodiment of the American Dream. “These ‘Dreamers’ live in our neighborhoods, attend our schools, fight for our country and contribute to our workplaces,” the author writes. The author urges for a “clean” bill to protect DACA recipients, but does so by emphasizing these young people’s integration into society. What is missing from this analysis is the call for immigration reform that acknowledges the human dignity of all immigrants, not just those we consider to be part of our society––those who speak English, who have more fully assimilated into white culture, and who did not choose to come to America because of their young age. Why emphasize the sympathy of this particular group over the parents who brought them to the U.S., many of whom suffered persecution, violence, or lack of economic opportunities? By focusing solely on the “model” immigrant, well-meaning advocates could make it even harder for more comprehensive immigration reform, or undermine the claims of other groups of immigrants, such as those caught up into an overly punitive criminal justice system who face inadmissibility or deportation because of their convictions.

In recent years, immigration activists have stopped using the word “Dreamers” or used more caution in designating one group as more deserving as another. Lawmakers and more mainstream advocates should do the same. Providing protective legislation for DACA recipients in a clean bill only serves as the first step. Arguments that overly emphasize how “deserving” or “patriotic” DACA recipients are only muddles the point that passing a clean DACA bill would be a small (yet still important) victory, and that members of Congress have a long way to go in enacting more comprehensive reform.


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Regina is a 2L at HLS from Owensboro, Kentucky. She is interested in racial justice, prisoners' rights, immigration, gender equality, and economic justice. She spent her 1L summer at MALDEF and will be at the NAACP LDF this upcoming summer.

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