DACA defeat renews efforts for path to citizenship

A federal judge in Texas has significantly heightened the risk of deportation for thousands of young immigrants across the country, and activists are doubling down on efforts to pave a more reliable pathway to citizenship and safety.

DACA demonstration
Allison Bailey / Alamy Stock Photo

Judge Andrew Hanen ruled on July 16, in a Texas court, that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—commonly known as DACA—is unlawful. New applicants will no longer be approved into the program, however renewal applications will continue to be processed. The ruling sent shock waves of disappointment and anger throughout the country.

DACA currently protects more than 600,000 people who came to the United States as children—including many AFT members and the students and patients with whom they work—allowing them to work and build a life here without fear of deportation. Many DACA recipients have lived in the states nearly all their lives, with little recollection of the countries where they were born; they sometimes don’t even speak the language of their “home” countries and feel like Americans in every way but on paper.

While the ruling only precludes new applications for DACA and will not eliminate existing renewal applications or remove protective status from those who already have DACA, it is another indication of the precarious status of so many immigrants. “It’s a perpetual state of limbo,” says Karen Reyes, an AFT member and DACA recipient who teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing children in Austin, Texas. “There’s no stability.”

“No one should have to live in fear, with their fate dangling in the courts,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten, “so we will continue to do everything in our power to protect the rights of immigrants in this country.”

Acting for justice

The AFT is deeply invested in this fight: DACA recipients and other immigrants, with and without documentation, include teachers, nurses, college professors, bus drivers and others who are AFT members, close colleagues and the people we serve. “DACA-eligible youth have done everything our society has asked of them; we have an obligation to do right by them,” says AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, yet more than 80,000 new DACA applications currently in review have been abandoned for the time being due to the ruling.

Countless children in our teachers’ schools, patients in our nurses’ workplaces and individuals in our public service offices—from local governments to highways to national parks—are immigrants who are fundamental members of our communities. During the pandemic, immigrants “make up a large part of the frontline, essential workers who have showed up for us every day, risking their own health, as the world continues to grapple with a healthcare and justice catastrophe,” says Weingarten.

The AFT is already one of the organizations that sued the Trump administration when he tried to roll back DACA in 2017. Now, the AFT is turning to legislators to craft a more reliable solution to immigration policy. “The Biden administration and Congress must take action to permanently protect undocumented people—not just DACA recipients, but all 11 million undocumented people living in this country,” says Weingarten. In addition to being a more humane approach, creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants would increase U.S. GDP by up to $1.7 trillion over the next decade.

A way forward

The best way forward for a pathway toward citizenship is in the reconciliation package currently moving through Congress. The AFT is also fighting for the American Dream and Promise Act, which passed the House of Representatives in March. If passed by the Senate and signed into law, it would allow Temporary Protected Status holders and DACA recipients—called Dreamers—to apply for permanent legal status—and eventual U.S. citizenship. While we work on these long-term legislative fixes, we expect litigation to continue with appeals of the Hanen decision that will ultimately reach the Supreme Court.

“The Texas court ruling on DACA was gut wrenching for millions of families and for the tens of thousands of immigrant youth who were waiting to receive a DACA approval that may never come,” says Greisa Martinez Rosas, executive director of United We Dream. “This is all happening while there are massive increases in detentions, deportations and expulsions. After months of pressure from our people-powered movement, Democrats have included a pathway to citizenship in their budget reconciliation. The reality is that the only way to protect immigrant youth, TPS recipients, farmworkers and other essential workers is by passing a pathway to citizenship through reconciliation this year.”

Meanwhile, the AFT is working to support individuals facing immigration challenges. Affiliates like Education Austin and Texas AFT have held “Know Your Rights” workshops explaining what to do in case of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid and how to keep families together as much as possible, and assuring parents that all children, regardless of immigration status, are guaranteed a place in our public schools. Deportation defense trainings have prepared people for the threat of forcibly leaving the country, with advice about how to stay in touch with family members and how to find legal help when necessary.

AFT locals are also leveraging their collective bargaining agreements to protect and support immigrant colleagues. One example is the Los Rios College Federation of Teachers in Sacramento, Calif., which won written protection against discrimination on the basis of immigration status, personal necessity leave to address immigration issues, and other measures. Sample language and other resources are available in the AFT’s toolkit, Standing United to Protect the Rights of Immigrant Students and Their Families.

Partners like United We Dream, the UndocuBlack Network, the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, the National Immigration Law Center, the We Are Home Coalition and many others are all pulling together for a more comprehensive, protective immigration policy so that people who come to the United States—whether they are fleeing violence or poverty or both—can live here without fear; so that Dreamers, who have lived here nearly their entire lives, can stay here; and so that farmworkers and other essential workers who kept America fed, healthy and safe during the worst of the pandemic can stay here, at home.

“We must work together to reaffirm what we know to be true,” says Weingarten. “DACA recipients belong here.”

If you or someone you know has been impacted by this ruling, please let us know as we continue to explore avenues of support. Information will be kept confidential.

[Virginia Myers]