What the battle over the Dream Act means for the West

DACA’s future in Congress remains in limbo.

 

Editor’s note: On Jan. 9, 2018, U.S. District Judge William Alsup ruled that DACA must stay in place while cases against the rescission wind through the courts. The program no longer accepts new applications from Dreamers without DACA status.

For a short time, soccer seemed like it might be Daniela Benitez’s ticket to attending college. She didn’t begin playing soccer until the eighth grade, but by her junior year of high school, she had the attention of a college recruiter. There was a catch, though. “I was going to get scouted, but I didn’t have a social (security number),” Benitez told me recently. Raised in Phoenix, Arizona, Benitez came to the United States illegally from Mexico when she was just eleven months old. She couldn’t receive any state or federally funded scholarships, including soccer scholarships, or the prestigious Obama Scholarship she’d won. She also did not qualify for in-state college tuition, and her family could not afford out-of-state tuition.

By her senior year of high school, Benitez began to understand why her parents, who also are undocumented, had never pushed her academically. “(My mom) didn’t pressure me for a reason,” Benitez said. “She didn’t want to get my hopes up, and now I see why.” Now 18 and a year out of high school, Benitez is waiting for her Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, paperwork to go through. With DACA status, Benitez would be able to attend college, drive and work without fear of deportation. She also would qualify for in-state tuition in Arizona.

A protester marching in Los Angeles following the Trump administration’s efforts to end the DACA program. For undocumented migrants brought to the United States as children, their legal status can be a barrier to accessing college.
Molly Adams/Flickr

But the status of DACA itself may be in jeopardy, and the future of young people like Benitez is being kicked about like one of her soccer balls. On Sept. 5, the Department of Homeland Security rescinded the DACA program, citing executive overreach. President Donald Trump says one goal was to pressure Congress to pass immigration reform legislatively. In January, a federal judge blocked that decision, pending litigation by a coalition of state and local governments, individual Dreamers, and the University of California. In response, the Justice Department appealed the judge’s finding to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. It also asked the Supreme Court to review the judge’s finding. Meanwhile, Congress has yet to pass permanent DACA legislation.

With all the political games, it’s hard to keep track of what’s happening. Here’s a quick guide to what DACA means for the West:

What is DACA?

Created by the Obama administration in 2012, DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, allows some people brought as children to the United States without documentation to live and work in the country for two years without fear of deportation. DACA does not offer a path to U.S. citizenship.

When then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano signed the DACA program memo, Congress was struggling to pass the Dream Act, a bipartisan effort at immigration reform that would have given Dreamers a path to citizenship. Congress has tried repeatedly and failed to pass the legislation since 2001.

Who are Dreamers?

Different organizations use the term Dreamer differently — some define Dreamers solely as those who have DACA status. Many within the immigrant community identify Dreamers as all people who are eligible for DACA. By that broader definition, while approximately 11 million undocumented migrants live in the United States, only about 12 percent 1.3 million — are Dreamers, or people who qualify for protection from deportation under DACA. Of that number, about 700,000 people were enrolled in DACA as of September 2017, when the Trump administration rescinded the program.

DACA recipients were born no earlier than June 15, 1981. They moved to the United States before turning 16, and have lived in the country continuously for the past decade. They must be students, honorably discharged former military members, or have a high school diploma or GED. They must not have a felony conviction and must be able to pass a public safety screening. It costs $495 to apply for DACA, an amount that some Dreamers find prohibitive.

Many Dreamers, including Benitez, emphasize that America is home for them, an idea that the numbers bear out. According to the Brookings Institute, when DACA began, most applicants came to the country as young children. In the program’s first seven months, two-thirds of DACA applicants were 10 years old or younger when they arrived, and one-third was under the age of six.

Today, approximately 20 percent of DACA recipients are high schoolers. According to the Migration Policy Institute, DACA recipients are much less likely than their undocumented peers to work in construction jobs and are more likely to work in office support jobs, suggesting that the program leads to economic mobility. They most commonly work in hospitality, retail trade, construction, education, health and social services, and professional services. They account for one-quarter of one percent of all U.S. workers.

Click to view larger.

What did the Department of Homeland Security memo change?

On Sept. 5, 2017, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke released a memo rescinding the DACA program. In a statement released the same day, Trump called DACA “executive amnesty.” On the campaign trail, Trump had promised to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. He also called undocumented Mexicans “rapists” and “criminals.” Now, he blamed DACA for a “massive surge” of unaccompanied minors from Central America, whom he linked to gang violence in the United States. In fact, the Chicago Tribune points out that most unaccompanied minors from Central America left because of crime and lack of opportunity at home, not because of knowledge of DACA.

After Sept. 5, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stopped accepting new DACA applications, and Dreamers with expiring permits had one month to reapply. But many were unable to meet the Oct. 5 deadline, especially after hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria caused widespread destruction in regions with large immigrant populations, prompting 36 members of Congress to request in a letter to acting Secretary Duke that she extend the deadline.

Duke did not. In September, an estimated 21,000 to 22,000 recipients who hadn't renewed began losing their status. Dreamers who had renewed their DACA enrollment would begin losing their status on March 6, with no enrollees left after March 2020.

In addition to fears of deportation, the loss of DACA status leads to more immediate problems: job loss and loss of in-state tuition rates.

What did the courts say?

U.S. District Judge William Alsup temporarily blocked Trump’s DACA suspension earlier this month, pending ongoing legal action against the Department of Homeland Security. The president of the University of California system, Janet Napolitano, is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the rescission. She also is the former governor of Arizona, and was the Secretary of Homeland Security who signed the directive creating DACA.

The Department of Justice is fighting Alsup’s block, both by appealing his stay and, in an unusual move, seeking a direct review of his stay by the Supreme Court. Benitez, who now volunteers for an organization that helps DACA-eligible individuals register for the program, says people are scrambling to turn in their paperwork before this unexpected window slams shut once more.

Protesters marched in Los Angeles in September after the Department of Homeland Security announced that the DACA program was ending.
Molly Adams/Flickr

What does Congress say?

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continue to work for immigration reform, including more permanent protection for Dreamers. Some, such as Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., hope to pass bipartisan, compromise legislation soon. Yet the president’s statements and actions complicate these efforts.

“I think that transcends into the picture that he’s trying to paint of America that we’re under assault and therefore this is one way that we’re going to protect America for Americans,” says Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. “And then all the dog whistles associated without a doubt make it a race issue.” Indeed, during a closed-door meeting last week to discuss the bipartisan legislation that Flake and others are working on, Trump reportedly asked, in reference to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He then reportedly suggested that the U.S. should bring in more immigrants from countries such as Norway.

Meanwhile, Grijalva and others are still pushing for a “clean” Dream Act. A clean Dream Act doesn’t bargain for the fate of Dreamers by combining longterm Dreamer legislation with other immigration reforms, such as border wall funding or further immigration restrictions. Those issues, Grijalva says, should be addressed through a separate comprehensive immigration reform package.

What’s next?

According to Grijalva, the one bargaining chip that Democrats have to get a clean Dream Act passed is a looming spending bill deadline: Friday, Jan. 19. The party could hold up the spending bill in order to force action on the Dream Act in some form. But whether Democrats have the will to make a potentially unpopular move in a midterm election year has yet to be seen. In any case, the Republican-held Congress has made moves in recent days to pass a stopgap spending bill to fund the government through February, perhaps buying time for further negotiations.

In the meantime, while the White House, Democrats and Republicans wrestle over immigration, the fates of Dreamers like Benitez hang in the balance. Rather than wait around, Benitez has turned to political activism. Just last month, she went to Washington, D.C. to protest the government’s actions regarding DACA. “It was the most beautiful experience of my life, being with hundreds of Dreamers,” she says. “I felt loved, I felt like I’m not alone.” Now, to others in her position, Benitez says: “We’re all in this together.”

Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor for High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....