Dreamers looking for bold action from a new administration
President-elect Joe Biden said last week he would send to the U.S. Senate a bill that would lay out a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people living in the United States within his first 100 days in office.
In the interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Biden built on an early promise to reinstate an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allowed some undocumented people brought to the country as children to live and work without fear of deportation.
DACA recipients from North Carolina said it is long past time for the country to set out a way for undocumented people to become citizens. When then-President Barack Obama enacted DACA in 2012, he represented it as a stopgap that would be replaced by a permanent solution. Recipients must apply for renewal and get fingerprinted every two years.
While the largest numbers of those enrolled in DACA live in California, Illinois and Texas, they are scattered across the nation. Some states with large numbers of DACA recipients include Florida, Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada and Arizona, according to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the census.
DACA allowed recipients to do things so many in America take for granted – get driver’s licenses, obtain authorized work and build credit.
Donald Trump’s election four years ago left them in limbo, fearing that lives they’d built would be stripped from them. “One of the hardest moments of my life was the election of 2016,” said Moises Serrano, a DACA recipient who grew up in Yadkin County. “I knew the day DACA was going to be rescinded was coming very soon.”
Trump did target DACA. He rescinded the program in 2017, halting new applications and leaving 700,000 recipients wondering about their futures. The Supreme Court in June ruled against the Trump administration, and a federal judge earlier this month ruled new administration rules on DACA are invalid. That case and related ones are pending; more rulings are expected soon.
Trump’s sweeping actions on immigration during the last four years have pushed advocates and immigration lawyers in Washington, D.C. to lobby the Biden-Harris transition team to not only reinstate DACA, but expand the program to include both recipients and their families. Making those changes permanent through legislation, not just executive orders, would prevent uncertainty and an assault on immigration from happening again, advocates say.
It would require the kind of legislation that has failed repeatedly over nearly two decades.
“What we want is some type of stability in our life,” Serrano said. He was political director at El Pueblo in North Carolina until earlier this year, and now lives in Indiana.
Serrano worked with United We Dream in 2011 and 2012, a youth-led immigrant group that pressured then-President Barack Obama on immigrant policy and deportations. He came to the U.S. from Mexico with his mother and two sisters when he was 18 months old. He is the subject of a documentary about immigrant and LGBTQ youth in rural America.
DACA changed his life, Serrano said. He was able to get a driver’s license, pursue better jobs, and feel assured that he wouldn’t be fired because of his immigration status.
Serrano said he was one of the people who sat-in at Obama for America offices in 2012 to pressure Obama into establishing DACA.
“I hope there’s a national mobilization that mirrors that effort of 2012,” that also focuses on Republican senators who might cross party lines and pass immigration reform, he said.
The DACA program received new attention when Biden said he intends to nominate its architect, Alejandro Mayorkas, as his secretary of Homeland Security.
During the Obama administration, Mayorkas served as the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and as deputy director of DHS, which handles implementation and management of immigration policy. If confirmed, Mayorkas would be the first Latinx American to run the department, as well as the first immigrant. Mayorkas was born in Cuba.
Advocates expect to see a reinstatement of the DACA program on Day One of the new administration, or within the first 100 days Biden is in office.
Laura Garduño Garcia, an organizer with Siembra NC, a Latinx advocacy group, said DACA reinstatement is a “low bar” and the Biden administration should make a pathway to citizenship a legislative priority. “I would like this administration to prioritize immigration reform in the first year of taking power,” said Garcia, a DACA recipient. “I’m no longer a youth. I’m 31 years old. I’ve been living in legal limbo for three decades now.”
On front lines of COVID-19, yet undocumented workers excluded from health care benefits
Only two states with the highest number of DACA recipients — New York and California — offer Medicaid benefits to Dreamers, what those eligible for DACA are sometimes called. As the U.S. struggles to contain a pandemic that has killed more than a quarter of a million Americans, advocates want the Biden administration to require all states to offer Medicaid benefits for DACA recipients through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“So many frontline (DACA) workers don’t even have health care,” said Megan Essaheb, director of Immigration Advocacy for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC. Under an Obama administration memo, DACA recipients were excluded from Medicaid. “It’s just been such a roller coaster ride with the Trump administration trying to end the program,” Essaheb said. “It’s really hard to plan for your future.”
A public campaign to reach out to undocumented people from the Asian community, where there’s been a low sign-up rate, would be beneficial as well, Often public campaigns about DACA are targeted for Latinos, whose community has less stigma about being undocumented, Essaheb said.
“There’s more stigma in Asian immigrant communities around being undocumented,” she said, adding that there is also a “fear and mistrust in government and a lack of campaign for Asian immigrants.”
While Mexico is the top country of origin for the U.S. undocumented immigration population, the second-fastest growing group of undocumented immigrants is Asians, according to Pew Research. About 30,000 DACA recipients are Asian, according to Immigration Advocacy for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC.
DACA recipients are also supposed to be allowed to leave the U.S. for work reasons or to take care of family abroad and return into the country, but under the Trump administration, “that is something that has not been safe,” Essaheb said.
Advocates are hoping that with the Biden administration reinstating the program, those recipients can resume traveling out of the country if needed.
Linda Martinez, 22, grew up in Chapel Hill. She wouldn’t have known that she wasn’t born there if her parents hadn’t told her. Martinez came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was a year old, grew up in Chapel Hill and attended Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools. She’s now working and attending graduate school.
“I remember when Trump went into office, a lot of Dreamers, including myself, were just so torn,” she said. “I finally get a shot in this American dream. Now I feel some emotions – like it might all get taken away.”
Some Dreamers stopped going to college, she said, figuring the program was going to end. Trump’s move to cancel DACA renewed the fears.
Martinez’s grandfather in Mexico got sick during Trump’s term. DACA recipients could travel outside the U.S. for specific purposes, if the trip was approved in advance. But a lawyer advised Martinez advised not to go. “The lawyer said, ‘Don’t risk it. We don’t know what the administration is going to do. Just don’t risk it,’” Martinez said.
Madhuri Grewal, federal immigration policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, points out that the incoming Biden administration can be bold on immigration policies, similar to how the Trump administration tested their limits. Some of the most consequential policies during the Trump administration included the separation of migrant children from their families, the building of the wall at the southern border and increased incarceration of undocumented immigrants.
“The flip side of that is that we have seen what the executive branch can do on immigration,” Grewal said. “In order to see a reversal of what Trump did, the Biden administration needs to be as equally bold and visionary on immigration in order to offer relief to the families that have really borne the brunt of four years of attacks on their communities.”
Maritzelena Chirinos, who was raised in Durham, works for a law firm in North Carolina that gets at least one call a day from people asking about DACA. “It’s so confusing. It has been for the last four years,” she said.
She and other immigrants need and have earned the stability citizenship offers, Chirinos said. “It’s time to give us a path to citizenship,” she said. There’s no other way around it.”