Immigrants across the country marked the fifth anniversary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Tuesday by defending the Obama-era immigration policy from recent attacks.
In June, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and officials from nine other states issued a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, warning that they would take the Trump administration to court if it did not rescind DACA by September 5. The immigration program, which has benefited nearly 800,000 young people, is not a pathway to citizenship. Those who meet DACA’s very specific requirements receive a work permit, the ability to obtain a driver’s license, and reprieve from deportation, renewable every two years.
Immigrant rights groups held actions in more than 30 cities on Tuesday calling for the protection of DACA, five years after the program went into effect. Yacqueline Lopez, a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance who leads a branch of the organization in South Florida, attended one such action in Washington, D.C. Lopez is the mother of a DACA recipient and spoke to Rewire from the White House, where she was calling on President Trump to keep DACA in place.
“It would be a tragedy if nearly 1 million youth in this country were to lose DACA and the protections they have and become subject to immigration enforcement,” Lopez said.
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Lopez, who migrated to the United States from Bolivia 15 years ago, said that DACA has enabled her daughter to go to college, where she is finishing a degree in anthropology and preparing for law school. Removing DACA would be akin to subjecting kids like hers to a “nightmare,” Lopez said, for which the president is to blame.
“The Trump administration has created a lot of division and hate, and it’s this hate that inspired the actions of the ten state attorneys and governors who are threatening this lawsuit to stop DACA,” Lopez said.
Other immigrant women who spoke to Rewire referred to DACA’s implementation anniversary as “bittersweet.”
Giselle Gasca, the Fresno, California, coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, had just graduated high school when DACA was announced. In the months leading up to its implementation, college felt like a near impossibility. As an undocumented youth, Gasca couldn’t legally work in the United States. She cleaned houses with her mother, getting paid only about $15 a job.
DACA enabled Gasca to work her way through college, paying for her tuition and books. It also allowed her to obtain her license. Before, she feared driving, terrified that being pulled over would trigger deportation and lead to the loss of her family’s only car.
“If it weren’t for DACA, I wouldn’t have a lot of what I have now,” said the 23-year-old new mother. “But the anniversary is bittersweet because people in my community know it could all get taken from us September 5. For the last five years, DACA helped people in my community feel more free, and I’m fortunate to be a recipient, but now that it’s being threatened I can see how my whole life revolves around DACA.”
Many praise President Obama for DACA’s implementation, but the program came about as a direct result of young undocumented organizers fighting for immigrant rights. One such activist is Tania Unzueta, who has worked as a community organizer for the entirety of her adult life. She is now policy director at Mijente, but she began her journey in Chicago, taking part in the nation’s first “Coming Out of the Shadows” event, a now annual nationwide action in which undocumented youth make their status publicly known.
Unzueta told Rewire she didn’t realize today was DACA’s anniversary until scrolling through her social media this morning. She spent part of the day reflecting on where she was when DACA was instated: in the middle of a six-week trip on the UndocuBus, a bus tour of the southern United States in which dozens of undocumented immigrants shared their stories at public events. The tour culminated in acts of civil disobedience at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“By the time I got DACA, I’d been working on a three-year-long public campaign to stop the deportations of young people. I’d been publicly announcing my status and building community with people since I was 17. By the time I got DACA, I already felt undeportable,” Unzueta said. “I had been working with a movement of people who had proven many times over that they could stop deportations if a member of our community was targeted by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. In that way, DACA felt like the government legitimizing something we had already won.”
For the 33-year-old organizer, today is also bittersweet. She said she acknowledges all that DACA has allowed people in her community to accomplish, but she is also thinking about people like her parents, who are not protected under DACA or President Obama’s blocked Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program. Two of her grandparents have died in the last year, and her aunt died a month ago. Her father was not able to say goodbye to these people because leaving the country would mean not being able to return.
Unzueta told Rewire she has “a lot of feelings” about how DACA has been framed in the media: Recipients are simply young people who want to work and contribute to their country, and it’s “not their fault” their parents brought them here without authorization. The organizer said this framing “blames undocumented parents by default,” and it’s a narrative that she now pushes against in her work.
“But I was part of creating that narrative. I remember at a press conference when I was young, I said something like, ‘There’s something wrong with this country if a person with good grades who knows English can’t go to college.’ This framing is harmful,” Unzueta said.
As the Trump administration continues taking a hardline stance against undocumented communities and implements sweeping executive orders that criminalize all who are in the country without authorization, lawmakers who have defended migrant populations are scrambling to respond. Last month Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL), for example, reintroduced the DREAM Act, which would provide young undocumented immigrants who meet specific requirements with a pathway to become legal permanent residents.
Unzueta said she’s been thinking about how the reintroduced DREAM Act is like the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, a 2007 bill that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for some immigrants, but came with a lot of additional immigration enforcement. She doesn’t think anyone outside of immigrant rights organizing will see the connection.
“What I can say generally is that I hope Democrats keep in mind that with bills like the DREAM Act, there is a lot of negotiating that takes place and I’m scared that few rights will be gained, but a lot more will be lost—and it will be the same population of people that always loses rights,” Unzueta said. “We’re living in a very different world now, and I want Democrats to focus not on legislative stuff on the horizon that may not ever come to be. I want [them] to defend what we have now, what’s in front of us—and that’s DACA. I want to see DACA defended instead of negotiating our rights away.”