DACA Was Won By a Vibrant Movement of Immigrant Youth. Now, That Movement Will Rally to Defend It.

By ending the DACA program, Trump is awakening the same nationwide movement that won the protections for young immigrants in the first place.

Michelle Chen September 5, 2017

There is simply no going back for the youth at the frontlines of the crisis. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

While Pres­i­dent Trump rolls out plans for build­ing a new bor­der wall and vows to recon­struct storm-rav­aged Hous­ton, he is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly uproot­ing the lives of count­less young immigrants.

Despite all its inherent uncertainties, DACA is a reflection of both what is achievable and of the long struggle ahead.

Trump has decid­ed to kill the Deferred Action for Child­hood Arrivals (DACA) pro­gram, the tem­po­rary reprieve grant­ed under Oba­ma that for the past five years has enabled near­ly 800,000 immi­grant youth to work and remain in the coun­try legal­ly. On Tues­day, the admin­is­tra­tion announced that the pro­gram would be ter­mi­nat­ed by next March, giv­ing Con­gress a six-month grace peri­od to leg­is­late a per­ma­nent fix. Mean­while, those about to lose their thin shield from depor­ta­tion are now caught in legal lim­bo as they face the grad­ual expi­ra­tion of their immi­gra­tion sta­tus. After hedg­ing for months around the future of DACA, Trump’s deci­sion to go for­ward with the repeal is par­tial­ly a response to a threat by 10 states to sue the admin­is­tra­tion if it did not move to end the pro­gram by today.

Trump’s deci­sion to elim­i­nate DACA adds to a slew of anti-immi­grant poli­cies his admin­is­tra­tion has embraced, from the expand­ed bor­der wall to stepped up ICE raids to the Mus­lim trav­el ban. But los­ing DACA would be unique­ly dam­ag­ing for immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties because it would direct­ly affect hun­dreds of thou­sands of young peo­ple already liv­ing, work­ing, attend­ing school and rais­ing fam­i­lies in the Unit­ed States. The cam­paign to pre­serve DACA, a sta­tus that, while tem­po­rary, allowed many to work legal­ly and attend col­lege for the first time, has fueled snow­balling nation­wide protests—brand­ed with the slo­gan “#Here­tostay” — as well as vocal oppo­si­tion from pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy­mak­ers and busi­ness groups. As one of the most sym­pa­thet­ic faces of the immi­grant rights move­ment, the DACA­ment­ed” com­mu­ni­ty have ral­lied schools, employ­ers and civic insti­tu­tions across the coun­try who have come to embrace them, despite the deep dys­func­tion of the Amer­i­can immi­gra­tion system.

At a ral­ly to defend DACA on Tues­day, activists with the advo­ca­cy net­work Movimien­to Cosecha announced that the DACA­ment­ed com­mu­ni­ty was unbowed. Cosecha orga­niz­er Thais Mar­ques acknowl­edged an impend­ing eco­nom­ic cri­sis in our com­mu­ni­ty,” but vowed to redou­ble the group’s non­vi­o­lent resis­tance. Tens of thou­sands of jobs may soon be endan­gered, but the youth say they will keep work­ing, get­ting an edu­ca­tion and orga­niz­ing to pro­tect the rights of all immi­grants nation­wide. We are angry, for all the plans that DACA recip­i­ents had that now seem impos­si­ble.” Mar­ques said in a state­ment. But we are also strong. Our strength and resilience have nev­er depend­ed on a work permit.”

Beyond the real-life impacts of the repeal, the optics are part of what makes the debate so com­plex: Though only a small frac­tion of the total 11 mil­lion undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grant pop­u­la­tion in the Unit­ed States, the DACA recip­i­ents rep­re­sent a sym­pa­thet­ic sub­set, as eli­gi­bil­i­ty is premised on hav­ing long-estab­lished res­i­den­cy and a squeaky clean record.

Accord­ing to sur­veys of DACA recip­i­ents from 2014, almost two-thirds report­ed get­ting a high­er-pay­ing job. Six per­cent of sur­vey respon­dents start­ed a busi­ness, 54 per­cent bought a car, and 60 per­cent pur­chased a home.”

The reprieve also allowed young peo­ple to ful­ly come out of the shad­ows” as immi­grant rights advo­cates. Many of the DACA­ment­ed activists had been push­ing for expand­ed reforms toward the end of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, includ­ing the exten­sion of DACA pro­tec­tion for undoc­u­ment­ed par­ents. Trump has now sti­fled those ear­li­er hopes, while gal­va­niz­ing his far-right base by aggres­sive­ly dis­man­tling Oba­ma’s mod­er­ate reforms.

The six-month time­frame for Con­gress to inter­vene sug­gests that Trump is aim­ing to soft­en the polit­i­cal blow of the deci­sion. But it will hard­ly insu­late him from mass protests and legal chal­lenges from state offi­cials, as advo­cates press for sanc­tu­ary for all migrants nationwide.

Although Trump’s deci­sion will hit com­mu­ni­ties nation­wide, in the wake of unprece­dent­ed rain­fall and flood­ing, immi­grant youth in Texas now face a triple-blow: los­ing DACA, Har­vey’s dev­as­ta­tion and Texas’s new law out­law­ing sanc­tu­ary cities” that offer extra pro­tec­tions to undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants, which is cur­rent­ly being chal­lenged in court. Last week, youth activists with Unit­ed We Dream declared: We call on Gov­er­nor Greg Abbott, Attor­ney Gen­er­al Ken Pax­ton, and all Texas politi­cians of con­science, that they pub­licly ensure that this moment will not be used to hunt down and per­se­cute immi­grant fam­i­lies in need of refuge and shelter.”

Trump has turned his back on their appeal, but the call for account­abil­i­ty and com­pas­sion wasn’t lost on the mil­lions who sup­port the DACA com­mu­ni­ty’s eco­nom­ic and social contributions.

Accord­ing to Seat­tle-based lawyer Jorge Barón with the North­west Immi­grant Rights Project, which works with DACA recip­i­ents, the legal threat is seri­ous. But the fate of DACA is still going to come down to whether Con­gress acts to pre­serve the program’s pro­tec­tions. And the threats fac­ing immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties will depend on the sever­i­ty of enforce­ment actions against cur­rent DACA recip­i­ents, and, ulti­mate­ly, where peo­ple live, as some states have actu­al­ly expand­ed on DACA pro­tec­tions with mea­sures like sanc­tu­ary cities,” while oth­ers have active­ly coop­er­at­ed with ICE agents.

There is undoubt­ed­ly a sense of anx­i­ety among the DACA recip­i­ents and their fam­i­lies with whom I have talked in the past few weeks. How­ev­er, I don’t see peo­ple mak­ing big changes yet,” Barón said. There is also a strong sense that the com­mu­ni­ty and the undoc­u­ment­ed com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers them­selves can push back against this decision.”

How­ev­er the pol­i­tics unfold, in many ways, the program’s future may also lie with the youth them­selves, if they can lever­age the pow­er that DACA has enabled them to seize. DACA sta­tus has evolved into more than a mere legal des­ig­na­tion. Despite all its inher­ent uncer­tain­ties, DACA is a reflec­tion of both what is achiev­able and of the long strug­gle ahead.

This was a vic­to­ry that we made,” said Unit­ed We Dream orga­niz­er Josue de Luna Navar­ro, who has lived in the Unit­ed States since age 9 and cur­rent­ly attends col­lege in New Mex­i­co. It wasn’t just an act of grace from Obama’s admin­is­tra­tion. It was our own ener­gy that we put into this, our own strate­gies, and our own com­mu­ni­ties work­ing up to this moment. And we have to pro­tect it and have that mes­sage that we’re here to stay.”

There is sim­ply no going back for the youth at the front­lines of the cri­sis. By going against a grow­ing con­sen­sus over what is fair and just for America’s undoc­u­ment­ed youth, Trump may well find him­self play­ing with an emp­ty hand, while the move­ment in the streets that helped win DACA in the first place con­tin­ues to mobi­lize for migrant justice.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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