Open a U.S passport and you’ll find a quote from an American historical figure at the top of nearly every page. At the front is George Washington, when he was elected president of the first Constitutional Convention in 1787, “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.” Then comes an excerpt from the Declaration of Independence, reminding us of the self-evident truth that all people are equal and deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Then there is Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We have a dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream.”
It may seem odd for a nation obsessed with hard work to promote a centuries-old preoccupation with the American Dream. At its foundation, the United States was conceived as a place where people could pursue their dreams safely and ambitiously. For centuries, we’ve stuttered and started in this pursuit. We’ve made bad laws and lived under them for too long. For George Washington, recognizing the faults of the Constitution was as essential as its creation. “Do not contend that it is free from imperfections; but these were not to be avoided,” he wrote after the Constitutional Convention. “If evils are likely to flow from them, the remedy must come thereafter.”
The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), first introduced in 2001, had languished for more than a decade until President Barack Obama introduced DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in 2012. DACA was based on the belief that people who as children had entered the country illegally with their parents, had surmounted often unimaginable obstacles to be in this country. They should be allowed an education, the ability to work, and freedom from the anxieties of deportation.
When the Obama administration expanded DACA in 2014, the president told the nation’s undocumented young people that they could finally “come out of the shadows.” He told them to trust this country with the truth, to hand over documents that could be used against them. They did. It was a big risk. DACA recipients are by their very nature law-abiding (they must check in with the government every two years, and are ineligible if they get in any kind of trouble), which is part of what makes President Donald Trump’s decision to end the program so unconscionable.
Here are 10 reads — some long, others less so — to help understand DACA, the hundreds of thousands of people protected by it, and what they have to lose when it ends.
1. “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” (Jose Antonio Vargas, The New York Times Magazine, June 2011)
Jose Antonio Vargas is one of the nation’s most high-profile undocumented immigrants. His coming out essay, written years after he’d already won a Pulitzer Prize, details his journey and has been credited with pushing Obama toward DACA. (At 31, Vargas was too old to qualify for the program when it was implemented in 2012).
I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me.
2. “The Psychic Toll of Trump’s DACA Decision,” (Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, The New York Times, September 2017)
While DACA did not give it’s recipients legal status or a path to citizenship, it did put a hold on an anxious limbo — the threat of deportation. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was brought to the U.S. from Ecuador by her parents when she was six. “ I never identified as a Dreamer, which is what undocumented youth often call themselves and are often called,” she wrote in n+1, after the Trump administration’s announcement. “I couldn’t associate myself with a movement that asked for my legal recognition on the basis of my innocence, an innocence that depended on the culpability of my parents.”
In the Times, she recounts the stress of undocumented life. Like Vargas, she describes a state of constant anxiety, a terror that they could be removed from the only country they have known.
Some studies have found that the first wave of immigrants has a better mental health outlook than subsequent generations, which researchers say results from traditional family networks and values, as well as “lower expectations for success.” But such conclusions betray a misunderstanding. As a graduate student, I have interviewed dozens of undocumented people, including first-wave adults. Most of them speak of symptoms that we might call anxiety, depression and PTSD, even if the subjects themselves do not use this language, and have less familiarity with diagnostics and less access to treatment than their American-citizen children. These studies are from a more innocent time.
3. “American Limbo” (Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker, July 2015)
While running for office, Barack Obama pledged to enact comprehensive immigration reform, but his administration would begin to deport illegal immigrants in record numbers. ““The idea was to prove to Republicans that he could be trusted on enforcement, so that he could get a path to citizenship in return,” explains Marc Rosenblum, an expert on immigration policy. If that was the gamble, then DACA was Obama’s final hand, a last ditch effort to effect change on his own, rather than through a Congress that would like to see him fail.
The more controversial part of Obama’s down payment involved immigrants who had already arrived and settled in the United States. The Administration greatly expanded a program known as Secure Communities, in which information was shared between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the F.B.I. Whenever anyone was arrested and booked, his or her fingerprints would be sent to the F.B.I., as before, but now the information would also go to the immigration authorities. “It was a huge force multiplier,” Rosenblum said. “The program was pitched as a tool to find serious criminals, but, at least initially, the vast majority of people were picked up for traffic violations and very minor offenses. A lot of these people ended up being deported.”
4. “An Undocumented Journey Through Harvey” (Lorena O’Neil, Esquire, August 2017)
The particular cruelty of the DACA decision was magnified by its timing: the announcement came days after Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic flooding in Houston. O’Neil follows an undocumented family whose trailer flooded during Harvey, leaving them unsure where to turn.
The water seeped in under the door of Maria’s mobile home in Houston Sunday night as she tapped out the numbers 9-1-1. No answer. “Just take the children and leave me,” her friend José urged in Spanish. Jose is paralyzed from the waist-down. Maria and her late husband took him in to live with them and their five children following his car accident six years ago. The water kept coming into the trailer. Now it crept towards Jose’s electric wheelchair.
5. “These Are the Military Recruits Who Might Be Deported Under Trump” (Vera Bergenguen and Franco Ordoñez, McClatchy DC, July 2017)
DACA also allowed Dreamers to join the military — and they did, at a rate of several hundred a year. Now their status is unclear. (And as with the ban on transgender troops, the Trump administration appears to have little concern upending the lives of those in the armed forces.)
Saini, who came to the U.S. from India when he was 6, is fluent in Punjabi. That allowed him to enlist through the Military Accessions Vital to National Interest program, known as MAVNI, which offers expedited citizenship for immigrants with sought-after language and medical skills. He had already had been granted legal status under DACA, so he was allowed to join the military, one of 359 Dreamers who enlisted in the Army in 2016 alone, according to a Fox News report.
“It’s my way of giving back to this country. They allowed me to stay here and gave me so much,” said Saini, who remembers being held in detention soon after arriving. “With DACA, they gave me an opportunity to work, and I could also help my parents.”
6. “If Trump Ends DACA, What Happens To Dreamers?” (Eric Columbus, Politico, August 2017)
Columbus was a government lawyer for nearly a decade, first for the Department of Justice and then for the Department of Homeland Security, and offers some clear-eyed insight into the behind-the-scenes on the DACA issue.
George W. Bush and Obama, with far more legislative savvy than Trump, spent considerable capital on immigration deals without success. Absent legislation, Dreamers’ best hope may be vigilant oversight from their supporters in Congress (including key Republicans such as Senators Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake) to guard against any efforts—whether by design or carelessness—to remove them from the country. In the meantime, Dreamers will hunker down and wait for brighter days.
7. “How Immigration Hardliners Are Forcing Trump’s Hand on DACA” (Molly Ball, The Atlantic, August 2017)
Ball chronicles how, despite claiming during his campaign that he would repeal DACA immediately, Trump has waffled over the issue, again and again.
More than one immigration advocate put it the same way to me: “Somebody told him these are good kids,” and it stuck. He didn’t want to anger the Breitbart wing of his base. But unlike other undocumented immigrants, hardworking young students didn’t strike him as criminals. And in an administration where personality is policy, Trump’s feelings carried the day.
8. “What Happens When DACA Goes Away? Immigrant Youth Share Their Stories” (Tina Vasquez, Rewire, August 2017)
“My greatest concern over DACA being repealed is that for many of us, we are the only ones with a work permit. Taking this permit away from us has a greater effect on our families since we cannot continue to support them. I am scared that without a work permit, I will not be able to help pay my grandmother’s rent.”
9. “Undocumented Immigrants And Their Kids Anxious About Trump Presidency” (Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press, December 2016)
Michigan is home to an estimated 100,000 undocumented immigrants, 6,700 of whom are DACA recipients. In the months after the election, anxieties were high as some DACA recipients wondered if Trump would rescind the program, while others wondered just how soon it would happen.
Martinez, who works as a general manager in restaurants, would like to stay in the city and help it grow but is not sure if he has a future there.
“It’s still really surreal,” Martinez said of possible changes under a Trump administration. “I still cannot believe it. Sometimes, I’m like, ‘No, there’s no way.’ Just waiting for something. But no, it’s real.”
10. “If They Deport All of Us, Who Will Rebuild?” Arelis R. Hernández and Aaron C. Davis, The Washington Post, September 2017)
From lede to kicker, this story will break your heart.
Stan Marek, chief executive of Marek Construction in Houston, sees the damage left by Harvey as big enough to hopefully reset the national debate over illegal immigration.
He and other contractors want a permanent solution that will absorb the existing workforce and train them for the kinds of jobs that Houston and other parts of Texas will need. The storm, Marek said, provides an opportunity to solve an immigration problem in the state while advancing social justice.
“With some supervision and some training, we could kick-start this whole thing to basically integrate these people into society,” Marek said. “Let’s take them out of the shadows and give them the protection of our laws.”
Roberto Benavidez, 45, a Nicaraguan, has been thinking the same thing as he paces in front of a Home Depot in West Houston looking for odd jobs.
“For the country to rebuild Houston, it will need amnesty for immigrants,” Benavidez said. “I get it. It seems like we are busting in the door of your house and asking to stay, but in reality, we are knocking on the door and offering a service.”