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DACA: The People Behind the Politics

Edited By: Joy Jiang


In early September, the Trump administration redacted the Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which enveloped immigrant communities in uncertainty and fear. This decision, which affects millions living in the United States (US), turns what used to be a program that provided temporary relief for undocumented individuals, into what could become a deportation list, putting 800,000 young people, like us, in danger.

The repercussions of this decision primarily impact the lives of the young people covered under DACA and their immediate families. However, the impact also extends to the estimated 11.1 million undocumented individuals, the majority of which are Latin Americans, currently living in the US, as well as the thousands who leave Central and South America each year to make the harrowing and deadly journey on El Camino (the migrant trail).

The decision to rescind DACA reaches beyond the political sphere and deep into communities through stripping undocumented individuals of their humanity. I must acknowledge my privilege in having the opportunity to write about the uncertainty and fear that is currently being felt by those affected, because I am a Latina and a Canadian citizen who can do so without fear of deportation. Due to the disproportionate burden of the repercussions falling on Latin American communities, their stories will be the focus here. The few shared, however, are only a drop in the ocean of those that can be told to understand the full impact of redacting the program on the lives of the millions affected.


DACA: The Beginnings and Sudden End

DACA was an initiative pushed through by the Obama administration, which allowed for migrants (mainly Latin Americans brought to the US illegally as children) to own property, attend postsecondary institutions and gain legal employment. The first attempt at such a goal was the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM), designed to offer a chance at permanent and legal residency in the US. DREAM was introduced in 2001 by senators and was repeatedly shut down by congress since, prompting Obama to pass DACA as an executive order in 2012. Everyone who provided their personal information to the government for DACA, and who were promised temporary relief from the hardships that come with being undocumented, are called Dreamers for that reason.

When Trump was on the campaign trail, among other divisive policies, he promised a redaction of DACA, citing that it was unconstitutional. Trump’s promise was met with outrage, both then and now, from the Obama administration, local immigration groups, and communities worldwide. All of these organizations believe that DACA is a much needed and extremely overdue policy to relieve the uncertainty and restrictions which undocumented individuals face.

Photo taken by: Molly Adams

Although it is estimated that 1.3 million individuals brought to the US as children were eligible for DACA, only 800,000 were covered before its repeal. To be clear, DACA did not provide a fast track to citizenship or guarantee permanent residence. What it did was provide temporary relief by providing the documents needed to allow these young people to work legally, get a driver’s license, attend postsecondary institutions, and own property in the United States. DACA granted coverage for two years, but individuals could re-apply, which in theory, could allow them to live with the program’s benefits indefinitely or until a DREAM Act was passed, which has always remained the ultimate goal of immigration groups.


Undocumented: No Papers, No Status

Leaving behind your home to make a dangerous and long journey across continents to an unknown country is a decision that many of us will never have to make. The majority of people in Latin America live in debilitating poverty, beyond what is imaginable in developed countries such as Canada and the US. The struggle to survive drives many to travel on El Camino to the North, a journey which has become even deadlier following the US’ efforts to ramp up border security with measures such as Prevention Through Deterrence [1].

Jason de León has written an ethnography titled, The Land of the Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, which details the lives of migrants and their journeys to the US. He’s also described the way in which border policy has intentionally resulted in the deaths of migrants and ensures the disappearance of any evidence. The details of his argument are beyond the scope of this piece, but his broader analysis of the desperation and uncertainty which drives migrants to leave for a country in which they will remain illegal for the rest of their lives, is a narrative that applies to many of the stories of those impacted by DACA. In one of his interviews, Christian, an Ecuadorian migrant living undocumented in the US, commented on Maricela, his sister in-law, and her motivations for making the journey before dying in the desert [2], “Many come here for their family, but only encounter death… Maricela came with the same idea that I had. She came here because of her kids. She wanted to give them what they needed. They couldn’t get ahead in Ecuador.”

These narratives are an important reminder that we can’t turn against the parents who brought their children to the US, as these are decisions that we cannot understand without being in their situations. Ms. Guzman, a Dreamer who has chosen to remain anonymous says, “Many focus on the 800,000 DACA recipients who are often admired for their resilience, ignoring the fact that we stand on the shoulders of our parents. We are called Dreamers, but our parents dreamed long before we did of a better future. There are 11 million undocumented people who deserve to be acknowledged as people.” Another young woman, captured by Humans of New York, echoed the sentiment, “…Whenever I hear ‘I stand with Dreamers,’ I always think about my mom. I’m not willing to throw her under the bus. I’m not willing to be a bargaining chip to make her seem like a criminal. Everything people admire about Dreamers is because of our parents.”

When an undocumented individual steps foot on US soil, they are labeled an “alien” or “illegal”, which works to induce a state of exception. Giorgio Agamben describes how this happens when “sovereign authorities [governments] declare emergencies to suspend the legal protection afforded to individuals while simultaneously unleashing the power of the state upon them” [3]. This theory explains how undocumented migrants are policed in exceptionally cruel and violent ways by border police at the justification of protecting America from “noncitizens”, while simultaneously having their rights to protest and resist revoked [4]. This policing often occurs far away from the eyes of US citizens, in detention centers, at border crossings and in the deserts separating Mexico and the US. These boundaries, however, have extended inward as undocumented youth in the US are subject to heavy surveillance and are often arrested and deported. “To live illegally in the United States means living an existence stripped of juridical protection, opened to violence, and rendered potentially disposable,” says Cecilia Menjívar from Arizona State University.

Juan Escalante, a Dreamer, who was protected under DACA before its repeal, has voiced the effect of returning to illegal status, “We have consistently felt fear, anxiety, and even depression well before Donald Trump took office. It was routine for many of us to wake up every day wondering if the knock at the door was the neighbor or ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents seeking to deport us. Right now, Dreamers are facing the reality that our only lifeline in the United States could be taken away from us, that the personal information we provided the government could be used to track us down and deport us, and that our mental health continues to be tested in what can only be described as a psychological pseudo-war.”

DACA recipients were granted a social security number which allowed them to, among other things, purchase property, gain legal employment and obtain driver’s licenses and a state ID. Further, they were able to apply for financial aid to be able to attend postsecondary institutions. Going back to being undocumented means going back to hiding and going back to a life with so much out of reach. “I was brought here by hard-working, loving parents who only wanted what was best for my future. Running away from poverty and leaving family behind in the hope of a better life. DACA allowed me to have a chance at a better tomorrow. I am now a medical assistant and a third-year student at the University of Utah. Taking away DACA would remove the privileges that I hold dearly… I am a human; I am 1 of the 800,000 dreamers who thrive for a better future. America is my home. I didn’t choose to be undocumented, but I do decide to keep fighting for what is right and keep moving forward,” says Claudia on Dreamer Stories.

Source: Define American

If the people previously covered under DACA are deported, they will be returned to their country of birth. In an August 2017 survey of DACA recipients, it was found that the average age of coming to the US was six and a half years old. These individuals arrived to the US when they were children and they often have little to no connection to that country. They may not remember it, speak the language, be in contact with any family, or know how to get around when they’re there. Imagine being shipped to a country which you have never been to and having to re-learn how to navigate around your new surroundings for daily survival and re-establish yourself for employment.

When people are sent back as strangers to countries that they have never known, they will continue to feel isolated and alienated, feelings which first began when they set foot on US soil. Dreamers had temporary relief from that reality and are now being thrust back into the shadows. As Nanci Palacios, a Dreamer, says, this causes “the feeling that we’re being played with. DACA provided this glimpse into a different life, and it’s going to be taken away. We’re being used as a bargaining chip for someone to fulfill their own agenda, and it’s not the first time this has happened to undocumented communities”.

These are real people. These are not just names on a list for a redacted program. These are people who have built lives, gone to school, paid taxes, have had US-born children, gotten employment, made friends and bought property. “The thought that you would be stripped of your DACA status is not just traumatizing, it’s dehumanizing and exhausting,” says Dreamer Juan Escalante. 

Dreamers are not the only ones who have lost with the redaction of DACA. Communities will also lose when these integral members are deported without notice. These communities will be stripped of their culture, their diversity and their strength. What will these communities be left with when the same people who lived next door, went to their schools and worked in their neighbourhoods are gone overnight? Kica Matos, a spokesperson for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), an organization which fights for immigrant rights, issued a statement, “…DACA has allowed Dreamers to contribute to their communities, to work, to go to school and to live their lives without fear of being ripped away from their families, and from a country they consider home. Dreamers are human beings, not tokens nor line items, who deserve dignity and respect. They have earned the love and respect of millions of Americans, many of whom know them as their neighbors, friends, fellow students or co-workers.”

Rightfully so, undocumented people fear sharing identifying information to avoid government officials and law enforcement. When applying to DACA, they gave up information such as fingerprints and addresses. “This temporary fix did not grant any legal status; it simply deferred my deportation. I willingly surrendered my personal information to the Department of Homeland Security, trusting the government would not use it against me,” says Ms. Guzman. Now that DACA has been redacted, the question on everybody’s minds is; will DACA become a deportation list? The Department of Homeland Security has already confirmed that information may be transferred to ICE in certain situations.


Dreamers: An Uncertain Future

Despite paying taxes, working in the same neighbourhoods and attending schools as those with status, those who are undocumented cannot own property, pursue a postsecondary education or have legal employment that is protected under labour laws. Undocumented people must work under the toughest conditions and live under oppressive laws while remaining unprotected in the country that they consider their home. DACA had granted only a portion of undocumented individuals the opportunity to improve those living conditions, but when those opportunities are taken away, it is everyone who loses.

In true Trump fashion, shortly after announcing the end of DACA, he posted a contradictory tweet, “Does anybody really want to throw out good, educated and accomplished young people who have jobs, some serving in the military?” Not only does his comment render insensitive to the lives of those “good, educated and accomplished young people” which he just uprooted, but it is also evident that there can be no trust placed in those words.

There are real people who have had their hopes and dreams ripped away by September’s announcement. There are real families that will be torn apart. There is no light at the end of this tunnel for those who have lost their lives, their freedoms and their family and friends on this journey. In the words of Ms. Guzman, “When I fall, I stand up and do it all again the next day. The road to the American dream was supposed to be built on perseverance and hard work. But 17 years after that nighttime journey, that dream is now a prohibited one.”


[1]-[4] León, J. D. (2015). The land of open graves: living and dying on the migrant trail. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.

[2] Pg.237, [3] Pg.27, [4] Pg.28

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I study neuroscience at U of T and in my free time you can find me writing, surrounded by good friends, reading ethnographies and eating alfajores.
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