We know Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a life-changing program, that 800,000 young immigrants depend on it in order to keep living and working in the only country they’ve ever known as home, and that Donald Trump despicably ended it. But have you ever wondered why it was created, what exact protections it offers, and how young immigrants have qualified for it? This helpful explainer has some answers:
What is DACA?
The program was introduced in 2012 by President Barack Obama as a stopgap measure that would shield from deportation people who were brought into the United States as children. The status is renewable, lasting two years at a time, and has been issued to roughly 800,000 people.
Participation in the program comes with a range of benefits. Along with permission to remain in the country, recipients can also get work permits, through which many have obtained health insurance from their employers. The ability to work has also allowed them to pay for school, pursue higher education and, in some states, drive legally. The program also opened up access to in-state tuition and state-funded grants and loans in some states. And depending on where they live, recipients can also qualify for state-subsidized health care.
Numerous bipartisan versions have unsuccessfully been introduced since 2001, most recently in 2017 by Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in the House, and Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in the Senate. But “despite bipartisan support for each bill, none have become law. The bill came closest to passage in 2010 when the House passed the bill and the Senate came five votes short of the 60 senators needed to proceed to vote on the bill.”
The program’s introduction and implementation in 2012 was a victory led and won by undocumented immigrant youth. Following congressional inaction, “their protests and pressure helped push President Obama to offer many of them reprieves from deportation,” reported Julia Preston in 2012.
Since 2012 through the program’s rescission in 2017, nearly 800,000 young immigrants have applied for deferred action:
Who are the Dreamers?
DACA recipients are often referred to as Dreamers, after a similar piece of legislation called the Dream Act, which was introduced in 2001 and would have given its beneficiaries a path to American citizenship. They now fall between the ages of 16 and 35; the vast majority came from Mexico, though many others were born in Central and South America, Asia and the Caribbean.
Recipients must be enrolled in high school or already have a diploma or G.E.D. in order to qualify. Anyone with a serious criminal history (defined as a felony or serious misdemeanor conviction, or three misdemeanor convictions) is not eligible. Check out these charts that illustrate their demographics.
Why was DACA eliminated?
President Trump ended the program in September after nine conservative state attorneys general with hard-line views on immigration threatened to sue him over the policy, arguing that it represented an overreach of presidential power. Mr. Trump had equivocated publicly over the program, and continues to today, but ultimately, he called on Congress to come up with a replacement within months. Read a breakdown by our White House correspondents of the political and legal pressures that led to Mr. Trump’s decision.
Except, contrary to claims from Trump and his defenders, no judge or court ruled DACA to be unconstitutional. No court ordered the administration to end the program, or to stop accepting new applicants or renewals. In fact, numerous law experts stated that DACA was well within the authority given to the president under the Constitution.
And while Republican leaders threatened to sue Trump unless he ended the program, there’s speculation that Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III—perhaps aided by White House aide Stephen Miller—orchestrated the threat in order to give cover to Trump without actually intending to follow through on the lawsuit. The administration has refused to turn over memos and documents that could reveal the truth.
Are the Dreamers in danger of being deported?
Not just yet. Under the gradual drawdown of DACA, the first group of beneficiaries to lose their protection would do so in March. But another lawsuit, which we break down here, also stands in the way of any recipients being deported.
That case, brought by a group of immigrant advocates and Democratic local and state officials, alleges that the White House acted improperly and did not follow necessary legal procedures in eliminating DACA. A judge in California agreed, issuing a nationwide injunction earlier this month, which caused a stampede of recipients to apply to renew their statuses one last time.
The Trump administration plans to appeal the decision, and has also taken the rare step of asking the Supreme Court to rule on the appeal before the circuit court decision comes down. If the Supreme Court agrees, it could delay the potential deportations of beneficiaries even further because the injunction will remain in place until a decision is made.
But the truth is DACA recipients are already losing their protections. The first Dreamer to be deported in the Trump era was just weeks after Trump’s inauguration. Dreamers have been detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for taking a wrong turn, falsely accused of gang affiliations for their tattoos, and intentionally targeted others for publicly speaking out against deportations. Dreamers are in crisis right now.
And, since Trump announced the end of the program in September, over 16,000 young people have fallen out of status. Every day that Republican leaders delay, another 122 lose their protections. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell keeps suggesting Congress can wait until Trump’s arbitrary March deadline—and even beyond—to act, but this is a lie. What will actually happen in March is that the 122 a day number could skyrocket to as high as 1,700 a day.
What’s going on in Washington?
There are a handful of solutions being crafted in Congress right now, which range in scope. Many progressives, immigrant advocates and DACA recipients themselves are hoping for a “clean” Dream Act — that is, a law that would offer Dreamers a path to citizenship, and would not be tied to any other policies, immigration-related or not.
But the White House and many Republican lawmakers have said that they would not agree to such a policy without concessions from Democrats, which could come in the form of funding for a border wall or more enforcement officers, or a restructuring of the current visa distribution system to favor work skills over family ties. The other solutions that lawmakers are debating contain various combinations of these concessions, as well as other demands that are being made by Democrats.
Trump speaks out of both sides of his mouth on immigrant youth—he both ended DACA and then promised they’ll be protected—but it’s his anti-immigrant puppeteer Stephen Miller, along with nativist Republican senators like John Cornyn of Texas and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who represent some of the biggest threats to the DREAM Act and protections for Dreamers. As important as they are, DACA’s protections are still too risky in an administration as chaotic and undisciplined as this one. Immigrant youth deserve the certainty and stability of U.S. citizenship, and now.