After much vacillation, the Trump administration ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on September 5. President Trump urged Congress to work on legislation to replace the program before it is fully dismantled in March 2018. President Barak Obama had implemented DACA in 2012 through an executive order after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act failed to pass in Congress. Strong opposition to DACA came from Attorney General Jeff Sessions who argued Obama’s “circumvention of immigration laws was an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch.” During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to eliminate the program. After taking office, he appeared hesitant about leaving nearly 800,000 immigrants who arrived in the United States as children in legal limbo and facing possible deportation to countries they barely know. Although the president’s hesitation displeased his core supporters, he was right to be worried about the decision to end DACA.
For these immigrants, the U.S. is the country and culture with which they identify. It is true they are not going to forget the heritage of their parents. After all, who does? Nonetheless, this is the country where they grew up and went to school, where they spent the majority of their formative years, where they forged lifelong friendships and lived the experiences that make them who they are. It is also the place where they expect to live the rest of their lives and give back to their communities. A Migration Policy Institute’s study from 2011—when the debate over the DREAM Act was raging—found that a significant number of undocumented immigrants “live social and economic lives that are well rooted in the United States” and “are living in households with children, further rooting them in the United States.” For DREAMers, the U.S is their home, their country.
The president should also be concerned about the economic impact that striping these immigrants of their legal status will have. I have explained the overall benefits immigrants have on the economy in two separate articles published in February and August. With regard to DACA beneficiaries, there are a few points that sets them apart. Thousands of undocumented-immigrant children graduate from high school every year. Before DACA, they entered an underground economy characterized by low income and little possibility of improvement. Those who managed to obtain a college degree could not earn salaries commensurate with their education because of their undocumented status. These conditions hampered their potential for innovation and the contributions they could make to society and the economy.
DACA offered the opportunity of enrolling in a university and temporary work permits for these immigrants. Education and lawful employment increased the income potential of many DACA beneficiaries. With it came an increase in purchasing power and a better standard of living. These individuals could buy houses, cars, appliances, food and other products, injecting money into the economy. They also paid more in taxes. Considering that these are young people in their mid-twenties and early thirties, they have a long work and tax-paying life ahead of them. DACA’s education requirements also had a side effect. They ensured that only those individuals with the drive to improve themselves through education became legal temporary residents. The requirement also served as an incentive for young people to further their education, increasing the contributions they would make to society.
There is also a moral problem when it comes to DREAMers. How can you punish people for something that is not their fault? This is probably what gave an anti-immigration advocate like Trump reasons to hesitate. Most parents would do anything to guarantee a better future for their children. In some desperate circumstances, they will even break the law. They will enter the country illegally or stay without the proper documentation in order to give their children the opportunity of a better life. These parents decided to come to the U.S. to escape economic hardship, lack of opportunity and, in some cases, war and violence.
For whatever reason parents decided to come and stay in this country, we cannot pass the blame onto their children for being here. They did not make the decision to come to the U.S. nor had any power over it. In some cases, they did not know they were living in the U.S. illegally until years after they came. Opponents may argue that by knowing their undocumented status and staying in the U.S., they are consciously breaking the law. However, as mentioned above for most of these immigrants the U.S. is the only country they know. It is their home. Their undocumented status was bequeathed to them by their parents. It would be like blaming somebody for having blue eyes or dark hair. These are characteristics we do not choose to have. We inherit them. If people really understood these circumstances, perhaps they will call on Congress to pass legislation that can solve at least this one aspect of the immigration issue.
There is legal precedent for the argument against punishing children for their parents’ actions. In Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law that allowed the state to charge tuition to undocumented students for attending public school. The law also allowed school districts to ban undocumented students from attending public schools. Writing the majority opinion, Justice William J. Brennan explained that “legislation directing the onus of a parent’s misconduct against his children does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.” He also referred to the undocumented status of these children as “a legal characteristic over which children can have little control.”
The Supreme Court made its ruling thirty five years ago. Justice Brennan’s words are important today as legislators are faced again with the task of trying to find a sensible solution for the young people who inherited their undocumented status. After March 2018, the only solution the system offers is deportation. In the current political climate an agreement on the issue seems unattainable. DACA had given us the chance to do the right thing. It gave these young immigrants the opportunity to rise from a life of uncertainty and fear to a life of promise and fulfillment—from a half life to a full life where their hard work is rewarded and their contributions will benefit the whole of society. If I may use the eloquent words of Justice Brennan one more time, it is “difficult to conceive of a rational justification for penalizing these children for their presence within the United States.” I am sure some opponents of DACA and whatever substitute legislators propose could agree with Justice Brennan on this point. I certainly do.