As Hurricane Harvey stormed into Texas, leaving immeasurable devastation in its path, many residents of Houston—a city with one of the largest immigrant populations in the country-- faced multiple threats. In addition to losing their homes and livelihoods, many now confronted the threat that at any moment the remaining roots of their lives might be uprooted. They could be deported. The White House had just announced that DACA, a program protecting young undocumented immigrants, was being rescinded.
DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, began as an executive order issued in 2012 by former President Obama. The program deferred for two years the deportation of immigrants who came to the U.S. undocumented before the age of sixteen and met certain conditions including having attained a mandated level of education and possessing a nearly spotless criminal record. The deferral was renewable after two years if conditions continued to be met.
Over the past five years, DACA has provided an estimated 800,000 immigrant youth temporary safeguards and increased opportunities. The program has had a significant positive impact on both young undocumented immigrants and society overall. DACA recipients are often called The Dreamers, named after the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, a bipartisan bill designed to afford certain protections to unauthorized immigrants who grew up in America, and which Congress has failed to pass into law repeatedly over the past sixteen years.
On September 5, 2017, the U.S. Attorney General announced that the current administration would be ending DACA. The hundreds of thousands of young people under the program were now threatened with possible deportation to countries they may have little connection with: many DACA recipients have spent their entire lives in America and only speak English; some were not aware they were undocumented until applying for college; others lost their status when a parent died, often without even knowing it.
The decision to end DACA is unjustified, short-sighted, and antithetical to American values. In fact, polls find that most Americans oppose ending the program. Those under DACA, most of whom came to America as infants and young children, should not be penalized for their parents’ decisions to bring them to the United States. Dreamers are often exemplary individuals who are students, parents, working as doctors and lawyers, proudly serving in the American military, pursuing otherwise unattainable dreams. For many, DACA provided the first shot at The American Dream. It allowed a life without constant worry of being arrested, of being deported and separated from family. Now, that safety net is gone.
For Houston’s many undocumented denizens, the hurricane that was about to make landfall was but one of the disasters heading their way; Houston’s metropolitan area has the third-largest unauthorized immigrant population in the country-- more than double the national average-- thus, they were immensely hit by both Hurricane Harvey and the DACA rescission. Amidst catastrophic flooding and mass displacement, it seemed to be the end of world to some people who were in the eye of both storms; compounding this, these same individuals were ineligible to access certain assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and were hearing rumors that their status might be reported to the government if they utilized emergency shelters.
The President visited Texas, and later Florida, ostensibly to assess the suffering and damage sustained by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, but a major focus of his trips was denigrating immigrants rather than aiding those devastated by the storms, belying previous promises to “deal with DACA with heart,” that “we love The Dreamers,” and that “they should rest easy” and not fear deportation. From tempest-struck and immigrant-populous Florida, President Trump announced, "We're working on a very important deal. We have to know the wall will not be obstructed. We have to have a wall.”
Despite the vilification, and amidst the loss and destruction, many undocumented people worked with alacrity-- helping at shelters and in heavily flood areas-- to assist fellow residents of states that have sought to impose tightening restrictions on themselves and their loved ones. Activists for immigration reform cancelled scheduled rallies, urging protesters to instead volunteer with relief efforts. One young DACA recipient, Alonso Guillen, died while trying to rescue people affected by Hurricane Harvey; if not for his heroic and tragic death, he could now be facing deportation.
After the declaration of DACA’s rescission, the President said on social media that he would rely on Congress for a solution, despite them only having six months to pass a bill that has repeatedly failed over sixteen years of futile attempts. There was no proposed legislation and little help offered; instead, effective immediately, the lives of roughly 800,000 people were forced into chaos and uncertainty with little cause for confidence in the actualization of a timely solution.
Effectually, the government’s unnatural disaster represented a deep betrayal of people's trust. Upon DACA’s inception, many were understandably wary of exposing themselves by disclosing too much identifying information, out of concern it may later be used against them. They were told: register with the government, and you will not be deported. Now, a recent memo from the White House states, “The Department of Homeland Security urges DACA recipients to use the time remaining on their work authorizations to prepare for and arrange their departure from the United States.”
Looking back, it is clear that before the broken promises, there was hate speech. Even prior to the Presidential election being secured, the media quoted the campaign rhetoric: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best….They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” This vitriol has caused many to live with amplified apprehension while being increasingly portrayed as undeserving and menacing. Though the Dreamers have been maligned as ruining the country and taking resources from “real Americans,” the opposite is actually true, financially and otherwise. The Dreamers have notably contributed to the growth of local, state, and federal economies.
Recently, a Senator from Canada explained in an interview that their country could gain from The White House’s move to end DACA, expounding that the program’s recipients are well-educated, fluently speak English, and essentially have clean criminal records; that they are exactly the group of immigrants Canada would benefit from.
A statement was also issued by the National Association of Social Workers condemning the termination of DACA, reasoning for which abounds in the NASW Code of Ethics, which espouses the paramountcy of protecting the wellbeing and livelihood of the most vulnerable citizens and communities. Providing The Dreamers with the opportunities they have earned is not just an immigration issue, it is also about public health and mental health. It is about humanity. And this issue impacts not only Social Workers but myriad groups of people across the country. It pertains not solely to Social Work values, but to core American values. As Mohandas Gandhi said, "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members."
Congress must act urgently to support the DREAM Act of 2017-- without strings attached. Without using the lives of 800,000 young people as bargaining chips for the building of The Wall, which would essentially serve as a message of antagonism and cowardice.
Immigrants are the building blocks of this country, diversity is its heritage, and policies must be enacted to uphold the rights of every American—for the sake of individuals, families, the nation and its prosperity. In a country where all people besides Native Americans are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, it is nonsensical to purport that any group of people is more American and deserving of rights than any other.
An attack on anyone is an attack on everyone. Amidst messages of xenophobia, masses of people are resisting calls for division and distrust, understanding that united we stand and divided we fall. It’s time to stand with The Dreamers.