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In the Valley of the Shadow of DACA for Immigrant Youth

Undocumented college students benefit temporarily from a new program protecting them from deportation, but a more permanent solution is needed.

Students rally in support of the DREAM Act and DACA, August, 2012. (Photo: OneAmerica)

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“Where do I go from here?” This perennial question, faced by college graduates everywhere, is acutely more pressing for undocumented students, who have legitimate worries of what a future without legal status holds.

At Dartmouth College, I’ve noticed something change in the tone of undocumented students who advocate for immigration reform. Reflections at commencement gatherings came with a sense that their situation could certainly be worse if they weren’t in the state of grace provided by the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memorandum, President Obama’s executive order offering two years of protection against deportation, a Social Security number and permission to lawfully work in the United States.

One of Dartmouth’s graduating seniors, Eduardo, who navigated four years in the Ivy League before and after DACA, shared his journey recently, saying, “We must not become complacent in the unstable future DACA grants; still, it allowed me to fly back home to California. I didn’t have to go through the whole stressful ordeal of traveling by train and constantly facing ICE – that was awful.”

Several first-year students agreed: “Yeah, it could be worse, at least we’re DACAmented,” referring not only to the policy but also the politically loaded language around their lives in the United States – their home.

There is now concrete proof behind such sentiment: The American Immigration Council recently released a study reporting that young immigrant adults have a promising life after college with the benefits of the policy. Under the reprieve, the study says, almost 60 percent of DACA beneficiaries got a new job since receiving DACA, 45 percent have increased their earnings, which, in turn, boosts the economy. Nearly 60 percent got a driver’s license, and 49 percent opened bank accounts. Most important, “those with bachelor’s degrees were more than 1.5 times more likely to obtain new jobs and increase their earnings, relative to those who never went to college,” according to the study.

“DACAmented” captures the ethos of those advocating for immigration reform on our campus and beyond by asking the public to rethink the relationship of language to our democratic practices and provide a new way of thinking about who undocumented youth are. The language of “illegal” erases their humanity. The message about the power of naming is not always clear, however. In one instance when I pointed out an illegal U-turn sign, a friend dryly responded, “Don’t you mean undocumented U-turn?” Rallying around this issue will fail if we do not understand foundational reasons for changing the terms of the debate, and how the word “illegal” fans the flames of partisan politics, as research results show an uninformed public is less likely to support a path to citizenship.

Many of the young people who have been approved for DACA and described in such terms remain optimistic yet cautious about the effects of their precarious new reality. As it stands, DACA’s two-year reprieve is quickly dwindling, and the renewal application comes with no other temporary or permanent ways of changing their status. DACA beneficiaries, brought into the country as children, are still effectively barred from official recognition of formal belonging to the United States, in addition to a host of other political, occupational, social and health-related services, plus privileges for federal financial aid or in-state tuition. Of the 553,197 approved to the program, some of those beneficiaries remain unsure of the steps necessary to renew their status when DACA expires, the National Immigration Law Center recognizes.

The other glaring problem is the policy’s tenuousness: Could it change rapidly, depending on the outcome of the next election? The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services agency has not been forthright about the future of this Obama policy; applicants could go back to the same position they were in before applying, facing potential deportation if they are picked up by immigration authorities. Add the prohibitive cost of the application and renewal, and it’s increasingly clear that the policy is fraught with problems.

A number of sympathetic people would likely say the Eduardos of the world should be happy to at least receive some legislative relief, while anti-immigrant proponents argue even these are too many entitlements. But the heart of the matter is the responsibility of the US government to equalize opportunities allowed to the unauthorized population. One of the ways inequality works is by disavowing structural challenges certain noncitizens in the United States face, particularly immigrants of color, who remain without formal rights so long as they are denied a pathway to citizenship.

We must invest in comprehensive reform of our migration system. As the study points out, the core nature of DACA is that it’s partial; the temporary nature of this solution is doomed to fail the very population it intends to help if grantees are not given more than a reprieve. Transformation would come from granting Eduardo, who grew up here and contributes to the United States as much as any of his peers, the status he deserves: citizen.

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