A long-form exploration of DACA, black-brown solidarity, and the value of U.S. citizenship
Five years ago this month, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began accepting applications for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The program allows undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children to apply for work permits and renewable two-year reprieves from deportation. The Obama administration created the policy by executive order in summer 2012 under pressure from proponents of federal DREAM Actbills and immigration reform initiatives. In 2014, President Obama unsuccessfully attempted to broaden the program’s eligibility and renewal requirements. A controversial legal battle between the Department of Justice and 25 states including Indiana ended in a 4–4 Supreme Court vote after Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death, setting no legal precedent and denying an expansion that would have increased the number of eligible undocumented youth from 1.3 million to 1.5 million.
DACA outlines exhaustive restrictions primarily regarding age, date of arrival to the U.S., background check, and education level or military enrollment to determine potential approval. USCIS has rubber stamped 787,580 applications, authorizing about 89% of the total received nationwide to date. Data shows an 8% denial rate of initial applications, while less than 1% of renewals are turned down. Once granted approval, program participants are likely to retain their DACA status throughout the biennial renewal process.
Of about 11,000 young people currently eligible in Indiana, just 9,576 Hoosier applicants have been approved for DACA as of June 2016. Nearly 33% of DACA recipients in Indiana reside in Marion County. Central Indiana could very well serve as a site for increasing awareness of and support for DACA in politically unfriendly territory, encouraging critical review of the program, and reimagining the value of U.S. citizenship. Local organizations like Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance indicate hopeful possibility.
Benefits of DACA
The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy published a report in April 2017 highlighting the tax contributions of undocumented youth. Key findings include:
Undocumented Hoosiers currently enrolled or eligible for DACA contribute $23,288,000 in state taxes every year. If every eligible young person in Indiana received DACA, tax payments would increase by nearly half a million dollars. If the Trump administration dismantles the program, the state would lose more than $12 million dollars in tax revenue annually.
The administrative cost of DACA is minimal as potential recipients are required to pay all fees associated with initial and renewal processing, averaging $500 per application. The program effectively pays for itself. However the advantages of DACA are not only fiscal, but humane as well. Indefinite detention and deportation of undocumented U.S. residents damages the social fabric of family and community. Living under constant threat of internment and removal from the country without equitable access to legal protection, representation, and resources negatively impacts individual and collective financial, physical, emotional, and psychological wellness. The qualitative benefits of temporary access to employment and education without fear of detention and deportation are immeasurable.
DACA is a significantly compromised version of the DREAM Act’s path to permanent residency for undocumented youth. Tax contribution analysis reveals the U.S. reaps the financial benefit of the undocumented workforce paid under and above the table and the social advantages of keeping families of varied immigration statuses intact. A moral, liberal-leaning defense of DACA seemingly acknowledges the failure to create and pass comprehensive immigration reform and atone for generationally exploited labor of undocumented communities. It is a stop-gap, and even with its flaws, perhaps DACA is arguably better than no program at all.
Criticisms of DACA
Undocumented immigrants are not a monolith, and in true form, some undocumented people, DREAMers or otherwise, do not support DACA. The program represents a small fraction of immigration policy reform, the DREAM Act of 2001, and each unsuccessful revival, initiatives seeking to grant permanent residency to undocumented people of all ages providing for themselves and often, their families. Because DACA was established by executive order instead of federal law, the current administration can rescind the order at any time, mandating the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) end the program, tossing nearly 800,000 recipients into legal limbo after five years of relative safety. President Donald Trump’s comments on retaining, reducing, or repealing the program conflict, but USCIS continues to accept and approve applications and DHS has hinted at honoring authorized work permits through their current expiration dates if the program is dismantled in the future. If DACA eligibility is restricted or the program ends altogether, DHS and by extension, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has full access to a list of all approved and denied DACA applicants, the names of their family members, contact information, addresses, workplaces, colleges to effectively launch unilateral detention and deportation projects.
Since the fifth anniversary of DACA on August 15th, two recent news stories juxtapose narratives about DACA’s impending fate. On August 25, the White House announced DACA is officially under formal review. The president is purportedly rescinding DACA under recommendation from DHS and likely influence of known DACA-opponent Attorney General Jeff Sessions, considering only whether to end the program immediately or allow the protections of current recipients to gradually phase out. Recent reports also claim a contingent of White House officials are looking to use DACA as leverage to push sweeping immigration policy through Congress likely to directly and negatively impact the families and communities of DREAMers. In exchange for keeping DACA intact, the officials are allegedly calling for designated funding for the construction of more detention facilities and a wall along the Mexican border, an E-Verify requirement for businesses, and severely reduced legal immigration made possible by restrictions outlined in the Raise Act of 2017. This potential deal places the Trump administration at a political crossroads with conservative idealism and the president’s own campaign promises to end the program. Ten states have threatened to sue the U.S. if the president does not rescind the DACA executive order by September 5th while 20 states submitted a memo to the oval office offering a compelling case in favor of DACA. A congressional deal of this magnitude puts DACA recipients’ squarely at odds with the fight for undocumented rights as a whole. Insubstantial protections extended to 800,000 DREAMers will further endanger all undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
At best, DACA primarily functions as harm reduction policy, allowing undocumented populations branded “low enforcement priorities” by politically influenced standards to temporarily stay in the U.S. and pay taxes to American governments while remaining legally barred from voting rights and accessing most of its benefits and services. DACA applicants must undergo an extensive background check. Undocumented young people with a felony conviction are ineligible for the program when statistically, a small percentage of deported immigrants have criminal records and of those who do, most convictions are categorically nonviolent offenses and likely related to immigration status. Similar to the disenfranchisement of U.S. citizens post-incarceration, DACA blocks felons from the program even after completing their time in prison and re-entering society. Recidivism rates surge among former prisoners lacking access to sustainable employment, and DACA approval for otherwise eligible undocumented youth could open up new paths to opportunity.
Because the U.S. criminal justice system is built on anti-black white supremacist capitalism, communities of color and under-resourced areas are historically and presently hyper-criminalized and over-policed. Undocumented immigrants are largely assumed illegal by the state and its actors, and made to endure race-based targeting and discrimination without the added security of U.S. residency and documentation. Programs like DACA perpetuate carceral politics by bestowing arbitrary goodness and worth constructed on centuries of injustice and inequity. DREAMers are made to be individualized victims of collective circumstances, families traversing national borders of dangerous terrain, parents simply seeking better economic conditions for innocent children. DACA eligibility requirements demand applicants submit to American exceptionalism by distinguishing themselves as indebted, patriotic immigrants as opposed to “illegal aliens” and “bad hombres” to prove they deserve deferred action above millions of other undocumented people — their family members, friends, coworkers, neighbors, fellow parishioners, community members and leaders irrespective of criminal records. For DREAMers to survive in impermanent increments is an exercise in disassociation not taken lightly, ideologically aligning with a global prison state cashing in on black and brown bodies of all immigration and citizenship statuses.
All five versions of the DREAM Act ending in the creation of DACA in 2012 curtailed granting U.S. citizenship to undocumented young people. Liberal and conservative lawmakers placated to bipartisan agreement in hopes of garnering support for immigration reform across the aisle. Each attempt at further restricting eligibility and benefits failed to pass the mandatory vote threshold to end debate on either the House or Senate floor in 2001, 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011. Arguments against amnesty consistently fail to mention U.S. imperialism as a significant cause for political turmoil in Mexico and throughout Latin America resulting in economic and social strife driving Latinx people to risk emigrating to the U.S by any means necessary.
What happens to a dream deferred?
In Indiana, post-RFRA refrain “Indy Welcomes All” rings hollow for Hoosier DREAMers within legislative context. DACA and its imperfect predecessors withhold full citizenship, the rights and protections residency provides, in exchange for ongoing exploitation and the illusory promise of inclusion in the American Dream. Citizenship is actively positioned outside the realm of possibility for most undocumented families, newly transplanted to long established, the common thread is illegitimacy. The U.S. economy cannot effectively function without immigrant labor, and by design, illegality preserves a low-cost, highly profitable undocumented workforce with few options for recourse or recompense. The financial benefit of undocumented labor to Indiana’s economy, to American capitalism altogether compels critique of U.S. citizenship itself and political exclusion of entire swaths of people living, surviving, and working within the country’s borders and on its behalf abroad.
Symbols of material citizenship are birth certificates, social security numbers, photo id cards, and voter registrations, but the title U.S. citizen holds intangible value more difficult to subjectively define. The implicit worth of citizenship depends on self-directed and socially assigned identities, presentation, status, power, and lack thereof. Citizenship denies and affords comfort, security, access, and opportunity. Denial is an emotional, financial, and physical cost forced upon some groups of people designed for others’ direct and indirect gain. Denial’s bounty is the devaluation, social conditioning, exploited labor and means of survival of black people, brown people, poor people, and more in the U.S.
The struggle for justice for undocumented immigrants and Black Americans overlap and diverge often, but are inextricably linked. Citizenship and denial of such does not provide sufficient shield for black and brown people from police brutality and ICE raids, mass deportations and incarceration, indefinite detention and disproportionate prison sentences. Redlining practices, subprime lending and banking discrimination, unexpected loss of income, housing displacement, and destruction of entire cultural districts are products of deliberate and imprudent erasure. Educational and vocational opportunity is unjustly tied to zip codes, neighborhood tax revenue, bodily and mental ability, test scores, and documentation status. The fight for equitable access to affordable housing, food, health care, insurance, education, sustainable wages, and employment to survive and surmount inordinate poverty rates among Americans of color are interconnected. The American Dream is birthed of white and wealthy imagination sponsored by denial after denial.
Latinx, Black, Chicano, Pan African, and undocumented immigrant liberation movements have emerged and evolved, collided and collaborated over time. Relentlessly pushing for amnesty and full U.S. citizenship alongside undocumented immigrants in Indiana and nationwide is justice-oriented restitution that can and should parallel dismantling anti-blackness and oppressive immigration policy created and sustained by an exclusionary understanding of citizenship. Liberatory work demands trading either/or limitations for radical both/and visioning. Tearing down state-sanctioned oppression cannot happen apart from compassionate communal care for othered people existing in-between. A comprehensive and simultaneous expansion and deconstruction of U.S. citizenship is a black-brown solidarity project worthy of continued exploration and investment. Five years of DACA, millions of undocumented futures hang in the balance.