Making an America Worthy of the Dreamers’ Dreams

(Sipa USA via AP/Albin Lohr-Jones)

Activists march against Trump's decision to end DACA near City Hall in New York City on September 5, 2017.

I first met Z. when she spoke at a big public event in Los Angeles. Along with a group of other Dreamers—undocumented youth who were brought to the United States at an early age and grew up as Americans—she spoke with confidence and grace about her journey from Belize to South Central Los Angeles. I was impressed and thrilled when she let out that her majors in college were sociology and accounting. That’s my kind of people: data nerds with a social justice lens. And I let her know that if she could ever work legally, she should come see me.

She arrived at my university office the very day that she received her work permit under the program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). She and her grandmother had been praying that the professor would actually live up to his promises—and they were delighted that I did. Over the next two years, she was our part-time office assistant and once we got past her sly humor and constant teasing—a sort of endearing but defensive demeanor—the most striking thing I realized was that until DACA, she was living without a future. Yes, she was in college, but her classes were a mishmash, her career plans were on permanent hold, and she couldn’t see further than her part-time gig in a local farmers’ market.

I kept thinking about Z. as all the president’s men began leaking their plans to break our country’s promise to her and the other DACA recipients. Their collective aspirations to kill her future once again can be dressed up in the rhetoric of legal authority—DACA should not have been done by executive action! The six-month delay in ending it will give Congress time to act!—but this is really just cruelty dressed up as public policy. And it behooves progressives to make certain there is a payback that is significant, severe, and game-changing.

In the days ahead, we will surely rehearse familiar arguments about why DACA has been essential. One standard line: These kids arrived here through no choice of their own. It’s true but let’s also remember: Neither did most of their parents. Economic desperation, civil wars, and militarized gangs have driven much of the past flow of migrants—hardly the conditions under which people exercise free will. We need DACA today, we need a DREAM Act tomorrow, but we also need comprehensive immigration reform going forward.

We are also likely to stress the economic benefits that the DACA recipients have gained and created. A recent study reported that a startling 97 percent of DACA recipients are working or in school—and that for those who are employed, wages have skyrocketed (an outcome that makes sense when you consider the ability of someone—say, Z.—to move from part-time cash work at a farmer’s market to a regular job at a university). The benefits accumulate over time: The longer the DACA youth stay in status and in the labor force, the more businesses are formed, the more homes are bought, the more stimulus there is.

Indeed, taking the DACA recipients out of the economy is estimated to cost nearly half a trillion dollars over the next decade; that’s about half the size of the still-unformed infrastructure package Trump is promising to deliver. It’s little wonder that over 400 business leaders came out in favor of keeping DACA even as Congress works to pass a more long-lasting solution. Here’s a novel and fiscally responsible idea: Leave the DACA kids earning and paying taxes, drop plans for an expensive border wall, and boost spending on roads and transit.

We will also find ourselves emphasizing the political costs that will be borne by the proponents of ending DACA, including the risks to the GOP’s long-term electoral prospects. This is particularly so with regard to the growing Latino vote. Those eligible for DACA are a diverse lot, including many from Asia, Europe, and Africa. But for reasons not entirely understood, the sign-ups have been overwhelmingly Latino. Of the existing 780,000 DACA recipients, somewhere between 92 percent and 95 percent are Latino.

As it turns out, that means about 4 percent of all Latinos between the ages of 16 and 35—one in 25—are DACA recipients. If you are Latino, it is nearly impossible not to know someone benefiting from DACA, and to see Trump’s new policy as a thinly veiled attack on the community writ large. It is little wonder that even Latino Republicans in Congress—such as Miami-based Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Carlos Curbelo—have been vehemently opposed to Trump’s threat to upend the protections for Dreamers.

But while this is a moment to work with Republican allies, we also need to remember that it’s ten Republican state attorney generals who “forced” Trump’s willing hand by threatening to sue the federal government over DACA (it fell to nine after Tennessee’s attorney general had a last-minute change of heart). Moreover, it was Republican senators (and a handful of conservative Democrats) that stymied the Dream Act in 2010, and it was a Republican House that derailed a bipartisan Senate compromise on comprehensive immigration reform in 2013.

Most significantly, it’s the Republicans who decided that the party’s banner should be carried forward by a president who launched his campaign by attacking immigrants, before making his barrage of insults a more equal-opportunity affair. And it’s Republican officials who are considering how they can hold the DACA kids hostage over the next six months in order to force a “compromise” in which their lives are spared in return for border wall funding and new limits on legal immigration to the country.

For all these reasons, it’s time for progressive and immigrant advocates to shift gears. So far, much of the campaign to save DACA has focused on how we can persuade politicians to grow a heart. Sympathetic youth have been paraded forward, including young immigrants who worked to save lives (and even lost their own) in the devastation that was Hurricane Harvey. But you shouldn’t need to be a hero to catch a break, and you shouldn’t be punished for trying your best to survive through an immigration system that doesn’t recognize the realities on the ground.

So grow a heart, sure, but let’s also focus on making sure our leaders grow a spine.

First, progressives need to admit that that the whole conversation about how the last election was lost—was it economic uncertainty or racial anxiety?—has become increasingly moot. The president’s nods to white supremacy in Charlottesville were not meant to address job loss in Michigan. Apart from Texas (which is suing mostly because doing so provides yet another way to beat the Obama dead horse), the states that filed to derail DACA collectively host just 31,000 of the nearly 800,000 recipients—hardly enough to cause widespread economic distress or budgetary strains. Progressives need an economic program, to be sure, but it’s time to put race and racism clearly up front in our analysis and organizing.

Second, and partly because of that: Democrats, progressives, and community organizers should fight as hard on this issue as they did in resisting the repeal of Obamacare. There are positive signs: Indivisible, the group that helped mobilize so many to protect the Affordable Care Act, is working to stir non-immigrant communities to support DACA—and to scare Republican officeholders into doing the right thing. It’s a popular issue—a significant majority of Americans support the principles behind DACA—and most Democratic leaders in Congress promise to exhibit the same unwillingness to bend on the Dreamers that they showed on the health-care fight. Such solidarity at both the grassroots and grasstops is crucial, and it will be important for shoring up a Latino affinity for progressive causes as strong as that formed historically with African Americans.

Third, the business community needs to be challenged. We are hearing many of the right words and seeing all the right tweets. But a hashtag declaring your support for DACA is not as powerful as refusing to cooperate on tax reform until the administration gives up its assault on the Dreamers. Corporate America claims to value diversity even as it often proves willing to trade away principles for cash-enhancing legislation. We need to demand that CEOs exercise their leverage, not just issue press releases.

Finally, we need to acknowledge the right’s concerns that DACA is one step on the slippery slope to mass legalization. Let’s just claim that what they fear is right—and necessary: We have more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and the aggregate numbers have been stable since 2009, suggesting that the era of mass illegal immigration is over. Two-thirds of the undocumented have been in the country for more than a decade, implying they are deeply embedded in our communities. Indeed, at least eight million U.S. citizens and another 2.5 million lawful permanent residents live with at least one other family member who is undocumented. It bends logic as well as morality to think that they can be disappeared. We need reform now, and that is the ultimate goal.

In the meantime, let’s provide shelter, support, and hope to the soon-to-be un-DACA-mented. After all, the Dreamers may be exemplars of American grit and ambition, but they are also young people suffering from trauma, injustice, and stress. Admittedly, it can be hard to figure out how to help, particularly when the legal rug is being pulled out from under them. I should know: I promised Z. a shot at a full-time job when she finished college, thinking that would be her safe harbor. But just as we were about to open that position, she let me know that she was moving away.

The dynamics were complicated but one factor in her thinking was uncertainty about whether DACA would persist, whether she really had a future in America, and so, whether it really was her best bet to park with us and get ready for grad school. Brilliant prognosticator that I am, I gave her my confident assessment: There was no way someone would reverse President Obama’s act of grace, and no way the politics would line up to once again to threaten her with deportation.

Clearly, we live in more dangerous times—and with a far more feckless president—than I ever could have imagined. So I was wrong then—and I am glad, for her sake, that Z. ignored me. But I am determined now more than even to work with others toward building an America that is as good, kind-hearted, and open as the one that she and other DACA youth have dreamed it could be.

 

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