DACA Was Never the Answer

Many activists and immigrants never saw Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) as a great solution to begin with. “DACA’s right wing,” Annette Wong, Director of Programs at Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) said with conviction. CAA is based in San Francisco and Sacramento, and was founded to defend civil rights and promote social change. 

Yet, in early September, when President Trump ordered Congress to phase DACA out in six months, this narrative went untold. The media covered DACA for a week, mostly touching on how the loss of the program will affect immigrant youth.

Background on DACA

  • DACA protects eligible immigrant youth who came to the United States without documentation 
  • It allows youth a renewable work permit every two years
  • It was passed in 2012 under President Obama
  • Politicians said it would lead to The DREAM Act, permanent residency for undocumented immigrants 
  • The DREAM Act was never passed
  • 2 to 3 million people were eligible for DACA, and about 800,000 are now part of the program
  • 11 million undocumented people live in the U.S.

So, why are activists frustrated with DACA?  

Activists are frustrated about DACA for a few key reasons. First, DACA is a temporary status that many people feel Democrats passed to get the Latino vote, said Raheel Hayat, a Supervising Attorney at Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach (API), an organization that works for equal justice for Asians and Pacific Islanders. “Obama created a deportation machine that’s now being used by the Trump administration,” he said.  

Raheel moved to the U.S. from Pakistan when he was 12 years old. He remembers needing eye glasses, having no health insurance since he was not yet a naturalized citizen, and the frustration of not being able to see at school. He developed empathy for other immigrants because of his own experience with the system, which led him to fight for people of color as an attorney at API.

Raheel understands that DACA has been the only option available to undocumented immigrant youth, so organizations like his encouraged as many people as possible to apply. He recalls telling clients that the more people apply, the less chance of the government taking it away. Although he knew DACA wasn’t the fix, he believes taking it away without an alternative is inhumane. “DACA in a vacuum is good.” Clients look to them and not politicians, Raheel said, and taking DACA away reduces the credibility of organizations that work to improve conditions for undocumented immigrants. 

Second, DACA offers no pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who contribute to the economy as other citizens do. Despite myths, federal law states that undocumented people have to pay taxes, and almost half do. In fact, undocumented immigrants contribute more than $11.64 billion a year in state and local taxes. 

Third, “with DACA only a few people benefit,” Wei Lee, Program Officer at ASPIRE said. ASPIRE is a Pan-Asian undocumented youth group in San Francisco. DACA perpetuates a narrative that undocumented parents should be villainized, and the children who were brought here are innocent, and deserve protection.

Among children who are undocumented, Wei believes the narrative is that the kids who deserve to stay in the U.S. are bright and they get great grades, while the kids that deserve to get deported haven’t gone to college, they’ve done manual labor, they’re refugees, or they were formerly incarcerated.

Wei’s own story is indicative of how arbitrary DACA can be. He was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and his ancestors are Chinese. When armed robbers invaded his family’s restaurant and then their home, they decided to flee to the U.S. where Wei’s maternal grandparents lived. Wei and his family did not foresee the battle that would ensue with the U.S. immigration system.

Above: Wei Lee, Program Officer at ASPIRE at his office in San Francisco (left) and Raheel Hayat, Supervising Attorney at API (right).

They came on a 6-month tourist visa, and sought asylum. When they found out their petition was rejected, they were immediately put into deportation proceedings. They appealed their case, an 8-year process, without any luck. In 2013, Wei found hope again and applied for DACA. However, he’d come to the U.S. just 20 days after the DACA eligibility cutoff of 16 years old. Although the immigration system still had the power to grant visas to edge cases like his, they rejected his application.   

Wei’s undocumented status meant that for years he couldn’t get a driver’s license or work, and he was isolated from the communities around him. With the ongoing deportation case against his family, he lived in a sea of constant uncertainty. 

“I had no one to talk to about my immigration status, and I thought people would hate me [if I did talk to them about it]”, he recalls. In addition, he struggled with the stereotype that no one associated being undocumented with being Asian.

He attended University of California, Santa Cruz for college, and eventually came across ASPIRE, the organization he now works for. At the time, he said there were very few places that supported undocumented Asian Pacific Islander people. 

“It was a release. My experience was being validated.” 

He eventually went public with his immigration status. “If we don’t take a stand, how can we tell other people to do so,” he said. “If you’re living in fear, you’re doing half the work Trump wants.”

After years of battling the system, Wei was punched on the street one day. He applied for a U visa, for victims of crime, and qualified. It was only because of these circumstances that he now has a pathway to citizenship.

What are some potential fixes at the policy level? 

We keep trying to put patches on a broken system, Raheel said. In order to truly fix things, the government needs to become more efficient. He recalls some clients waiting more than 15 years to hear back about visas. Another tangible fix includes broadening categories that people can immigrate with to the U.S. said Raheel. Currently, you can immigrate with a family petition visa, work visa, tourist visa, or as an asylum seeker. You can also obtain a U nonimmigrant visa. These categories are narrow, and many people fall outside of these specific boundaries. 

“Borders are arbitrary and manmade,” Raheel said. "Immigration will continue on even if we try to prevent it, so we should try to change the system."

How can YOU get involved?

In addition to policy changes, the activists I spoke with believe individuals have a role to play in fixing a broken system. Here are some of their suggestions on what you can do:

  • Know your rights, and share this information with friends and family members. Here are some resources - Amy Aguilera at Poder
  • Learn how to be an ally for immigrant communities - Amy Aguilera at Poder
  • Sign up to volunteer at clinics such as the East Bay Naturalization Collaborative, which provides low-cost services to immigrants - Raheel Hayat at API  
  • Stop talking about things in terms of Democrats versus Republicans, and instead talk about things in terms of systems of oppression. Listen to people who are doing the work. Have those awkward dialogues. - Wei Lee at ASPIRE
  • Donate to grassroots organizations such as SFILEN, instead of organizations that are far removed from the issues - Wei Lee at ASPIRE