Since President Donald Trump announced Sept. 5 that his administration will be rescinding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), fear and anxiety have gripped many young adults in the country who have been protected from deportation since the program took effect in 2012.
“I have friends who have DACA and aren’t eligible for other benefits, and they’re really scared,” said Melissa Lopez, executive director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso, Texas. “They’re worried about what’s going to happen to them and what’s going to happen to their families. There’s just a lot of fear right now.”
Lopez’s agency, which works with undocumented immigrants to help them obtain legal residency, is among dozens of Catholic institutions that are working to provide aid and support for the young adults who were illegally brought to the United States as children by their parents.
Bishops denounce move
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and individual bishops alike have voiced strong support for the “Dreamers” — as DACA recipients are often called — and are calling on Congress to pass legislation to protect them.
“We strongly urge Congress to act and immediately resume work toward a legislative solution. We pledge our support to work on finding an expeditious means of protection for DACA youth,” several bishop-chairmen said in a Sept. 5 joint statement where they described the cancellation of DACA as “reprehensible.”
Ashley Feasley, the director of migration policy and public affairs at USCCB, told Our Sunday Visitor that the bishops are not only pressing Congress for a legislative solution, but they also are making sure that DACA youth are supported and can access any services they need.
“The bishops have seen firsthand the human impact of DACA in their communities,” Feasley said. “They see what this program, even though it’s not a legislative solution, does for young people here in the United States who by any measure, except for their immigration status, are American.”
In 2012, President Barack Obama’s administration created DACA, which allows some people who entered the country illegally as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit. As of early September, an estimated 790,000 people had qualified for DACA, with many of them attending college, participating in the workforce and serving in the military.
Lopez told OSV that she and other immigration attorneys and advocates have been encouraging young adults in the El Paso border region whose DACA certifications expire between now and March 5 to renew their status by the Oct. 5 deadline set by the Trump administration. But for those individuals whose renewal period falls outside that six-month window, they will not be shielded from deportation once their DACA certifications expire. They also stand to lose their work permits.
As of Sept. 5, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security was no longer accepting new DACA applications. Catholic organizations that work with immigrant communities have been screening Dreamers to see if they are eligible for permanent residency status under any other grounds in federal immigration law.
“For a lot of these DACA holders, many of them are going to go back to being undocumented. Many of them are not going to have other options that would allow them to apply for permanent status,” Lopez said.
Patricia Zapor, communications director for Catholic Legal Immigration Network, told OSV that her agency has been marshalling resources for local affiliates to assist Dreamers. Zapor said the president’s decision to rescind DACA “creates all kinds of predicaments” for DACA recipients. “What happens to their jobs? Will they get fired before their permits expire because employers want to ensure they have workers who will be there in six months?” Zapor asked. “What happens to their school plans? On a human level, there are all kinds of disarray in the works. Not to mention the question that everybody has: Will the government use the information it has against them?”
To apply for and renew their DACA certifications, Dreamers provided their personal information, including fingerprints, to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Obama administration promised that information would not be used for deportation purposes, but immigration advocates say they are worried because no such assurances have been made by the Trump administration.
“In some ways, we’ve baited them into this program as a way to identify where they live and deport them, depending on how the administration proceeds. That would simply be wrong to do,” said Kevin Appleby, the international migration policy director for the Center for Migration Studies, a Catholic think tank.
Appleby said he believes the chances for a legislative solution are better than it has been in recent years, given that Trump has challenged Congress to legalize DACA in six months, promising he would revisit the issue if necessary.
“The Dreamers are hard workers, fearless, ambitious. These are traits the president admires, and he’s met a few of them. His instincts tell him he should be hiring these young people, not firing them,” Appleby said.
As a candidate, Trump promised to “immediately terminate” DACA, calling it “one of the most unconstitutional actions ever taken by a president.” But after the 2016 election, the president for awhile soft-pedaled his stance, saying in January that Dreamers “shouldn’t be very worried” about being deported.
“There comes a time when our elected officials should act because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s an economic issue, a social issue or because their constituents may want a certain position. And this is one of them,” Appleby said.
Protecting the Dreamers
Currently, there are at least four pending bills in Congress, spearheaded by Republicans and Democrats, to address the DACA issue. The bishops previously have supported two of the bills: the Dream Act, which has many of the same protections as DACA but also creates a pathway to citizenship, and the Bridge Act, which would codify DACA into law and extend it for three years, allowing Congress more time to come up with comprehensive immigration reform.
Whether Congress has the political will to codify DACA into law remains to be seen. Luis Fraga, a political science professor and director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame, told OSV he is skeptical that a bipartisan coalition of House members can get a bill through that chamber even though some recent public polling indicates that a majority of Americans favor protecting Dreamers.
“This is a moral issue, and one on which the Catholic Church’s teaching is clear,” said Fraga, who added that many DACA students at Notre Dame have been heartened by the university administration’s unequivocal support on their behalf. Fraga and other Catholic immigration advocates added that the nation’s Catholic bishops are right to call for just and humane immigration laws that respect human dignity.
Feasley, of the USCCB, said the bishops will look to engage Catholics to support a legislative solution for the Dreamers, to “make sure we have protections in place for them so that this doesn’t happen again.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.