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How a Short-Term Fix Became a Monument to Failed Immigration Policy

Immigrant youth activist Juliana Macedo do Nascimento on the good and bad about DACA.




Activists rally in support of immigration reform in Lafayette Park across from the White House on August 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty.

What was introduced 10 years ago as a stopgap to protect immigrant youth has endured in the face of legal attacks and congressional failures to pass a more permanent solution. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, better known as DACA, is simultaneously recognized by immigrant-rights advocates as the most consequential policy change in decades and as an impermanent change that has left hundreds of thousands in legal limbo.

To understand what DACA has accomplished and where it has fallen short, Capital & Main spoke with Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, who directs federal advocacy for the nation’s largest immigrant youth-led grassroots network, United We Dream. Nascimento was born in Natal, Brazil, and moved to the United States at age 14 with her family. She grew up undocumented in California and is herself a DACA recipient.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Capital & Main: What is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and how did it come about?

Juliana Macedo do Nascimento.

Juliana Macedo do Nascimento: DACA wasn’t handed to us. We had to really fight hard for it. DACA was, and still is, one of the biggest movement wins for undocumented immigrants in the United States. It protects me from deportation, and it allows me to work in the country. What it does not do is create a pathway to citizenship. It gives me legal presence but not legal status.

DACA came about because the DREAM Act, first introduced in 2001 and reintroduced a couple of times after that, kept failing to pass Congress. When it failed in 2010, during Barack Obama’s presidency, undocumented youth organized around the idea that the executive branch also has authority to protect us. It doesn’t all fall on Congress.

We put pressure on the Obama administration to protect us from deportation. During his reelection campaign, we went hard. We followed him from event to event. We interrupted town halls and speeches.

The Obama administration said, “We don’t have the authority to do it.” But finally, with enough pressure, they came out with the idea for DACA. It was announced in June 2012, and people could apply for it by September that year.

The Department of Homeland Security deprioritized deporting people who fall under certain criteria, including having arrived in the country under the age of 18 and living in the country for at least five years consecutively. Folks who fit into this criteria, known as Dreamers, can reapply every two years.

“Hundreds of thousands of people have been able to breathe a sigh of relief and live without fear of deportation for 10 years. That’s not a small thing.”

DACA was intended as a temporary measure. But 10 years later, Dreamers are still in legal limbo. Why?

The hope when DACA was created was that Congress would somehow get its act together enough to pass something to protect Dreamers. Unfortunately, they have not.

The political parties are just drifting further and further apart, with Republicans really doubling down on anti-immigrant rhetoric. We also see Republican attorneys general challenging any pro-immigrant provision that administrations try to enact, including DACA.

There is a case brought by the Texas attorney general challenging DACA’s legality. A federal judge in Texas agreed and stopped all new applications. Now only renewals are allowed while the case makes its way through the court.

We don’t expect to win in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has unfortunately put out decision after decision that harms immigrant communities. That court ended Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), an expansion of DACA for parents of U.S. citizens. So, we expect to make our way back to the Supreme Court by next year, where we don’t think the conservative court will come down on our side.

DACA really is under threat. It’s not looking good for us, and it could be gone as early as next year. It was a stopgap, and we’ve kept it alive for this long, which is a miracle in itself. But we don’t know how much longer we can hold off for.

I don’t wanna get electoral here, but this year is the midterms, and it doesn’t look good for Democrats to keep the House and the Senate. Next year might be too late for Congress to do something for us. They really need to act now.

We really hope to use this moment to create that urgency for Congress to really get moving on permanent protections for our people — and not just for DACA recipients, because it’s not enough anymore.

What has DACA accomplished? More than 800,000 people have gotten work permits and protection from deportation under DACA. But this is just a fraction of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

DACA recipients are a very small subset of the population that needs this protection. It’s smaller every day. We really need something that will encompass immigrant youth and our families and our communities.

But even so, hundreds of thousands of people have been able to breathe a sigh of relief and live without fear of deportation for 10 years. That’s not a small thing.

I mean, I’m one of them. So, I know how life-changing it has been for me to get a driver’s license and drive past the police without fear, to pursue a career in a field that I actually want to work in and I’m passionate about.

Those are all life-changing situations that really reverberate throughout a community. My parents, even though they’re still undocumented themselves, don’t have to live with the fear that I’ll be deported. I’m able to donate my time and money to help my community grow. I’m able to do advocacy work and use DACA as a stepping stone to accomplish more for the rest of our community.

DACA’s impact is not just in our individual lives but in society at large. DACA recipients have become homeowners and business owners. About 343,000 DACA recipients were employed in jobs deemed essential by DHS. Of these, 34,000 were health care workers, and more than 11,000 were working in health care settings during the pandemic.

“We would like to see this administration go bold in defending DACA in its entirety, and in expanding it, like they have the authority to do.”

Where has DACA fallen short?

It’s not a pathway to citizenship. It doesn’t even grant legal status. It barely even covers 10% of the population of undocumented people in this country. And it’s really outdated. The majority of folks coming of age aren’t even eligible. United We Dream’s partner found that of the 100,000 undocumented high schoolers graduating this year, only a quarter would be eligible if DACA was open to new applications right now. DACA has a date cutoff of 2007, but so many people have come into the country since then. DACA hasn’t expanded to evolve with the population it’s meant to protect.

Even at its start, DACA had its limitations. I always compare myself to my brother because he chose to go back to Brazil six months prior to DACA being announced. He was really frustrated and tired of living in the United States undocumented and being afraid of the police. He had gotten into a car accident, and luckily, he hadn’t been taken in or deported. But he was just tired of living that way. So, he left six months before DACA, and to think how his life has turned out in Brazil and how my life has turned out here. I haven’t seen him in 10 years because of it.

It’s really heartbreaking to me that he couldn’t have waited six more months, or that DACA couldn’t have come six months earlier, and I would’ve been able to have my brother with me this entire time.

As DACA faces its potential end, the Biden administration has promised to protect it. Alejandro Mayorkas, who was among the original architects of DACA and is now the head of the DHS, said last year that it’s time to “deliver to Dreamers the certainty they deserve.” How has the administration done so far?

We would like to see this administration go bold in defending DACA in its entirety, and in expanding it, like they have the authority to do.

I really struggle to see how DACA has been a priority for this administration from the beginning, when they didn’t prioritize the applications that were coming in when they first got into office.

There was a window of time, after three years of DACA being blocked by the court, where we won at the Supreme Court and the Biden administration started taking new applications for DACA. The administration had a really rare opportunity to grant new applicants protections, and they failed to do so.

The Donald Trump administration left the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in shambles. There were huge backlogs. And now we find ourselves with about 80,000 young people who were able to apply for the first time but never received DACA before it was blocked by the federal judge in Texas six months later.

The Biden administration also promised to enshrine DACA through rulemaking, and they came out with a proposed rule that we didn’t like so much because it severs the two parts of DACA: the protection from deportation and the work permit. Six months later, the final rule hasn’t come out.

We really need this administration to own this policy and make it as expansive and inclusive as they possibly can. Instead, the administration seems to be cowering at what they think the Supreme Court, or any other judges, might say.

Copyright 2022 Capital & Main

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