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Guest Column: DACA residents live in limbo in a worrisome age

Donald Trump did not always despise all undocumented immigrants. In 2017 he declared, “We love the Dreamers,” young people protected from deportation by DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — the temporary policy initiated in 2012 by President Obama. Nonetheless, he tried to terminate the program, only to be thwarted by the Supreme Court in a decision that chided his administration for failing to follow rules for notice and review of such a policy change. So DACA lived to fight another day.

That day has come, but DACA is as precarious as ever. A year ago a federal judge in Texas attempted to terminate it by another method, ruling in a case brought by nine states that it is illegal as executive overreach. And last week a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit, the appellate court that covers the deep South, heard a defense of that decision. The plaintiffs argued to seemingly sympathetic judges that the burdens of supporting the more than 800,000 young people given working permits and driver’s licenses through the program outweigh the benefits of their economic contributions.

I became interested in DACA and its impact on North Fork kids and their families when I was working on my 2016 book about immigrants in Greenport. Now, ten years after it was established, I wondered what cost/benefit calculation a court might make if it were deciding on the local level what the federal court in Louisiana is trying to determine for the country as a whole. How are DACA recipients who grew up in Greenport, Southold and Mattituck fitting into American society as adults? Are they making worthy contributions to professions, to families, to culture? Are the costs of raising them offset by their achievements?

I am not able to conduct a comprehensive or representative study (though if readers of this article send me referrals I can widen the scope of my inquiry), but I did find a handful of young people I had interviewed many years ago when they were students or first-time workers. And, although most of them were unwilling to be named — attesting to the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over their heads — I learned what I wanted to know.

First, some demographic information: Of the five people interviewed — three men, two women — all but one are in their early 30s and have been DACA recipients almost since the inception of the program in 2012. Four are employed — one in tech, one in eldercare, one in landscaping (he owns a business), and one in educational policy research. While two of them have been unable to benefit from higher education (they are ineligible for federal financial aid), one is a graduate of NYU, another is a graduate of CUNY/Baruch College, and the youngest is a senior at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. Only two of the five have stayed on the North Fork, but all return to visit (and worry about) their still-undocumented parents here. Two have small children; one married a naturalized US citizen and will soon become a permanent resident (with a “green card”). Despite the lack of any official immigration status, they live comfortable middle-class lives.

To me these basic facts should be sufficient to assure any judge that young adults like these (and there is no reason to believe they are atypical) are keeping pace with Americans in their age cohort. But it’s not just a matter of contributing to economic growth; they have become Americans in all but the legal sense. They are thankful for the permission that allowed them to flourish in the United States but frustrated by the barriers to acknowledging their commitments to it. 

“This is my country,” says one; “my mother says I am as American as a bagel,” says another. To terminate DACA would not only mean the loss of jobs and homes for them and tax revenue for the country, it would amount to rejection of the formative experiences of growing up in America as participants in the new, multicultural mainstream. It would be a form of exile.

Several hazards loom. In August, the Biden administration will issue new rules about who may enroll in DACA and how, possibly narrowing eligibility. The federal case may end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where the program could be canceled. Without congressional action — either to support the status quo or to create a path to citizenship for its recipients — the contingent that reached adulthood on the North Fork (and hundreds of thousands of others) will remain vulnerable to the threat of banishment from the country they call home.

Diana Gordon lives in Greenport. She is a retired CUNY professor and author of ‘Village of Immigrants.’