This past week, the Trump administration announced that in six months, it will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The program, established by the Obama administration in June 2012, creates protections and employment eligibility for undocumented immigrants who have resided in America from the time they were minors. We spoke with Emilio Parrado, Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor and Chair of Sociology, whose research focuses on migration, both within and across countries, about the ramifications of this repeal.
Can you describe what DACA hopes to accomplish?
Emilio Parrado: DACA was an executive order by President Obama designed to serve as a watered-down version of the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which was the piece of legislation that has been discussed in Congress since 2001, but never passed.
The DREAM Act addressed the group of immigrants that is most sympathetic to the American public—the children of undocumented parents who were born abroad but brought to the U.S. at a really early age. So they had no responsibility in the decision to come to the U.S. They have also attended school in this country. Whether or not you are a legal resident, the Supreme Court declared you have a right to a public education. So many DREAMers have attended kindergarten through high school in the U.S. and don’t really know any other home.
But the guarantee to an education stops at high school, and so for years many of these bright students had no access to college, and no access to legal employment once they finished school. Again, within the larger group of undocumented workers, theirs was a particularly problematic situation, because they were in essence being punished for that they had no control over. And so to solve the situation, Obama signed DACA.
How will the removal of the DACA program affect those under its protection?
The removal of DACA protection will be devastating. Once again, these young people will be vulnerable to deportation, even though many don’t even speak their native languages well and have little or no experience in their home countries. They will also lose access to legal employment, driver’s licenses, and more. They will be forced into informal, lower wage employment, won’t be able to drive legally, and will find it much harder to pursue higher education.
The situation with DACA is also an excellent illustration of how illegality is produced more by policy than by the behavior of immigrants. People think that the undocumented population is created by people not following the law. But in many cases people become undocumented because we change the laws and somebody who was on the path to become a legal resident suddenly becomes illegal again. There have been cases where mothers were given reprieve from deportation because they were not a threat, they were not criminals. And then suddenly they would show up to the immigration office and then find that a change in policy makes them subject to deportation again.
So DACA guaranteed that these kids who are educated in the U.S. can work in the legal system, can pay taxes, can contribute to the U.S. society and so forth, and ending DACA is saying we're just removing their contribution.
How does the threat of DACA being rescinded affect the stability and mindset of immigrant communities?
Emotionally and psychologically, this is part of a broader movement. This is a message not just to the kids and to the undocumented, it's a message to all immigrants. It's a message that we don't like the culture that you bring. And it's about race and ethnicity, not just immigration. These kids contribute to the U.S. society. They're working, they're studying, they're successful. They even create jobs. The message is, we don't want you here. It's that message that is given to everybody, not just the people that are exposed to this. It's a general message about who is in control and what the U.S. is.
Was using an executive order to instate DACA an overreach by President Obama?
No, that's the biggest lie in this discussion. It's a false statement to say that DACA is illegal or unconstitutional. The Supreme Court never declared it unconstitutional, and many legal scholars argue that it is within the power of the executive to pass orders to regulate immigration to facilitate the working of our immigration system. Every single president has done it to some degree. Trump has tried to do it in terms of restricting the immigration of Muslims. That was found unconstitutional. It's for the courts to decide whether it's constitutional or not, not politicians. But they certainly use the premise or the perception of illegality to justify a very unfair decision.
What would be the economic consequences of rescinding DACA?
Well economically, this makes no sense. Because again, these are kids who are contributing, are paying taxes. They are young, they are healthy, they are not taking any benefits. They are educated. These are the kind of immigrants that we are trying to attract because they are basically a net gain for the U.S. economy. Eliminating their legal status would push them into worse jobs, off the book jobs that they're overqualified to perform. If we try to deport them, every deportation is 15 to 16 thousand dollars. We will be spending 16 billion dollars deporting them.
So economically, this makes no sense whatsoever. That's why this is not driven by economic reasoning. It's driven by race and ethnicity. Overall the U.S. population is aging, and we need immigrants to have enough workers to support more retirees. But today most immigrants come from Latin America and Asia, and there are some people who are just not comfortable with that. This decision is an expression of that discomfort. This sends a message that we want to reduce demographic diversity.
You also need to put this decision into the larger policy context. You have debates within Congress over a number of aspects of immigration policy. Anti-immigrant groups like the Center for Immigration Studies actually recommend legalizing the situation of the DACA applicants, but tying their legalization to a number of measures that are clearly anti-immigrant and anti-minority. For example, the e-verify system for hiring, which opens the door towards social discrimination, or limiting immigrant entry through family reunification. They want to not only make sure that DACA recipients won’t be able to apply for citizenship for their parents, but also want to eliminate chain migration and make it harder for people who are here already to bring their families. These types of policies have implications far beyond legal status, and are really about stopping the changing racial and ethnic composition of the U.S.
DACA is largely popular in public polls. Given that, why do you think the Trump administration still decided to rescind it?
The real question here is when are the reasonable Republicans who care about tax reform going to say, “I don't care about tax reform that much. I'm not going to support racist politics." The base elected Trump because of his insults against Mexicans, because of his promise to build a wall between us and Mexico, because of his references to women and so forth, so those voters are obviously happy here. Now those Republicans that voted for Trump because they were expecting tax cuts and deregulation, when are they going to say, "I like tax cuts, but not at the expense of racist politics." And so it's that group that needs to change.
Is it realistic that Congress will pass any kind of DACA replacement legislation like President Trump suggested they do?
We're going to see. It’s true that DACA was never a long-term solution. It didn’t provide a path to citizenship, just protected people in the short term. But it was only enacted because Congress had failed to act for so long. Given the difficult politics of the issue, the best thing would've been to just keep going like that. Given that Congress has failed to solve the problem for 16 years, in spite of strong public support throughout, I don’t feel terribly optimistic. And Trump is also not offering any leadership on the issue. He has not said what he wants to do, or asked Congress to legalize the DREAMers. He has just said that “some” of them are good kids and vaguely alluded to revisiting the issue if Congress fails to act. If the law passes, he can take credit while still appearing tough on immigration. And if it fails, he makes his base happy and to everyone else say, "It's not my fault. I sent it to Congress to solve the issue and they didn't solve it."
Without strong leadership on the issue, it’s unclear how this can make it through our extremely divided Congress. Is there anybody from the Republican Party that actually wants to legalize the situation of these kids? Even if they are sympathetic to the DREAMers’ plight, are they too afraid of alienating their base to do anything about it? I think that the only hope is if the business sector says, “We're not looking to tax cuts until you legalize this group.” So the outcome in Congress is very uncertain. I do think that if Trump would say I want legalization for this group, it could happen. But that's not what he's saying.
Some universities and businesses have announced that they will refuse to divulge information on these students. Will this help protect those affected by the DACA repeal?
Universities might be able to find a way to protect the kids that are attending school. But what happens after they finish school and enter the job market? Again, we need a response from the business sector. And Universities might be able to protect students on campus, but what about when they go home for the summer and get pulled over for a broken tail light? If anything, I think it's becoming clear that we need a coalition that transcends immigrants, African Americans, Asians, this broad range of minorities. What is really at stake is who belongs in the U.S. and who doesn’t. The DACA decision is just one front in a much larger battle over the future direction of the country, and whether we take the path of greater inclusion or more extreme exclusion.