If Obama-era DACA falls before a federal court challenge, what will happen to Dreamers?
J. Kevin Appleby acknowledges that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been a consistent supporter of immigrants and immigration reform, but he says it is time for the bishops to consider a more high-profile gesture for one adjacent issue in particular. His idea: a Mass at the National Shrine in Washington to express support for “Dreamers.”
Mr. Appleby, the acting executive director of the Center for Migration Studies of New York, is speaking of a unique class of near-American citizens—undocumented immigrants, often referred to as Dreamers, who are registered with the federal government under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
As another in a series of federal court challenges filed by the attorneys general of nine southern states threatens to terminate the program, there is special urgency to address the plight of DACA holders: A ruling against the program could mean that after years of personal and civic struggle, DACA recipients would once again face the possibility of deportation.
DACA’s legislative odyssey
DACA holders are immigrants who came of age in the United States but had been brought into the country as children without documentation by parents or other family members. These U.S. residents have been suspended in a bureaucratic limbo since the program began under an executive order by President Barack Obama in 2012.
Senator Dick Durbin: “Passing the Dream Act is a matter of simple American fairness and justice that would provide Dreamers the sense of stability they deserve and a path to lawful permanent residence.”
They are not quite citizens and DACA itself does not create a path to citizenship, but they are protected from deportation and allowed to live and work and raise families in the United States. DACA recipients must re-register with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services every two years to remain in good standing with the program. On April 13, President Joe Biden announced that DACA holders will be allowed to access government-funded health insurance programs.
DACA recipients have been called Dreamers because of the name of proposed legislation that hopes to regularize the lives of people registered in DACA and now millions of other U.S. residents brought into the United States under the same circumstances—the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, known colloquially as the Dream Act. Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, first introduced the act in 2001, beginning a legislative odyssey that has now spanned two decades. The act has been reprised and reintroduced every two years since its debut, and major components of the Dream Act have been included in a number of comprehensive immigration reform packages that have likewise failed to make it through Congress.
“Dreamers have lived in America since they were children, built their lives here and are American in every way except their immigration status,” Senator Durbin said. “Passing the Dream Act is a matter of simple American fairness and justice that would provide Dreamers the sense of stability they deserve and a path to lawful permanent residence.”
In February, Mr. Durbin, who responded to questions from America over email, introduced the Dream Act of 2023—co-sponsored this time, as it has been frequently in the past, with Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. The goals of the act’s most recent iteration, like its predecessors, remain modest.
The act offers a conditional resident status for Dreamers that protects them from deportation, allows them to work legally in the United States and permits them to travel outside the country. It allows Dreamers to eventually transition to permanent legal resident status if they observe a number of conditions, including finishing or pursuing higher education, keeping a job for more than three years or accepting service in the U.S. military. Dreamers have to demonstrate “good moral character” and stay out of trouble with the law.
“I have never understood the opposition to DACA and the Dreamers,” Mr. Durbin says. Despite anxieties and fears among some native-born Americans, “immigrants in our country, particularly Dreamers,” he adds, “are teachers, nurses, small business owners and members of the military. We rely on them to help keep our economy running, care for our loved ones and provide services in our community. America is a country of immigrants, and we should legislate accordingly.”
Sen. Dick Durbin: “I have never understood the opposition to DACA and the Dreamers. Immigrants in our country are teachers, nurses, small business owners and members of the military.”
In fact, according to FWD.us, an immigration reform advocacy group, during the Covid-19 crisis, DACA recipients represented 200,000 of the essential workers who were regularly lauded by politicians throughout the pandemic, including nearly 30,000 health care workers.
The fate of America’s Dreamers has come before Congress multiple times, and each time the issue—either as a stand-alone bill or as part of a larger reform package—has stalled, most notably in 2013 when comprehensive immigration reform passed in the Senate but was not brought to the House floor by Republican Speaker John Boehner. This was one year after President Obama, frustrated by the lack of progress in Congress, issued his executive order creating DACA.
Many legislators believe the time for addressing major inconsistencies in the U.S. immigration process is far past due. The current immigration system in the United States is broken, Mr. Durbin says. “It’s been more than 30 years since Congress has passed meaningful immigration reform. We need an orderly process for immigration in America that works for both immigrants and our nation’s security and economy, so that immigrants have lawful pathways to bring their children to the United States.”
DACA goes to court
Targeted by congressional critics from the start as executive overreach, DACA has run a judicial gauntlet over the last decade. The Trump administration sought to shut it down in 2017, but it was kept alive on judicial life support until a Supreme Court ruling in 2020 on technical grounds allowed the program to continue. The following year a Texas federal court judge ruled DACA unlawful but allowed current DACA holders to renew their status pending appeal. The decision halted any further expansion of DACA, cutting off hundreds of thousands of U.S. residents potentially eligible for it.
At its height the program enrolled more than 800,000 registrants. Now, about 580,000 people remain, as some have dropped out and many others have found ways to naturalization or permanent residency on their own, through marriage or military service or along other paths that normalized their status. Since the program was created, hundreds of thousands of new Dreamers have come of age in the United States without recourse to DACA protection.
As appeals continue, the fate of the Dreamers may in the end be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. But despite the court’s conservative majority, “it’s not an automatic assumption that they’re gonna strike it down,” Mr. Appleby says.
DACA has run a judicial gauntlet over the last decade. The Trump administration sought to shut it down in 2017, but it was kept alive on judicial life support.
He notes that the Supreme Court now includes six Catholics “who should be aware of what the church teaching is on immigration and have some compassion there.” He adds, “We might be surprised” by what a ruling on DACA might look like, noting that Chief Justice John Roberts can “pull a rabbit out of a hat when he wants to.”
Before the court makes that call, however, the Dream Act of 2023 may still have a moment before Congress. As it has in the past, the act enjoys bipartisan support. “The big question,” Mr. Appleby said, “is what does [that bipartisan support] look like?” How far would Republican supporters of the latest Dream Act be willing to go, he wonders. “Whom would it cover? Would it cover the total population of [current] Dreamers or just a smaller population that may have qualified for [the original DACA program]?”
According to Appleby, there are about 2.4 million undocumented people who would be eligible for conditional residency under the Dream Act of 2023. Would an expansion of that size be acceptable to potential Republican supporters in Congress?
Mr. Durbin charges that “extreme MAGA Republicans are driving the immigration agenda in the House of Representatives.” Nevertheless, he says, “I am willing to negotiate with anyone who will work with me to protect Dreamers, and if there is a path forward, I will certainly work with my colleagues to get it done.”
If it succeeds in the 118th Congress, the Dream Act would be overcoming decades of legislative inertia. “They came five votes short of 60 needed in the Senate to get it over the finish line [in 2010]… [but] five Democrats did not vote for it because of re-election concerns,” Mr. Appleby remembers. “That was the closest, that was the high-water mark, and since then our nation’s become more polarized. The President Trump era had an impact; it emboldened the anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party.”
Seeking common ground
The Trump years indeed seemed to stoke a cultural anxiety about immigrants “overrunning” native-born Americans, an anxiety that immigration opponents are especially adroit at exploiting. Many native-born Americans do not see the positive impact of immigration on their lives, Mr. Appleby says. “The fact that we have cheaper food or that the economy keeps growing because we have some of these workers.”
The Supreme Court now includes six Catholics “who should be aware of what the church teaching is on immigration and have some compassion there.”
Nativist attitudes have hurt the act’s chances in Washington, but it is not the only reason, Mr. Appleby suggests, for the slow going. To native-born Americans, the crisis around legal residency continues to be a problem happening to someone else; they do not feel an acute need to respond. “Unless we get labor shortfalls where we’re in desperate need of workers in the fields,” he says, “there’s not really a motivation to change it.”
Undocumented and unnaturalized immigrants do not vote, Mr. Appleby points out. That leaves little constituency for change beyond immigrant advocates and some U.S business leaders.
“It’s not as if the general public has turned its back on the idea,” Mr. Appleby says, noting surveys that demonstrate strong and consistent public support for addressing the plight of Dreamers. “It’s more that their elected officials, especially on the Republican Party side, are taking this position [against the Dream Act] because they’re fearful of a primary challenge.”
It is perhaps ironic that the attorneys general who have brought the issue to federal courts are creating a “moment of truth,” Mr. Appleby says. If the Supreme Court indeed strikes down DACA, he wonders if the American public will have the stomach for nationwide deportations that would send young adults into countries they left as children and often know little about.
He suggests that a Supreme Court blow to DACA may finally force Congress to vote on the Dream Act to avoid that spectacle.
Karina Ruiz De Diaz is a Dreamer and the executive director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition in Phoenix. To Ms. Ruiz, the reason that the Dream Act remains stalled in Congress is not subtle. Some politicians have found immigration a useful tool for energizing their base, she says, even when exploiting the issue stirs up xenophobic and racist extremism.
If the Supreme Court indeed strikes down DACA, will the American public will have the stomach for nationwide deportations that would send young adults into countries they left as children and often know little about?
“The politics around immigration is very divisive,” she says, “and the conversation is held hostage by a few members of the Republican Party [focused on] border security.”
Dreamers “are caught in the middle of all of that mess,” she adds.
The experience is deeply frustrating, she says. “It’s disheartening, and it’s upsetting that they keep playing with our lives, like our lives don’t matter. We could be doing so much for this country that we call our home right now.
“I can’t plan my life in two-year increments,” Ms. Ruiz says. “They’re wasting talent” that could be put to vibrant use in U.S. life, she says.
That last observation is a painful reminder of her own past. As a high school senior, Ms. Ruiz had dreamed of a career in science, but because of her status, she was unable to go on to a four-year college that might have provided the foundation for that career.
“I wish I could have been finding the vaccine for Covid or the cure for cancer and things like that,” she says. “Instead of that, I am fighting to stay here in this country, to keep a work permit that is renewed every two years.”
She started that advocacy as a young woman 20 years ago and continues it today as a grandmother to her oldest son’s three children. Like her own three children, all are U.S.-born citizens she stands to be separated from if DACA is struck down.
Like other DACA recipients, her identity and address are known to immigration enforcement. “They could very well decide that they’re going to remove us, and that means removing us from our communities, separating us from our families—to take us from our children who are U.S. citizens.” If the worst happens, who is going to take care of the U.S.-born children of this generation of Dreamers, Ms. Ruiz asks.
Like Mr. Appleby, she is hoping to see more attention to her plight from U.S. bishops. It is nice, she says, when they write letters in support of Dreamers and immigration reform, but she wishes they would do more—maybe sitting down with Catholics in Congress who oppose the Dream Act and pressing them to change their positions, or speaking directly to Catholic voters who look down on Dreamers and other immigrants.
In the United States, she says, the Catholic Church is the place where Dreamers and many immigration antagonists meet each week. “There’s people that might not know that I am a DACA recipient in my church because I seem American in every other way,” she adds.
“I think that the church can facilitate those conversations,” Ms. Ruiz says. “I think that the church can help us mitigate some of that xenophobia because there are places where there is common ground. We all go to worship the same God.”