The clock is ticking for DACA recipients

December 7, 2017

The end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, announced earlier this year by Donald Trump, is coming in three months--but already, hundreds of people are losing their protected status each week, causing many to lose their jobs or drop out of school.

Then there's the untold emotional toll facing these and many other immigrants under the Trump administration. They shoulder the massive stress of losing their legal status while often still being responsible for others in their family and community. A article this week profiled Sydelle O'Brien, who suffered overwhelming panic attacks after Trump's announcement--which she only put behind her by organizing a solidarity campaign to fundraise to help others register for the program before it expired.

Some Democrats in Congress are threatening to oppose an end-of-the-year government spending bill--which would trigger a government shutdown--if Republicans don't agree to protect DACA recipients. But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who boasted months ago that he and Nancy Pelosi had already reached a deal with Trump to protect young immigrants, told reporters: "We don't think we're going to get to that. There are good negotiations occurring between Democrats and Republicans to come up with a good DACA program, as well as some good border security."

Schumer's acknowledgement that Democrats are bargaining on DACA in exchange for even more money for repressive security measures flies in the face of Nancy Pelosi's pledge to fight for a standalone, or "clean," DREAM Act vote. It's a cruel insult to the many DREAMer organizations that demand they not be used as a bargaining chip in exchange for even more repression of their parents and fellow immigrants.

How can immigrants and their supporters build a movement to prevent the expiration of DACA without playing into the divisive politics that trade temporary gains for some immigrants for increased repression of others? Lupita Romero, a DACA recipient and member of the International Socialist Organization in New York City and an activist in the immigrant rights movement, talked with Socialist Worker's Danny Katch about those questions.

CAN YOU talk about the mood among DACA recipients like yourself right now?

IT FEELS like a personal attack on the little progress that many of us have been able to make because of our ability now to work legally and benefit from other social services that weren't accessible to us before.

When DACA was introduced by Barack Obama, many of us knew it would be a conditional status that could be taken away. But I think it was assumed that politicians would make good on their promises to resolve the situation. So while a lot of us knew that this was conditional, we weren't ready as a movement to react to such an aggravated attack, especially so early on in the Trump administration.

On a personal level, because my family had already been through deportation proceedings, this has caused a lot of emotional and mental health issues to resurface for me--things I've been dealing with for the last couple years and that have been compounded by a renewed sense of uncertainty about the future.

THERE WERE protests in the days after Trump announced the end of DACA and since, but not as much as one might have thought, given the popularity of the program and the impact of ending it. What do you think some of the reasons for that might be?

Thousands march to defend DACA and immigrant rights in Los Angeles
Thousands march to defend DACA and immigrant rights in Los Angeles (Molly Adams | flickr)

IT'S GOOD to keep in mind that this is a movement that's been in existence for over a decade. The original DREAM Act was introduced in 2001, and during the Obama administration, there were a series of fights that took a lot of energy from the movement. When DACA was introduced [by Obama's executive order in 2012], it gave some breathing room for many activists who were for the first time able to benefit from this program.

This movement isn't homogeneous. It's made up of different factions.

There are people who believe that Democrats will make good on their promises to the immigrant community and continue to rely on simply lobbying for a more permanent DREAM Act or comprehensive immigration reform. There's another part of the movement focused on organizing independently.

There's a faction of the movement that has been understandably more focused on alleviating the effects of enforcement which we've seen in recent years with increased deportations and raids. Others are dealing with the continued exploitation of immigrant workers and organizing workplace centers.

There are people trying to protect all 11 million undocumented immigrants, while there are people who are fully focused on winning a DREAM Act or protecting DACA youth.

People have been trying to mobilize for a clean Dream Act, but from the failure of comprehensive immigration reform to increased deportations to DACA repeal, people feel demoralized about whether mass mobilizations can actually pressure politicians to find a bipartisan solution.

There are also concerns about what our demands should actually be--so that we go beyond protecting those who are considered "good" immigrants by virtue of being good students or not having criminal convictions.

YOU'RE TALKING about the growing sections of the movement that are critical of the way politicians have highlighted DREAMers as "good" or "innocent" immigrants, deserving of protection, as opposed to many of the other 11 million undocumented people. That's a very important critique because we need a movement that's going to fight for all immigrants.

At the same time, is there a danger that this critique might be leading to less strategizing about how to prevent DACA from expiring? Even many Republicans were afraid of Trump's announcement ending DACA because of its popularity. Do you think there's still a potentially powerful movement that can be built to defend DACA recipients from having their rights stripped away, without playing into the "good" vs. "bad" immigrant framework?

THE GOOD and bad immigrant dichotomy came out a narrative that Democrats presented to Republicans as a justification for passing the DREAM Act back in 2001.

It was supposed to move Republicans to the left, but what actually happened over the last 10 years is that Democrats increasingly became centrists themselves, and started to focus only on providing relief for those who "make a contribution" to this country, while justifying attacks on other populations of immigrants who have criminal records or don't necessarily have the means to "succeed" in same way.

That's why it's become such a contentious debate inside the movement about whether it's worth continuing the fight for DACA or abandoning it in order to fight for permanent protections for all undocumented immigrants so that we can do away with the divisions.

The way I see it, we have this six-month window, with 800,000 immigrants who have received work permits under this program, 600,000 of whom are registered right now. We're talking about 600,000 people who have been integrated into workplaces, integrated into higher education, and integrated into the banking system through finally being able to access loans and mortgages.

So while there's this debate within the movement about what we need to fight for moving forward, and how we can overcome divisions that politicians are trying to create among the immigrant population, there has to be an acknowledgement that the end of DACA would be a complete disruption to different sectors of society.

I think there is a way we can both protect DACA and highlight the cynical political game with Donald Trump using us as a bargaining chip to get funding for his wall. There's a way we can recognize that DACA should continue forward, but that we also have to articulate new demands that allow us to overcome those divisions.

Our best bet for protecting DACA and continuing the movement for protections for all immigrants is to highlight the hypocrisy of the Democratic Party and rebuild a mass movement that can pressure them to take on some of the other attacks.

There's been a lot of frustration about the fact that Democrats are literally focused on protecting only DREAMers...

RIGHT. FOR example, they aren't doing nearly as much to highlight the plight of Haitians losing Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

YES, they're not taking on the travel ban, they're not taking on TPS and other temporary statuses.

These are divisions in the movement that aren't just ideological. The reason there's an immigration system with 100 different statuses depending on 100 different regional conditions is to divide people into different lines, and have people's statuses be dependent on various factors.

When we have an immigration system that's only conditionally and temporarily protecting different populations, there's always going to be the risk of having those statuses taken away--and of the immigrant population as a whole being divided by those statuses so it can't unite to fight together.

GIVEN EVERYTHING you're saying about these real challenges and divisions, not to mention having Trump in the White House, are there signs of hope that you're seeing toward laying the foundations for a renewed movement?

I DON'T necessarily have hope that the "clean" DREAM Act that Nancy Pelosi is fighting for is going to be put in place and protect people like myself, but I do see hope in taking to task more Democrats like her.

One reason the movement isn't homogeneous is that a large portion of immigrants have also been affected by mass incarceration, as well as the increasing cost of living, attacks on public sector and attacks on unions. These are also things that have been compounded for the immigrant community.

That's led to a faction moving to the left and being increasingly vocal about the different intersections of our movements. I do see hope for continuing to build that left wing of the immigrant rights movement so it can move the entire movement to the left and challenge the centrist narrative of the "good," deserving immigrant that Democrats have been able to use for so long.

The heckling of Nancy Pelosi's press conference in September was one action that literally did drag the entire debate to the left--and it forced Pelosi to explicitly come out for a clean DREAM Act.

That highlighted for a lot of people how much these politicians vacillate--how malleable they are to the agenda of right, but also how much we can pressure them by mobilizing people. The protest also informed the immigrant community about all the attacks that have been made by both parties.

We also have to remember that in a movement that's been around for over 10 years, there are now whole new layers who have received DACA for first time and who weren't even around for the sit-ins and civil disobedience actions that pushed for DACA in the first place.

We have a large population of younger immigrants being politicized by this experience and who are learning from older (laughs), for lack of a better word--

YEAH, YOU guys are old.

A WHOLE generation of undocumented immigrants who have been demobilized by the tactics of the Democrats and have had to focus on providing direct services, legal clinics and financial support for people who are applying for all these relief programs.

But now that they're being taken away, people are coming to terms with how demobilized we've become over the past few years because of our reliance on the Democrats--and with what we need to do to shift that.

So while we haven't seen the numbers at protests that we might have hoped for, as we come into this new year with only three months to go for DACA and a Democratic Party that's not doing nearly enough to roll back these attacks, we're going to see a really fast politicization.

Right now, there are already 122 people losing DACA status every single day, meaning their current work permit has expired, and they're unable to renew it.

As people continue to exit DACA and find themselves in precarious financial and social conditions, there's going to be more momentum for holding Democrats accountable and finding more permanent solutions.

There are also a lot of DACA recipients whose deportations were halted because of their status, so their deportation cases will be reopened. That's hopefully going to shock immigrant communities into mass mobilizations.

TO COME back to the personal level, how are you trying to organize with others in your life to fight for your rights specifically and your future?

THERE ARE a couple of aspects where my DACA status being rescinded is going to really affect me and many others. Upon losing DACA, I'm going to lose my job and the ability to pay for school. I work at a nonprofit organization and I'm a member of the United Auto Workers union, which represents multiple DACA recipients.

The first step for us in our workplace is to inform our co-workers about what's going on. I've definitely had to do that, because it's affected my mental health and my work ethic.

I'm also organizing a meeting with my union delegate and my union president, as well as other DACA recipients on staff, to explore what kind of asks we can make of our employers--to either protect our position in these organizations, continue to be on payroll in one way or another, or negotiate severance packages to help alleviate at least the immediate burden that losing DACA will cause.

I'm also a student at CUNY, where there are several campuses with either scholarships for undocumented youth or some form of staff support.

In my school, I'm trying to figure out whether my school has a sanctuary policy; what its protocol is for ICE presence in school buildings; whether the school can provide funding for undocumented youth who may be midway through semester and suddenly lose their ability to pay tuition; and what the campus can provide in the way of mental health resources for students struggling to keep up their school work in the midst of this very uncertain situation.

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