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DACA: What it is and Why it Matters

DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), a program instated under the Obama administration, has offered a modest hope to young undocumented immigrants seeking education and security in the United States. However, President Trump has repeatedly threatened the program with termination, both during his campaign and since his election, as part of his low-tolerance rhetoric on unauthorized immigration.

On December 15, I met with Joel Sati, a UC Berkeley doctoral student, and one of around 300 currently benefitting from the DACA program, to discuss the current state of affairs and his fears in the face of the Trump administration. We talked about the exceptional treatment of certain groups of immigrants, which has in turn provoked the marginalization of others, about the incoming administration’s tendencies towards the criminalization of undocumented immigration, and about the various intersections between immigrant-status, race and criminality. We also discussed the changing political landscape within the student body, in the UC administration, and in the country as a whole, as well as some ways to help protect immigrants’ rights.

O: So, can you give me some background information about the DACA program?

J: DACA was an executive order that President Obama signed after pressure from a lot of immigrant groups, which allows undocumented immigrants who came here as children, who don’t have a criminal record and have graduated high school, to get prosecutorial suppression, which means they become a really low priority for deportation, and they get protection from deportation for two years. In those two years, those undocumented immigrants can get work permits and can apply for Social Security, although the Social Security is only for work purposes. Depending on the state, it also allows undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license. There were certain restrictions that made DACA inaccessible to a large majority of the undocumented immigrant population: for example you had to be younger than 30, and you had to have arrived in the United States by December 15th, 2007. So immigrants who came later weren’t eligible. In all it benefited I think less than 10% of the total number of undocumented immigrants.

O: And you are currently benefitting from the DACA program. How did you feel about sending all your information to Washington to apply, coming out of the shadows?

J: An interesting note: when DACA came out, the 2012 general election was happening (Obama vs. Romney) and a lot of people decided not to apply to the program because they were worried that if Romney was elected president, their information would be compromised, and as such they might open themselves up to deportation. So there was a bit of a lull, then Obama won the election, and people resumed applying. I bring that up because I applied about a month after the program went live, and I wasn’t too worried, but then again I probably was a different person then than I am now. Now, it’s a little weird to think about what could happen to other people’s information under a Trump administration, not only for people eligible for deferred action, but also for their families, because now they have information that could compromise family members who have fewer protections than the undocumented immigrants eligible under DACA.

O: It certainly seems like the moment to take action to protect programs like DACA and their beneficiaries. How did you become active in the politics around the DACA program?

J: DACA is just one policy within a larger immigrants’ rights movement, and I got into it in the summer of 2012. I was in Maryland at the time and DACA was happening at a more national level. At the state level, there was a referendum called the Maryland DREAM act. The Maryland DREAM act allowed undocumented students who had graduated from a Maryland high school and spent two years at a Maryland community college to receive in-state tuition at Maryland institutions of higher education. That was something that I spent the summer and fall of 2012 lobbying for, in tandem with DACA, so that’s how I got into it: in the context of DACA, the Maryland DREAM act, and then making the move toward more comprehensive immigration reform.

O: Can you tell me about the bipartisan act currently in Congress to protect DACA?

J: Yes. Yesterday Senator Dick Durbin [and Lindsay Graham] on the Senate floor, released what’s called the BRIDGE Act, which will allow the people with a deferred status protection under a similar model by legislation. It doesn’t grant a path towards legal status, but it does protect immigrant students from deportation. It’s not something that would be renewable; it’s just something that the legislature would revisit after a period of time.

O: What have your recent and current political involvements with regard to DACA been?

J: I’ve always been ambivalent about policies like DACA, or now the BRIDGE Act, because I have a view that these policies are going to exceptionalize a certain subgroup of undocumented immigrants while further marginalizing others. Once DACA became policy, it pacified the people who were called DREAMers, and let them present themselves as exceptional, and made it really difficult to push for further reform. Another thing that happened is when pushing for immigration reform, Barack Obama’s administration pushed for more deportations as a down-payment on immigration reform to try to get agreement from the other side of the aisle  and it showed the immigrants’ rights movement that the political establishment can’t be trusted. So we’re trying to look at what our options are, how we develop narratives, and the institutions we need to call into question. In terms of what I’ve been doing personally, I’m just trying to organize the best way I can, writing and doing some blogging on immigration, also trying to start conversations at Berkeley, either through lecture series, or panel presentations, or symposia. But I also do work in philosophy and political theory, and epistemology, and I’ve been working on papers that look at the deliberative environment in which undocumented immigrants make claims for basic services, residency, citizenship and whatnot. In investigating it at that level I hope to call out certain assumptions and try to change the debate in a meaningful way.

O: Is there a big community of DACA students at Berkeley, or students organized around the politics of DACA?

J: I think there are a few undocumented doctoral students; I only know a handful of them, but I’ll probably know more as time goes on. I really want to give a shout-out to an organization called RISE, the immigrants’ rights organizing group here at Berkeley. It’s led by really great undergrads, and also by Meng So, the director of the Undocumented Students Center at Cal, so there are some people who are organizing around undocumented immigration here at Berkeley, making cross-UC connections, putting pressure on [UC President Janet] Napolitano. It’s empowering to see that, because Berkeley as an institution is in a unique position to make waves in terms of undocumented immigrants and immigrants’ rights.

O: You mentioned putting pressure on Napolitano; how have you been interacting with the UC administration?

J: I haven’t been personally interacting with the UC administration. The people at RISE have been doing that, and it’s interesting to see some of the policies that she put out in statements. I’ve read them and it was further than what I expected, but there are some places where more pressure can be placed. In addition, she put out an op-ed in the NY Times which caught a lot of flak from the immigrants’ rights movement because it still went on exceptionalizing undocumented students and really didn’t look at undocumented workers, mixed-status families, or undocumented communities that are not situated around the UC’s geographically.

O: Is there any talk of making DACA-like programs not just for students but for undocumented immigrant populations in general?

J: I haven’t heard of anything outside the BRIDGE act, but that’s really nothing new. But I hope that whatever happens in terms of policy, the immigrants’ rights movement takes the lead in not exceptionalizing a certain group of undocumented immigrants. There’s a lot of work by lawyers who are leading the charge in terms of normalizing undocumented immigrants. There’s a lot of really good policy work that’s coming up but a lot of it is still in its infancy, because they really don’t know what the next administration brings. So I think right now, it’s just a matter of protecting all undocumented immigrants, getting a sense of what policies the new administration is going to seek, and trying to marshal the institutions and people of influence to act as a bulwark, should the new administration come after undocumented immigrants.

O: And what specifically are you expecting from this new administration?

J: Someone who’s been advising the new administration is Kris Kobach [current Kansas Secretary of State].  He’s a noted anti-immigrant attorney, who has helped draft Arizona’s SB1070 [known as the “show-your-papers law”], and Alabama’s bill in that same vein, so I think that the move is going to be toward criminalizing the fact of being an undocumented immigrant. In an interview, he said that he’s looking to deport two to three million criminal immigrants.  I’ve always thought that that number is a red herring. Two to three million seems logistically unfeasible, but what’s more pernicious is the fact that the idea of “the criminal” is left undefined by Trump. It’s not just people with criminal records who fall under that umbrella, it’s every undocumented immigrant. So what the political situation and the expansion of criminality will mean for undocumented immigrants is something that gives me great worry.

O: How would you characterize UC Berkeley’s response or the UC’s response to this so far? Is it satisfactory?

J: It’s very student-focused, which is predictable, given that they are an institution of higher education. But given that they are a premier institution of higher education, it is incumbent on them to move along, and I think that it is imperative that people in my position – and allies, or what I call accomplices – put pressure and put resources towards undocumented immigrant services and toward supporting undocumented immigrants. So I’m looking at, again, the idea of expanding the Undocumented Immigrant Center, toward expanding undocumented student programs, and UC taking the lead in protecting [all] immigrants.

O: The category of “all immigrants” is a large one. Could you tell me something about the complications it presents, such as those involving race, immigration and criminality?

J: Absolutely. I’m a black undocumented immigrant, and so for me and for other black immigrants, I see the issue of criminality as attached to the status of blackness, and to a politics of anti-blackness. The immigrants’ rights movement has received a lot of criticism for the slogan, “Families, not Felonies,” meaning that the undocumented should be seen as persons, and not as criminals. But such a claim suggests that anyone with a criminal record isn’t a member of family, and makes no claim to residency and citizenship. Thus, such a slogan can reflect negatively on African-Americans as well as black immigrants, because of the way they are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, and so it undermines their claims. We talked earlier about [Trump’s] expanded notion of criminality. It could be that merely driving without a license is a criminal offense, or things that are normally considered misdemeanors or minor crimes or petty crimes are now given this huge importance and they are criminals to the core. Questioning the system that makes them not only undocumented but illegal, that redefines their status as aliens, as somehow foreign or inhuman, necessitates an analysis about race, gender, immigration status, queerness, things of that nature, so a clearly intersectional analysis. So now it becomes imperative to have that analysis be a central part of how we discuss immigration reform policy.

O: Have you noticed any changes in the attitude of the student body towards the DACA program or towards DACA beneficiaries since the election?

J: Yes. Echoing what I said earlier, the idea was that DACA will most likely go in January. And so DACA beneficiaries were faced with a choice: do we push for maintaining DACA, or do we say ok, now it’s gone, and go back to pushing for everyone? I want to be optimistic and say it’s the latter position, where DACA is going to go away, it looks like, and that’s a golden opportunity to push for comprehensive immigration reform. I think that would be the better choice.

O: Thanks!  Do you have a final thought you’d like to end with?

J: It’s important to change narratives on immigration, and it is imperative that we get as many people on our side as possible to make this happen.

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