Reimagining What is Possible, Demanding What is Right

This week’s blog post is by Benjamin J. Roth, PhD, an Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina’s College of Social Work. His research focuses on poverty and inequality, especially these issues concerning immigrants and immigrant youth.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a program announced by President Obama in 2012 for unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. as children so they can temporarily live and work in this country. The story of DACA—and its revocation—is only the most recent chapter in a much longer volume about the contradictions within the U.S. immigration system and, I believe, our ambivalence about who we are as a nation. Understanding this story is therefore just as important for the roughly 800,000 individuals with DACA as it is for the larger society of which they are a part.

The unified voice of Dreamers continues to powerfully articulate their right to citizenship, and many allies—including within the United Church of Christ—have stood strong in support of this movement. As a researcher who has studied the effects of DACA, I think it is critical to acknowledge the power of the Dreamer movement before sharing my own views and interpretations of this story: Dreamers are now (re)writing the story of DACA and, more broadly, the quest for comprehensive immigration reform. Still, I want to highlight three things that we can learn from DACA and the Dreamer movement. All three, I believe, reflect our collective failure of imagination. Dreamers are the most impacted by this failure, but all unauthorized immigrants are affected.

  1. We have failed to imagine the true value of DACA

Even though the benefits of DACA are limited, these benefits are real. As we noted in our 2016 report based on hundreds of interviews with DACA recipients across the country, individuals like Tonya were able to accomplish things that would have been out of reach without DACA. Tonya moved from Mexico with her family at age three, but an immigration raid at her father’s job made the family afraid and they eventually decided to move back to Mexico. A freshman in high school at the time, Tonya chose to stay in Arizona with her aunt so she could finish school. But the experience left Tonya feeling discouraged, and she dropped out her junior year of high school. When DACA was announced in 2012, she felt as though she had been given a second chance. She enrolled in a GED program to qualify for DACA and successfully passed the exam. Bolstered by her success, and with the financial support of a local organization, Tonya enrolled in a medical assistant program. As Tonya explained: “I don’t know where I would be right now, without DACA. I don’t know if I would be going to school. I don’t know if I would’ve done my medical assisting [program]. In some ways, I feel like it saved my life.”

  1. We have failed to imagine the insufficiency of DACA

Much has been said about what DACA is but it is important to understand what it is not. Most importantly DACA is not—and never has been—a path to citizenship. Citizenship is defined as legal membership in a sovereign nation. It is the thing that many of us take for granted, but for most young people with DACA legal membership in this country is out of reach. What does it mean to grow up in a place where you feel like you belong, but to which you can never gain formal membership?

Pavi and Martha provide two vivid examples of the insufficiency of DACA. At the time of her interview, Pavi, who had immigrated to New York City from Bangladesh as a child, was a high school senior. An excellent student engaged in numerous extracurricular activities, Pavi was accepted to several competitive universities. However, because she was not eligible for financial aid, she faced difficulty raising the funds needed to cover expenses for the first year. As a result, she did not enroll in college. “I’m still undocumented. [DACA] is just allowing me to work at the mall, like normal teenagers, or get a driver’s license, but it still doesn’t mean I will get to go to the college of my choice because I’m not financially able to pay…If I were to get financial aid and get scholarships, then I would be able to go, but DACA doesn’t provide that for me. The main thing that I need right now is a benefit for my education, and DACA doesn’t provide that.”

Martha’s case provides a variation on this theme. After graduating from high school in South Carolina, Martha enrolled in a six-month program in cosmetology at a local community college. Since the school was close to her home and the program was short, she saw this as a financially feasible option to set herself up for a career. Upon finishing the program, however, she was surprised to find out that she could not obtain a license to become a practicing cosmetologist; none of the program staff had told her that she was ineligible for the license because of her legal status. As Martha told us, “…even though I have DACA, I went to school, I got my certificate, but I still didn’t get my license.”

As one respondent explained, the insufficiency of DACA is like “opening doors to brick walls.” DACA gets you somewhere, but eventually that path is a dead end. Full membership remains elusive. The benefits of DACA are real, but they are also partial, temporary, and insufficient.

  1. We have failed to imagine that something even bigger is at stake

Our society has also failed to imagine what it means to deny 11 million individuals the rights of citizenship. The battle over DACA has focused on 1.2 million young people. The larger story of immigrant exclusion, however, concerns all unauthorized immigrants in the United States. Comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) is possible, even if our current political reality suggests it is an impossibility. It wasn’t that long ago, in fact, that many of us demanded CIR. In the spring of 2006, hundreds of thousands of immigrants and supporters took to the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles, and dozens of other cities to advocate for immigration reform.

Source: – DACA/Dreamers protest September 9, 2017

Since 2006, and in the wake of numerous failed Congressional attempts to pass the Dream Act (originally proposed in 2001, and nearly passed in 2006 and 2013), DACA provided partial and temporary relief for a percentage of the country’s unauthorized immigrants. In many states, DACA meant they were also able to get a driver’s license and access in-state tuition at public colleges and universities—“benefits” that their citizen peers consider “rights.” Most recently, the story of DACA is illustrated by images of tens of thousands of Dreamers and their allies who are asking policymakers for a path to citizenship. Their efforts underscore the incompatibility between a healthy democracy and this country’s refusal to incorporate law-abiding “illegal” immigrants, as well as our collective failure as stewards of democracy and advocates for social justice. As in 2006, Dreamers today are marching with their feet because they are unable to hold elected officials accountable with their vote. We must join them, letting them lead. We must also spur one another to reimagine what is possible—and doggedly pursue this dream.

Just as leaders and members of the fledgling United Church of Christ marched for civil rights and workers’ rights decades ago, just as this church was on the streets of Charlottesville, just as this church filed suit against states for impinging upon clergy’s rights to officiate all weddings, and just as this church stood with farmworkers, we continue to stand with all who seek justice and fairness and equity. And we stand with those who wait in the shadow of Lady Liberty seeking the better life our ancestors sought when they came to these shores.


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