A gross injustice against young immigrants is slowly working its way through the courts. It centers upon a federal judge’s ruling last year that the DACA Program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was “unlawful,” a ruling that puts in doubt a program that has given tens of thousands of young people brought here as children a temporary, renewable reprieve from deportation. Judge Andrew Hanen’s ruling allowed existing DACA recipients to apply for two-year renewals while the court case moves through appeals, but it prohibits approval of any new applications.
The case has moved to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, where oral arguments were heard last month, and where a ruling by that court is expected this fall. It may well go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When President Barack Obama created the program by executive action ten years ago, he was responding to political and moral pressure stemming from legislative failures to enact meaningful immigration reform over several decades. The last major reform, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, had allowed 2.9 million immigrants to advance on a path toward citizenship.
Mr. Obama’s executive action gave tens of thousands of young immigrants the opportunity to emerge from the shadows of undocumented status and pursue opportunities in education, professional careers, and civic participation.
Eddie Ramirez was brought to the U.S. by his parents from Mexico when he was about a year old, and the U.S. has been his home all his life. But when he learned of a new program called DACA as a teenager, he had to overcome significant fears in order to enter a federal building, get fingerprinted, and apply. Taking those steps gave him the status to take advantage of paid work opportunities at college, to earn a scholarship to dental school, and ultimately to begin practicing as a dentist in Beaverton, Oregon. None of that would have been possible without DACA.
Indira Islas, a daughter of physicians who fled gang violence in rural Mexico, was brought by her parents to Georgia when she was six. She, too, applied to DACA as a teenager, and it gave her the opportunity to apply for and earn a full scholarship to Delaware State University, an historically black institution. She subsequently earned a masters degree in public health from George Washington University, and she will begin a fellowship this month with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Although DACA has opened doors for Ms. Islas, similar opportunities are closed off for a younger sister because of the recent court ruling.
When one ponders Judge Hanen’s ruling that President Obama exceeded his authority in creating DACA, one can only wonder at the constricted moral vision behind the legal reasoning: the turning of a blind eye to the lives, hopes, and talents of 590,000 young people who call this country home. A stunted ethical vision is a major issue at hand, but so is irrationality when one considers the financial contributions that DACA recipients make each year (e.g. $9.4 billion in taxes alone) along with other markers showing the benefits that DACA has bestowed on recipients and on society at large – and the ultimate value of granting a pathway to citizenship.
At a time when many politicians seek political advantage by exploiting irrational fears about migrants (the so-called “replacement theory” is but one manifestation), it’s a continuing challenge to create spaces where truths about the benefits of DACA, of immigration, and of pathways to citizenship, can be taken in and understood. But the challenge, though immense, is not insurmountable, and spaces can be created: in the courts, in legislative initiatives, and in the culture at large. For their work, Dr. Eddie Ramirez, Ms. Indira Islas, and so many hundreds of thousands of others deserve no less.