By Elizabeth Gibson, Staff Attorney, New York Legal Assistance Group/Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow
Why are we doing this? Why is the United States government destroying the lives of innocent people who contribute to our communities and to the nation’s social and economic well-being?
Today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to terminate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (commonly called DACA), one of the most positive and successful innovations in recent immigration law.
The concept of DACA was always simple. If you came to the United States undocumented as a child, maybe so young that you do not even remember crossing the invisible line separating “us” and “them,” the country was not going to deport you from your home, from your family, from your life because of something that was not your fault.
In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) granted these young people a reprieve. DACA did not give anyone formal immigration status. Essentially it amounted to a work permit and a promise: DACA recipients would not be targeted for deportation.
Now, DHS has announced that the administration is ending DACA with a six-month delay in enforcement. DHS stated that those with current work permits will be able to continue working until they expire and that renewals will be accepted until October 5, 2017. New applications will not be accepted. However, even before the end of six months, many Dreamers are likely to lose employment because of confused and/or discriminatory employers. Ultimately, the reprieve buys them little more than a few months to fight for new laws to protect Dreamers.
Although NYLAG supports congressional action to give lasting protection to Dreamers as soon as possible, it is dangerous to assume that action will be taken and all will be well. The very impetus of DACA was Congress’ failure to act on the issue. The DREAM Act, intended to address this problem, was introduced in 2001. Sixteen years later Congress is still deliberating on new iterations of the bill in a time when immigration issues are more divisive than ever.
DACA came about as a result of decades of failure by Congress to make headway on immigration reform of any sort. It was not a law passed by the legislature, but rather an executive policy to exercise agency discretion in a humane and practical way. DACA came from a grassroots movement of hundreds of thousands of people saying, “I am here. I am your classmate. I am your coworker. I am your neighbor. But for a birth certificate, I am you. ” And at the time, it was not controversial. Two thirds of Americans supported DACA when it was created.
Nearly 800,000 people have applied for and received DACA, including more than 40,000 New Yorkers. The New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) alone has helped with approximately 2,000 cases. Even before DACA, NYLAG pushed the government to find effective ways to use its discretion to protect young immigrants because every day we saw people who were suffering and fighting to live up to their potential.
Over the last five years, DACA Dreamers have thrived. They became teachers and nurses, artists and engineers. Research has shown that immigrants with DACA were more likely than similarly situated immigrants to pursue higher education and find white-collar jobs. They created new jobs and businesses, paid taxes, and helped raise families out of poverty.
For all of its advantages, DACA has always been a limited solution to a much larger problem. Countless children watched their parents deported out of their lives as they moved in with aunts, uncles, and family friends or set out on their own because DACA did not protect their parents. Obama-era programs for parents of DACA recipients got tied up in the courts, and, earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security announced that the government was nixing the idea entirely. In addition, while DACA meant work authorization, it did not provide a path to a green card or citizenship. It left a generation living without full rights and in fear that one day someone might take away DACA and leave them with nothing.
Today, Dreamers may feel like that day has come, but New York City and advocates and agencies like ours have no intention of leaving them with nothing. We will continue to fight for them. As we did before DACA, we will defend the rights of all New Yorkers regardless of their immigration status, and we will seek creative solutions for DACA recipients. We also will support any available legal challenges to the repeal of DACA and encourage legislation to protect the Dreamers through congressional action.
We strongly recommend that all Dreamers speak with an attorney or accredited representative to see if they may be eligible for other forms of immigration relief. It remains unclear exactly what action the government will take at the end of six months, and it would be physically and financially impossible to deport every Dreamer. However, it is important to look for new options well before the end of the six-month period. In particular, anyone who has ever been in immigration court or who has been arrested by the police should speak with an attorney immediately because they may be at higher risk.
As always, it is important to avoid being victimized by fraudulent immigration scams and immigrants should make sure to look for qualified legal representatives. There are many organizations in New York like NYLAG that provide free legal services for immigration and employment issues. Dreamers should review information about their rights if they encounter immigration officials, and they should put together a plan for emergency situations. NYLAG and other organizations offer know-your-rights and safety-planning resources.
City agencies and advocates across New York are hard at work to help Dreamers. We are here for you. We are inspired by you. We know you belong here. We share your dream.
Today, we cry with you. Tomorrow, we fight on.