First published September 25 2017 in Anthropology News.
Early morning on September 5, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, issued to protect over 800,000 undocumented persons who arrived to the United States as minors from deportation and provide them with temporary work-permits. Sessions claimed that DACA had been “an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the executive branch,” and hence, needed to be repealed. Despite all efforts to portray DACA recipients as the perfect immigrant, Sessions still characterized them as having “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans, by allowing those same illegal aliens to take those jobs.” As early as March 5th, almost one-thousand people will be subject to deportation every day. Certainly, we are all hoping that Congress will find a permanent solution. Yet, given that DACA students and workers are not a legally protected class in the United States, it would be a serious mistake to not anticipate and plan for the worst possible outcome.
After deporting over 400,000 immigrants in 2012 and after a failure of Congress to act on immigration reform, Former President Obama signed DACA as an executive order. Since then over a million individuals underwent the rigorous qualification process, including undergoing extensive background and criminal checks, completing educational requirements or serving in the Coast Guard or Armed Forces, and registering with the government. Similar to the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) offered to immigrants from countries with extraordinarily unsafe conditions, DACA did not offer permanent residency and had to be renewed regularly. Every two-years, these early-career individuals paid $500 dollars to be able to keep their employment, educational aid, and their driver’s license.
The University of California’s efforts to support their undocumented students provide lessons to those in higher-education. For instance weeks after the Jeff Sessions announcement, the University of California announced a lawsuit against the federal government for unconstitutionally violating the rights of the University and its students. They are also experimenting with models for student and employment. For example, in the last few years, competition for the University of California Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship opened to DACA students, along with the possibility for receiving Visa sponsorship as an employee. Additionally, those who will be losing their teaching assistant positions now qualify for fellowships from private funds, and can gain work experience as guest lecturers and facilitators. As students who lack documentation and whose structural conditioning would constrain—if not make impossible—their ability to complete their degree, they have become one more class of the diversity population that must be protected from discrimination.
The options for those in the private sphere are more limited. Employment laws are straightforward and strict: Non-citizens and non-residents need a work-permit to be legally employed, and employers can legally ask to re-verify employment close to, by, or after this permit’s expiration date. It is rare that asking for re-verification would constitute employment discrimination, especially in jobs not protected by unions. Yet, sympathetic employers who do not verify work-permits could be audited and be fined. These federally mandated layoffs can cost over 6 billion dollars in employee turnover costs alone.
Yet, corporations have publicly vowed to advocate for their DACA employees. Apple, for instance, has over 250 workers who will be affected by the repeal if Congress does not propose a permanent solution to guarantee their residency. Microsoft CEO also stated, “A tax reform bill needs to be set aside until the DREAMers are taken care of,” and vowed to legally represent their DACA employees. Several-hundred business leaders, including CEOs, Presidents, Founders, and Corporate Executives, have signed on to a letter of support pledging to “Stand with Dreamers.” They claim that DACA recipients are a boost to the economy: They pay income taxes, participate in the economy as home and car owners, and have widespread employment in 72 percent of the top Fortune 500 companies.
DACA is not a legally protected class in the United States, although as undocumented students they resemble diversity categories in higher-education institutions. Many would agree that there is a historical need to provide protections and solutions to institutional discrimination, regardless of documentation status. There is legal precedence for this. For instance, in her influential work, Kimberle Crenshaw (1991) explains that undocumented victims “suffer in silence for fear that the security of their entire families will be jeopardized should they seek help or otherwise call attention to themselves.” These legal concerns have resulted in immigration procedural changes, including the domestic violence waiver. Outside of private employment, there is no need for DACA and other undocumented students to suffer in silence when there is much creativity to be employed in the student-working processes of higher education.
The situation that has followed over the repeal of DACA is serious and life changing. DACA offered a large number of persons the opportunity for social and economic mobility: Through DACA, the government promised protection in exchange for control that ripples beyond the individual. Over the next several months these students and workers, who have their names, addresses, and phone-numbers on government databases, will be living in fear and uncertainty over possible deportation. We must take seriously that Homeland Security urged DACA recipients to use their transition period to self-deport. Yet, rather than do as they say, we need to be prepared for the best and the worst. We need to act like allies through whatever form we see fit. We must also advocate for undocumented persons who do not fit the perfect immigrant narrative.
Unless Congress passes a permanent residency program, thousands will lose their employments and their legal authority to remain in this country. This situation will likely continue to inspire debates over immigration law, strategy, and process for years to come. We have also learned two important lessons: The first is that executive orders can always be revoked; and the second is that the narrative of the perfect immigrant, while capable of garnering widespread sympathy, is not foolproof and is incomplete. Both of these are equally depressing and hopeful, depending on which way you would like to look at the problem.