Opinion: Marking DACA’s Fifth Anniversary

Barack Obama announcing the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program on June 15, 2012. (Screen shot)

Five years ago, President Barack Obama stepped into the Rose Garden to briefly discuss “new actions” his administration was taking “to mend our nation’s immigration policy, to make it more fair, more efficient, and more just.”

That June 15 announcement of an executive order that came to be known as DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – was in part a response to failed efforts in Congress to send Obama an immigration reform bill to sign. What DACA would do, Obama told reporters on that day, would be to acknowledge and recognize what was true for so many young people who were undocumented immigrants:

These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag.  They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one:  on paper.  They were brought to this country by their parents – sometimes even as infants – and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license, or a college scholarship.

Put yourself in their shoes.  Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life – studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class — only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak.

Then-Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano administered the order, and set strict and elaborate guidelines for individuals seeking relief under the program from the threat of deportation. They had to have arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16, be younger than 31 when applying, have lived continuously in the U.S. five years prior to June 15, 2012 and not have been convicted of any felony or significant misdemeanor or be a threat. They were required to renew their status every two years. Applications were accepted beginning two months later, in August 2012, and by the end of last year about 750,000 individuals had received DACA status.

But Obama’s attempt to broaden DACA and extend similar relief to parents of DACA recipients, announced in November 2014, was held up in the courts and never implemented. And today, as a new president’s anti-immigration stance threatens immigrant communities across the country, even DACA holders worry – and with reason. Some DACA recipients have been detained this year and threatened with deportation, although they eventually were released. In a threat-filled environment, their fears are real. People worry when they shop, when they consider going to the hospital, when they contemplate reporting a landlord for neglecting their building.

The notion that DACA gave thousands of young people a free pass is simply wrong. As Napolitano wrote a few months ago in The New York Times, “the program is not the same as amnesty. Each case is assessed on its own merits to ensure the applicant meets the criteria and poses no security threat. This is similar, but not identical, to how a prosecutor decides to charge a case. The program does not grant categorical relief to an entire group.”

Today in New York City, politicians and activists will gather on the steps of City Hall to mark the executive order’s fifth anniversary.  They will note that DACA, which candidate Trump once pledged to reverse, remains in peril. They will observe that DACA not only protected thousands from deportation but also gave them the opportunity to obtain Social Security numbers, access to higher education, and work authorization. They will urge DACA recipients to be aware of the expiration date on their employment authorization cards so that they do not allow themselves to fall out of status.

It’s important to say all of this, and to give resounding support to a program which was but the beginning of a process for bringing immigrants out of the shadows. But among those in Washington and elsewhere who are fanning nativist fires, these words may fall on deaf ears, and a climate of fear may persist, with detentions and deportations continuing – and the future of DACA still uncertain.

Would that those few simple words, spoken by Obama in the Rose Garden five years ago, get the hearing that they deserve: “Put yourself in their shoes.”

Karen Pennar is the Editor of Voices of NY and Co-director of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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