Debating the Fate of DACA

In two readings and discussion, students explore the meaning and history of DACA, including the social movement activism that won DACA during the Obama years and prospects for future action.  


To the Teacher


The last few months have seen intense debate over DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA is a program that offers undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children protection from deportation. Starting in early September 2017, actions of the Trump administration called future of the program into question. On September 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration would begin "winding down" the DACA program. Then on September 14, following significant protests by defenders of DACA, President Trump stated that he was working out a deal with Democrats to retain the program. Currently, the future of DACA remains in question.

What is the significance of the DACA program, and why is it raising such intensive debate? This lesson is divided into two readings designed to have students explore the meaning and history of the program, as well as the president's actions around the policy. The first reading describes what DACA is and what actions the Trump administration has taken with regard to the program. The second reading looks at the social movement activism that succeeded in winning DACA during the Obama years, as well as the prospects for future action on the part of advocates.

Questions for discussion follow each reading.


Reading One: What is DACA? What did President Trump Do?

In June 2012, President Obama established a policy called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. This program offered undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children protection from deportation. Those eligible for the program, an estimated 800,000 young people in the United State, are known as the "Dreamers," named after the DREAM Act that was introduced into Congress prior to the creation of DACA. During his campaign, Donald Trump indicated that he would terminate DACA. However, since taking office, he has sometimes voiced sympathy for the young people protected under the program.

On September 5, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration would begin "winding down" the DACA program—a move that met with immediate protest by immigrant rights activists. New York Times White House Correspondent Michael D. Shear described the specifics of Trump's proposed repeal of the DACA program:

President Trump on Tuesday ordered an end to the Obama–era program that shields young undocumented immigrants from deportation, calling it an "amnesty–first approach" and urging Congress to pass a replacement before he begins phasing out its protections in six months.

As early as March, officials said, some of the 800,000 young adults brought to the United States illegally as children who qualify for the program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, will become eligible for deportation. The five–year–old policy allows them to remain without fear of immediate removal from the country and gives them the right to work legally.

Mr. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who announced the change at the Justice Department, both used the aggrieved language of anti–immigrant activists, arguing that those in the country illegally are lawbreakers who hurt native–born Americans by usurping their jobs and pushing down wages.

Mr. Trump said in a statement that he was driven by a concern for "the millions of Americans victimized by this unfair system." Mr. Sessions said the program had "denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs."

Protests broke out in front of the White House and the Justice Department and in cities across the country soon after Mr. Sessions' announcement. Democrats and some Republicans, business executives, college presidents and immigration activists condemned the move as a coldhearted and shortsighted effort that was unfair to the young immigrants and could harm the economy.


In the same article, New York Times reporter Michael D. Shear describes how, by phasing out DACA, President Trump put the onus on Congress to pass legislation that would provide a more long–term solution:

But despite broad and longstanding bipartisan support for measures to legalize unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children, the odds of a sweeping immigration deal in a deeply divided Congress appeared long. Legislation to protect the "dreamers" has also repeatedly died in Congress.

Just hours after the angry reaction to Mr. Trump's decision, the president appeared to have second thoughts. In a late–evening tweet, Mr. Trump specifically called on Congress to "legalize DACA," something his administration's officials had declined to do earlier in the day.

Mr. Trump also warned lawmakers that if they do not legislate a program similar to the one Mr. Obama created through executive authority, he will "revisit this issue!" — a statement sure to inject more uncertainty into the ultimate fate of the young, undocumented immigrants who have been benefiting from the program since 2012....

The president's wavering was reflected in a day of conflicting messages from him and his team. Hours after his statement was released, Mr. Trump told reporters that he had "great love" for the beneficiaries of the program he had just ended.

A September 5 article in the Washington Post by reporters Maria Sacchetti and Perry Stein described the importance of DACA to many young people living in the United States:

Monica Camacho Perez burst into sobs.

"Taking DACA away is taking us back to a really dark time for immigrants," said the 23–year–old Maryland resident, who arrived in the United States from Mexico when she was 7. "This is our country. We are not going anywhere."

The decision to rescind ­Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals ends a five–year reprieve for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children, a time when they didn't have to worry about being deported and could legally apply for jobs.

In 2012, two years after legislation that would have given these immigrants a path to citizenship failed in Congress, President Barack Obama granted them work permits and the chance to get driver's licenses and attend college. He said they would not be forced to leave just because their parents took them across the border illegally or allowed them to overstay their visas.

Critics accused Obama of overstepping his authority and said the young people known as "dreamers" were taking jobs that should go to legal residents. Trump pledged to end DACA if elected. A coalition of Republican officials said they would challenge the program in court if he failed to do so.

Now the new president has decided to phase out the program and is challenging Congress to pass legislation if it wants the dreamers to stay.

So the DACA recipients' battle is beginning again.

In the coming days and weeks, protesters said, they will organize sit–ins to urge U.S. lawmakers to pass immigration legislation, hold meetings on how to avoid deportation agents and scramble to apply for DACA renewals before Trump's six–month grace period runs out.

Camacho Perez and 27 others say they will fast until Friday to draw attention to their plight. They and scores of others marched Tuesday in Washington, while students in Denver and Tucson walked out of classes to protest Trump's announcement. Rallies were planned throughout the day and evening in Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities...

"Trump is trying to scare us into hiding, to get us to back down," said Erika Andiola, 30, a DACA recipient from Mexico who has been in the United States since she was 10. "We're not going to back down."...

Kathryn Johnston, 68, who lives in the District and joined [a Washington, DC protest in support of DACA], described the United States as "a land of immigrants. Most of us are."

"We should welcome immigrants, and we should especially open our arms to the children who have grown up here," she said. "They are Americans in every sense of the word."

Less than two weeks after the announcement of the DACA phase–out, President Trump began talks with Democratic leaders Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi. These talks may result in a deal to save DACA. As CNN journalists Sophie Tatum, Daniella Diaz, and Dan Merica reported on September 14, 2017:

President Donald Trump is moving closer to a deal with Democrats that would protect hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

But the parameters of any deal, including a potential pathway to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) participants and funding for his marquee campaign promise of a wall along the US–Mexico border are up in the air as the White House and Congress grapple with the impact of a Wednesday dinner between Trump and Democratic leaders.

The bombshell developments, which were first announced by Democratic leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi and reiterated by Trump himself Thursday morning, were met with immediate outrage from conservatives and put pressure on the President's Republican allies in Congress.

Currently, it remains unclear whether a deal between President Trump and the Democrats to protect young immigrants from deportation will be finalized, what the terms of that agreement will be, and how long such an agreement would be honored. In the meantime, immigrant rights activists and Dreamers uncertain about their future have vowed to continue putting pressure on elected officials for just immigration reform.

For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what protections does DACA provide?
  3. Who are the "Dreamers"? What are the arguments for why this group of immigrants should be protected from deportation?
  4. Why do you think that Donald Trump might be sending mixed messages on his position about DACA?
  5. What impact do you think the widespread organizing by Dreamers and their allies has had on the actions and words of politicians on this issue?  


Reading Two:
Immigrant Rights Activism, Before and After DACA

Although DACA was implemented by the Obama administration, it was not a policy that came into existence simply owing to the good will of high–ranking politicians. Instead, DACA was the product of many years of organizing and political advocacy on the part of immigrant rights activists—particularly the Dreamers themselves, who took on many risks and sacrifices to form a youth movement that could advance the cause of just immigration reform.

In a September 9, 2017, story for Politico, immigration reporter Julia Preston described the years of activism that ultimately led to the creation of DACA:

Until now, the Dream movement, even when it was growing, has not always been visible, because of the constant risk that people without legal immigration status could pay for activism with the high price of deportation. The Dream Act, a bill providing a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants, from which the Dreamers take their name, was first introduced in Congress in 2001. But for years it languished unnoticed with little popular support.

But every Dreamer has a moment, generally toward the end of high school, when he or she first confronts the hard limitations of being undocumented in America. Often it comes when they want a driver's license, financial aid for college or a first real job. Before DACA, the barriers could become insurmountable, forcing young people to recede into the low–paying limbo of the shadow economy. And about a decade ago, as a large generation of undocumented youth came of age, many of them started to reject the constraints, and a movement began to take shape.

In 2008, Cesar Vargas, a Mexican–born undocumented immigrant from Staten Island, New York, was in his first year of law school at the City University of New York, starting to contemplate the likelihood he would never be able to practice law. He began to search online for others in the same predicament.

"It started out as a loose network of people who randomly found each other," Vargas says. "The glue that bonded us was the reality of what it means to be undocumented."

It was 2009 when Viridiana Martínez, a Mexican growing up in rural North Carolina, first told a reporter about her anger that she couldn't go to college because she couldn't afford the tuition demanded of nonresidents. Julieta Garibay, from a Mexican family in Texas, was thwarted in her goal of becoming a nurse.

Gaining confidence as they grew in numbers, they and other Dreamers began to reveal their status, sometimes in public coming–out ceremonies, taunting authorities to deport them. Early on they discovered they could use their personal stories, tales of upward striving the American way, as powerful tactical tools to advance their cause.

Preston notes that there's no clear moment when the Dreamers' movement began. Some say it was in 2010, when four immigrants, three of them undocumented, began the "Dream Walk" – a 4–month trek from Miami to Washington to dramatize the plight of the Dreamers. The stories of the marchers, and their courage in putting themselves at risk of deportation to make their statement, inspired many others to take action. Another historic moment came in May 2010, when five immigrants in caps and gowns staged a sit–in at the offices Arizona Senator John McCain. Their act of defiance ended peacefully and without anyone being deported. Preston notes that by late 2010, "the movement was rolling with momentum, with Dreamer rallies proliferating across the country."

However, the movement suffered a major blow in December 2010, when the Dream Act failed in the Senate by a narrow vote. The Dream Act would have allowed qualifying immigrants who arrived in the U.S. when they were younger than 18 to first get conditional residency in the U.S., and if they qualified, eventually become permanent residents.  (Although the Dream Act has not been passed, a number of states have passed legislation with similar provisions.)

Politico's Julia Preston described what happened after the federal Dream Act was defeated:

Movement leaders became convinced that Obama, who was in the midst of his reelection campaign, had the power to stop deportations on a larger scale. Street protests picked up pace, focused on the president rather than his Republican rival, Mitt Romney. In early June 2012, two protesters closed down the Denver offices of Obama's campaign for a week with a hunger strike, shocking his staff.

Obama announced DACA on June 15. With no approval from Congress, the program was only temporary, providing protection against deportation for Dreamers for two–year renewable terms. But it also came with a work permit and a Social Security number, opening many doors.

"It was incredible, almost surreal, to see the power we had to make the president act," Garibay recalls.

At this moment of uncertainty about the future of DACA, many people are reflecting on how DACA was won and what might be needed to secure even larger wins for immigrants in the future. In These Times contributing editor Michelle Chen wrote in a September 5 article about the immigrant rights movement's plans for continued advocacy:

[L]osing DACA would be uniquely damaging for immigrant communities because it would directly affect hundreds of thousands of young people already living, working, attending school and raising families in the United States. The campaign to preserve DACA, a status that, while temporary, allowed many to work legally and attend college for the first time, has fueled snowballing nationwide protests—branded with the slogan "#Heretostay"—as well as vocal opposition from progressive policymakers and business groups. As one of the most sympathetic faces of the immigrant rights movement, the "DACAmented" community have rallied schools, employers and civic institutions across the country who have come to embrace them, despite the deep dysfunction of the American immigration system...

Many of the DACAmented activists had been pushing for expanded reforms toward the end of the Obama administration, including the extension of DACA protection for undocumented parents...

However the politics unfold, in many ways, the program's future may also lie with the youth themselves, if they can leverage the power that DACA has enabled them to seize. DACA status has evolved into more than a mere legal designation. Despite all its inherent uncertainties, DACA is a reflection of both what is achievable and of the long struggle ahead.

"This was a victory that we made," said United We Dream organizer Josue de Luna Navarro, who has lived in the United States since age 9 and currently attends college in New Mexico. "It wasn't just an act of grace from Obama's administration. It was our own energy that we put into this, our own strategies, and our own communities working up to this moment. And we have to protect it and have that message that we're here to stay."

There is simply no going back for the youth at the frontlines of the crisis. By going against a growing consensus over what is fair and just for America's undocumented youth, Trump may well find himself playing with an empty hand, while the movement in the streets that helped win DACA in the first place continues to mobilize for migrant justice.

Regardless of how the DACA debate turns out, advocates will continue to work for a more comprehensive reform that can address the concerns of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in this country.


For Discussion

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  2. According to the reading, what role did youth immigrant rights activists have in the creation of DACA?
  3. When you read about the protests that Dreamers engaged in before DACA came into effect, which tactic or tactics stand out to you? Why do you think those tactics might have been effective?
  4. As you read about the actions of President Trump and Democratic leaders attempting to form a deal to keep DACA, can you think of one or two actions immigration activists could do next to help ensure that they can safely remain in the U.S., the country they have grown up in?


Research assistance provided by Ryan Leitner.