Why Biden and Congress Must Expand Eligibility for DACA and the Dream Act

Why Biden and Congress Must Expand Eligibility for DACA and the Dream Act

By Natasha Bansal '23; Image by Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press

In 2012, Barack Obama signed an executive order for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) which granted eligible undocumented youth a renewable two year stay in the US, as well as a temporary work permit. DACA was enacted after Congress was unable to pass a similar piece of legislation: the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (Dream) Act. One key difference between the Dream Act and DACA is that the Dream Act provided eligible youth with a pathway to citizenship, whereas DACA provides recipients with temporary protection from deportation. Supporters of the pieces of legislation believed that those who had grown up the same way as American citizens and were pursuing the American Dream should be granted some of the liberties granted to American citizens. The passage of DACA has been very consequential, as it has enabled more than 800,000 childhood arrivals to study, work, serve in the United States military, and make extraordinary contributions to their communities.

Although DACA has presented a portion of undocumented youth with the possibility of creating a future in the country, both it and the proposed Dream Act are laden with shortcomings that prevent the targeted demographic from applying and exclude vulnerable undocumented migrants from much needed legal protection. The legislation has been criticized by many, including DACA recipients, for making legal membership in this country contingent on one’s ability to prove they deserve it and consequently establishing a divisive narrative of ‘the deserving immigrant’. The vast majority of undocumented immigrants are excluded from this narrative, including the parents of DACA recipients and undocumented youths who don’t fit the program’s narrow criteria for eligibility. In order to meet its original goal, Dreamer legislation needs to be made more accessible to applicants through an expansion of eligibility criteria and reduction in the cost of application. Additionally, DAPA needs to be passed in conjunction with DACA to protect the parents of Dreamer eligible children.

One of the major flaws of the current legislation is its failure to protect many of the undocumented youths it was created to serve. Proponents of the order failed to take into account the trepidation that many eligible applicants would feel at the prospect of giving their personal information to the government. Undocumented people live in fear of being deported and separated from their families. Providing the government with their addresses and information about their families simply not a viable option for undocumented youth, particularly those who have experienced the traumatic deportations of relatives and members of their communities. These migrants share the reasons why they chose not to apply to DACA in interviews conducted by the Migration Encounters oral history project team. An undocumented young woman who has since relocated to Mexico spoke of her academic success and dreams of attending university and becoming an oncologist. DACA had been enacted when she graduated from high school and she would have been an eligible applicant, but she chose not to apply for fear of putting her family in danger of deportation. She said in an interview, “But in my mom’s mind and I think in every single Mexican or undocumented person’s mind is that distrust of the government. That they’re going to have you in this database and they’re going to know exactly where you live and who lives with you and where you are”. Her family had experienced the deportation of an uncle and were unwilling to risk the possibility of being separated from one another. Another interviewee stated that she had personally assisted people applying to the program and refused to do so herself, for similar reasons. She said, “I also worked in a coalition which helped immigrants. I was there for four years and I helped kids apply for DACA and stuff. I never applied because I was scared. My parents told me I shouldn’t apply since you have to go give all your fingerprints and your information. They said, “What if it all falls down and we’re the first ones to get deported?”. DACA must be expanded because as it stands, the US is losing bright undocumented youth with potential and aspirations to change society for the better.

Along these lines, even DACA recipients aren’t able to fully reap the benefits of their protected status because the pervasive fear of their families being deported shapes their day-to-day lives. A Dreamer discussed having to drive her undocumented parents to their jobs to lower the risk of them being detained for traffic violations. She decided to remain in her hometown to support her parents instead of moving to New York to pursue her passion for theater. Her interviewer stated that her Dreamer status “didn’t mean she could live her life free of fear — just that her fears were no longer for herself, but for her parents”. Another DACA recipient described his decision to return to Mexico with his mother stating, “I knew it was for the best, not only for me, but for my mother”. He had experienced the deportation of his brother years earlier, and couldn’t contend with the uncertainty of life in the US and permanent prospect of separation from his mother. It’s impossible for Dreamers to enjoy the same rights as US citizens if their families still face the threat of removal from the country. DACA liberties cannot exist in a vacuum for individuals because family life is an integral part of a person’s identity. We must expand DACA to include protection for the parents and siblings of recipients to ensure that all eligible applicants apply and then go on to succeed in this country, as per the original goals of the legislation.

Discourse about the flaws inherent within Dreamer legislation is incomplete without advocacy of the passage of DAPA to protect the parents of DACA eligible children. This is crucial not only because parents’ undocumented statuses often discourage their offspring from applying for DACA, but because as a group, parents face many of the same challenges living in the US that warrant special legal protection. This group represents the backbone of our society, with many undocumented parents making invaluable contributions as essential workers. Nevertheless, they are often forced to work for low pay in dangerous conditions, and are exploited by their employers. One migrant described the mistreatment that her father routinely subjected to by his employers, recalling one that paid his workers three dollars per hour at a time when the minimum wage was seven dollars, and made it a point to hire undocumented workers so he wouldn’t have to include them in his taxes. She discussed the upper hand that employers have over undocumented workers, stating, “I would remember my dad going to work for two or three weeks and him asking for his pay and never getting paid because they would be like, “I know where you live, I know what your name is, and I can report you to ICE right now”. Parents are treated more unforgivingly under the law because they choose to migrate to the US, and are therefore perceived to be culpable for their situation. Lawmakers must consider their decision to migrate as a sacrifice that they made to pursue a more stable future for their children, as opposed to a criminal action that they need to be punished and held accountable for. Now is the time to expand the legal rights of families, particularly as discourse around adult migrants shifts with public acknowledgement of their heroism as essential workers during the pandemic.

Proponents of the Dream Act used deeply problematic messaging tactics to gain support for the Act. They essentially highlighted the ‘American qualities’ of high achieving and morally outstanding undocumented youth who had been brought to the US by their parents as children. They characterized these people as individuals who found success in spite of the challenges they faced that should not be penalized for the illegal actions of their parents. This campaign disadvantaged the wider community of undocumented people residing in the US by implying that the migrants’ individual choices had put them in the vulnerable positions they were in, as opposed to larger structural obstacles and the immigration industrial complex. In characterizing the small minority of migrants eligible for DACA as individuals who didn’t pose any national security threat to the country, the campaigns implicated everyone else as being dangerous and undeserving of legal protection. A closer analysis of migrants who are ineligible for DACA will reveal that the vast majority present no threat to society and are merely the victims of the legislation’s absurdly narrow grounds for eligibility. 

In order to apply for DACA one must have lived in the US for the past five consecutive years, prove they migrated before the age of 16, have a clear criminal record, pay $465, graduate high school or obtain a GED, and commit to at least two years of college or service in the military. One migrant explained that she was anticipating being granted Dreamer status when her mother passed away. Her distraught father decided to bring her back to Mexico but changed his mind soon after arrival. This action made her ineligible for DACA because she could no longer say she had lived in the US for five years consecutively. Another migrant shared that he had wanted to apply for DACA but wasn’t able to because his traffic violations amounted to a criminal record and made him ineligible. On his inability to pay for the application he said, “I don’t have paperwork. I don’t have a secure job and all that shit. I’m not going to make it here. Even if I wanted to, it’s going to be super hard. It’s going to be double the time and I have to pay lawyers, whatever”. The financial obligation and uninterrupted residency requirements deter otherwise eligible applicants from seeking protection that would change their lives. Unencumbered access to the DACA application is a crucial place to start reforming the legislation. These actions could also potentially improve the climate of racialized criminalization that prompts law enforcement to target Latinos in the first place by countering the notion that ineligible migrants pose risks to public safety and should be more aggressively surveilled.

DACA provided a breakthrough in immigration policy reform, but it should be viewed as a catalyst for more comprehensive immigration reform, as opposed to a standalone order. Now that we’ve secured some rights for the most politically palatable group of undocumented immigrants, it’s time to grant them to a larger group of people. These changes must be made in conjunction with the passage of the Dream Act and DAPA to ensure that beneficiaries are presented with a pathway to citizenship and that parents can access legal protection. Increased accessibility for DACA, DAPA, and the Dream Act would remediate some of the damage caused by the original campaign rhetoric that promoted the rights of certain undocumented youth at the expense of criminalizing their parents and the wider undocumented community. From there, we can reexamine the criteria we’ve required migrants to meet to receive protections, and reflect on how it disadvantages those who grew up without the resources to demonstrate their claim to citizenship.

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