While the U.S. Supreme Court started hearing oral arguments Tuesday on whether the Trump administration acted lawfully when it moved to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, recipients of the program gathered with immigrant rights advocates in Cambridge to urge Congress to act on meaningful reforms.
In Massachusetts, more than 8,000 immigrants have benefited from the program, DACA, since its creation by former president Barack Obama in 2012, and an estimated 5,600 are still enrolled in the Bay State, according to the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition.
Rep. Katherine Clark said during the Cambridge press conference that the young people, often referred to as “Dreamers,” represent the “very best of America.”
“They are our classmates, our neighbors, our teachers, doctors, and business owners,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “Many of them know no other home than the United States. They are Americans in every possible way except on paper. And Trump’s morally bankrupt decision to end this program in 2017 was a sad betrayal of American values. Dreamers have stepped up to serve their country with their academic success, military service, and commitment to improving their communities. And even putting aside the human element of this, ensuring that DACA recipients have a shot at the American Dream is integral to our economic success. Why would we ever want to export our own American talent?”
Nationally, DACA protects 660,000 immigrants from deportation who came to the country illegally as children. The Trump administration announced in September 2017 that it would end the protections offered by DACA, but the move was blocked in the lower federal courts, keeping the program alive.
An estimated 95 percent of DACA beneficiaries are working, MIRA executive director Eva Millona said during the press conference, while the rest are in school. Now, it’s also estimated that 360,000 U.S. children under the age of 18 have at least one parent that is a DACA recipient.
“If the Court decision goes the wrong way, these young people will lose their ability to work, study, and live here,” Millona said. “It’s imperative that the Court decides the case in favor of DACA.”
The Supreme Court is expected to make a decision by June 2020.
But even if the justices do side with the lower courts’ decisions, Clark and Millona emphasized the need for the Senate to take up the Dream and Promise Act of 2019, which Clark co-sponsored and passed through the House of Representatives in June. The proposed legislation would codify protections offered in DACA while offering beneficiaries of the program, Temporary Protected Status holders, and individuals with Deferred Enforcement Departure a pathway to citizenship.
“That’s why we are here,” Clark said. “To call on [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell to take up the Dream and Promise Act immediately and to help eliminate the fear and anxiety that families are living with every day and ensure that we keep making progress toward our shared vision of an inclusive, prosperous, and just nation. We will continue this fight. We are not going to back down. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Dreamers and immigrants who hold the promise for a bright future for our country.”
— MIRA Coalition (@MIRACoalition) November 12, 2019
During the press conference, local DACA recipients spoke of the stress caused by the uncertainty of the program’s future and emphasized how being enrolled in it opened doors to opportunities for education, employment, and medical care.
Karina Ham, a junior at Lesley University where she is studying early childhood education and psychology with the goal of becoming a teacher, said that she didn’t know what it meant to be “undocumented” as a child. She and her mother came to the United States from Honduras when she was 4 years old, joining her father who was in America with Temporary Protected Status.
It was later, when she was starting the process of looking at colleges, that she began to experience the “shaming of [her] status.”
“I saw all my peers getting these resources and getting these benefits, and I just thought there was something wrong with me — am I doing something wrong?” she said.
When DACA was rolled out, she was 16. She applied, and the program’s protections allowed her to get a job, apply for college, and find scholarships.
She was in her freshman year when Trump announced he wanted to rescind the program, which added a whole new layer of uncertainty to her daily life.
“There’s a lot of stress and anxiety that has come along with that,” Ham said. “And it was a very hard time for me, but I knew I had to keep my head up and find a way to continue and keep fighting for my community.”
Like Ham, Tania Jaime said it was when she was in her senior year of high school that she realized that being undocumented would make it difficult for her when in college.
Enrolling in DACA made her “dreams come true,” she said.
Jaime came to Boston from Mexico in 2002, at the age of 7, for a kidney transplant. DACA helped give her access to the health care she needed for her medical condition, she said, and, once she had it, she began looking for educational opportunities to enrich her.
Her search led her to a summer program in Mexico City. She was granted advanced parole, permission through DACA to travel in and out of the U.S., but found she needed to travel to Mexico 12 days earlier than planned in order to set up medical care while she was in the country.
When she tried to renew her enrollment in DACA in 2015, she was denied because of that deviation, she said.
“I lost my DACA and my key to open doors that were once closed,” Jaime said. “I slowly returned to the shadows, and it has been so difficult to live a normal life since then.”
She urged federal lawmakers to take action to protect DACA recipients and expand the program through the passage of the Dream and Promise Act.
“I made a mistake for leaving 12 days earlier [for] a country I barely remember, let alone had to trust [in their] health care system to help me take care of myself while I studied there,” Jaime said. “Those 12 days that I spent trying to figure out how to take care of my health in Mexico changed my life forever. And my DACA was taken away from me. DACA saved my life. Given my chronic condition, [it] made it easier to buy health insurance. If there are any other Dreamers out there who have health problems, then their health is also at stake without DACA.”
— MIRA Coalition (@MIRACoalition) November 12, 2019
Clark blasted McConnell for allowing the Dream and Promise Act to collect “dust at the Senate door” since its passage by the House.
What’s at stake with DACA and the proposed immigration reforms are the lives of those who depend on the program, she said.
“This is a policy that has just been enacted out of callousness and cruelty,” Clark said of the Trump administration’s moves. “And we hope that is what the Supreme Court will find. But while the Senate refuses to act on the Dream and Promise Act and while we are awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court, the volatility that we have thrown into the lives of our neighbors, of our future — with these young people who as you can see just from the three today are so talented and have so much to offer — it’s a very, very cruel and callous policy. And it will continue until we get the president and Mitch McConnell to take these issues up.”