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Dreamers Mark an Uneasy DACA Birthday

Legal Aid Clinic, Photo: Catholic Charities of New York

It’s a birthday celebration that includes a slice of anxiety.

As advocates for immigrants recently marked the 10th anniversary of DACA, they recognized that those who benefit from its provisions continue to work jobs and raise families without confidence in the future.

DACA –which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – temporarily spares those immigrants who came to this country undocumented as children with their families. They were raised as Americans – many cannot speak the language or know much about where they came from. Still their status remains in a kind of limbo. They have been dubbed Dreamers by those who have embraced their cause.

They feel like third-class citizens. They feel excluded, and they feel anxiety.

“They feel like third-class citizens. They feel excluded, and they feel anxiety,” said C. Mario Russell, Director of Immigrant & Refugee Services for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York.

While Dreamers were afforded protection from deportation and allowed to work and study here when President Barack Obama issued an executive order in June 2012 establishing DACA, their status remains an uneasy one, threatened by judicial decisions and the lack of Congressional action.

President Obama’s order has left a complicated legacy, especially as the politics of immigration polarized over the past decade. Americans support the Dreamers in large numbers, accepting the argument that they should not be punished for the actions of their parents. Many Dreamers have become immersed in communities, graduating from high school and, in many cases, serving in the military or graduating from college.

But Congress has not moved on extending DACA protections for the estimated 600,000 who are now enrolled across the country. Lawsuits have now frozen the program in place, prohibiting the Biden Administration – which is supportive of DACA – from opening its safeguards to new recipients.

Catholic Charities’ of New York has processed about 650 DACA applicants.

Catholic Charities’ Immigrant & Refugee Services of the Archdiocese of New York has processed about 650 DACA applicants. Russell said many still keep in touch with the agency, and there was a special outreach to them during Covid as they remained ineligible for government assistance.

Still, most are employed, quietly, doing the labor that is often considered essential if often low-paying.

Who is delivering our food? Cutting our lawns? Working as a home health aide?

“They are the ones who do the work. Who is delivering our food? Cutting our lawns? Working as a home health aide?” said Russell. The DACA workers are estimated to bring in $422 billion in tax revenue every year, with $13 billion going to Medicare and Social Security.

To be eligible for DACA, immigrants need to pay a fee, pass through an application process, and have no felonies or serious misdemeanors on their records. That permits them to work legally, but does not offer a path to citizenship.

DACA and its provisions have been challenged in court, with arguments that President Obama overreached his authority. A recent ruling from a federal judge in Texas resulted in putting a hold on new applicants.

DACA Dreamers, said Russell, often are “people who do great things against long odds.” Many are college graduates, and he knows of DACA recipients working in banking and in technology.

Yet they are still uneasy as they know that the provisions that keep them from deportation could be rescinded at any time. One of their strongest advocates has been the Catholic Church and the network of Catholic Charities across the country.

We have always been a voice for this group.

“We have always been a voice for this group,” said Russell, who noted that Catholic Charities “advocates for laws and policies that are just and humane.”

Congress needs to extend DACA protections to assure the future of its recipients, said Russell. But for the time being, DACA may accumulate future birthdays without the underlying issues being addressed. Intended as a program geared to young people, its recipients may continue to age with their American dream deferred.

“My hopes are high, my expectations low,” said Russell.

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