After five years of DACA, what will young immigrants do?

Reflecting on the life of José, a young undocumented immigrant.

 

Este artículo también está disponible en Español aquí.

California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West.

Around sundown on a summer evening, five years ago, I stood outside Mariachi Plaza, a public square where Mexican musicians-for-hire have been gathering for more than 80 years to pick up gigs at parties or restaurants near downtown Los Angeles.

This was the place José had chosen for us to meet to talk for a story I was writing about Dreamers, the young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. A 19-year-old from Mexico, he’d asked that I not use his full name for fear of drawing attention to his status. Yet, he admitted feeling hopeful about his future, now that he was likely to be able to get a work permit under the just-introduced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA, a program that promised to protect hundreds of thousands of Dreamers from deportation.

“My whole childhood, I’ve lived under the constant fear of deportation,” he said to me in Spanish once we sat down to chat. “In Alabama, where the rest of my family still lives, the police doesn’t care if you were brought here as a child, like I was, from a situation of poverty and violence. They don’t care. They’ll arrest you and deport you right away.”

But here in California, José pointed out, police didn’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement like they did in Alabama. So, at the request of some friends who were undocumented like him, José had taken a Greyhound bus bound for Los Angeles, eager to start a new life. He decided to apply for DACA, which would allow him to get a real job and hopefully, someday, go to a community college.

David Buenrostro sits in front of Obama's campaign office in Culver City in an effort to get the president to sign an executive order granting amnesty to undocumented students in June 2012. Obama established this temporary immigration policy in 2012, allowing young people like Buenrostro to defer deportation and apply for work permits.
Roberto Guerra

At the time, José and the more than 200,000 young undocumented immigrants in California who applied for DACA had no option but to register with the federal government. “It’s stressful to think they’ll know exactly where to find me,” he told me. “But what could I do? I’m tired of hiding.”

On Sept. 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration was ending DACA. Among advocates, there had been growing fear about the end of the program that's benefitted almost 800,000 immigrant youth, ever since Donald Trump hit the campaign trail in 2015. At one point, he claimed he would “immediately terminate” it. After his election, the White House went about proving that undocumented immigrants in general — and working-class, brown Latinos in particular — have been among their favored scapegoats since Day One, even as Trump appeared to hesitate on ending DACA.

In his speech announcing the phase-out of the program, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited national security and economics as the rationale. “The effect of this unilateral executive amnesty, among other things, contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences,” Sessions said. “It also denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens… Enforcing the law saves lives, protects communities and taxpayers, and prevents human suffering. Failure to enforce the laws in the past has put our nation at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism.”

His claims, for the most part unfounded and untrue, aimed to paint the average undocumented youth seeking reprieve from deportation as a freeloader and criminal-in-waiting. In reality, unaccompanied minors showing up at the border are not eligible for DACA. Not having a criminal record is one of the existing pre-requisites for qualifying as a DACA recipient. And when it comes to jobs, Sessions’ claim couldn’t be more misleading: An estimated 91 percent of DACA recipients are employed and paying taxes. According to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, the U.S. stands to lose up to 700,000 jobs and billions of dollars in economic output following Trump’s decision to deny them a right to lawfully work.

DACA was only meant as a temporary solution. Ideally, José and the estimated 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. would have benefited from comprehensive immigration reform, or through the DREAM Act. That legislative proposal would have granted them eventual permanent residency, but time and time again, for sixteen years, the law has failed to pass. “That is why we have DACA, in order to protect our kids from deportation,” says Angélica Salas, executive director of Los Angeles’ Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, or CHIRLA, an organization that has helped thousands of young immigrants find reprieve through DACA since 2012.

Last week, as speculation about the end of DACA spread through Los Angeles’ immigrant communities, Salas spoke to a crowd that had gathered outside a downtown building housing federal courts and the state office of the Department of Homeland Security.

“Our ultimate goal is a path to full citizenship,” said Salas, flanked by young Latinas of college age. “We’re fighting for leadership that represents us and sees us as the Americans that we are.”

This is a scary time for undocumented immigrants in America. Not only are they more vulnerable to deportation, but the prospects of a DREAM Act, or of comprehensive immigration reform, seem slimmer now than they have been in decades. The nativist rhetoric that blames them for joblessness and crime is getting louder by the day.

About six months after I met José, his cell phone got disconnected. I ran into his friend at an immigrant rights rally; he told me he was having a hard time settling into his new life in Los Angeles, away from family, relying on other undocumented young immigrants to help him find a couch to sleep on. But still, he said, José remained hopeful: He’d applied for DACA, and was accepted. Now I wonder if he’ll ever get the chance to go to college and to go on to live a full, productive life here in California.

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California.

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