'It's Really Hard to Plan for a Future That Is So Uncertain': a DACA Recipient on What's Next

Image via Getty.
Image via Getty.

Last Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the United States would “wind down” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows people who immigrated to the United States as children temporary legal status in the only country they’ve ever known. Currently, around 790,000 people are part of the DACA program.

On this week’s episode of Big Time Dicks (now released on Tuesdays), we spoke with Leezia Dhalla, an immigration reform activist and DACA recipient who moved to the US when she was six years old, and didn’t learn she was undocumented until college. Dhalla’s experience highlights the confusion a hastily made decision like ending the DACA program brings, both on the individual level but also for the nation at large. 

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“My family and I moved to Texas from Canada in 1996,” she said. “We came legally on a visa and, because of that, I always grew up having a social security number and, later on, I grew up with a driver’s license. My childhood was pretty all-American. People expect to hear something that’s foreign or they expect to hear about this incredible journey crossing through the border. My experience was nothing like that, right? My family and I came on a plane and I had the most Texas upbringing of any kind. When I think of my childhood I think of brisket and breakfast tacos and I think of Selena, the Tejano star. I spent a lot of time learning how to square dance in elementary school. I played recreational basketball and soccer. I played the cello. I was a girl scout.”

During her junior year at Northwestern University, she says she received a notice to appear in immigration court from the Department of Homeland Security—due to her family’s lawyer filing paperwork late, and a series of other events out of her control, she had fallen out of status.

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“I spent the next year and a half up until graduation totally terrified,” she said. “I had taken out so much money in student loans—I had never planned to fall out of status, I had never planned to be undocumented. Fortunately, on my college graduation day, about a year and a half after I had found out about my status, the DACA program was announced... Shortly after graduation I was able to get a work permit and, because of that, my life changed dramatically. I was able to get a full-time job and pay off my student loans; I was able to buy a home; I bought a car. I was able to eventually move from Texas to Washington DC, where I work today for an immigrant advocacy organization.”

Dhalla also stressed that the six months Congress was given to come up with a replacement is woefully lacking, and will result in many recipients falling out of status.

“Essentially what the announcement was, is that anyone who has a work permit that expires on or before March 5, 2018 has the ability to apply for a renewal, but they must submit their renewal applications within the next 30 days. Unfortunately my DACA expires on May 5th, so I’m kind of out of luck. There’s no way for me to renew or extend my DACA status, so what will happen is on May 6th, I will become a priority for deportation and I will no longer have the ability to work in the United States.”

“When you pass a piece of legislation, you have to think through time to implement it,” she continued. “For example, one of the big pieces of legislation that could allow Dreamers to continue contributing here permanently is the DREAM Act... [which says] basically if Dreamers go through an application process including a background check, if they pay a fine, then they would get a temporary form of protected status and then ultimately 13 years down the line they would be able to become full US citizens. When the DREAM Act is passed there needs to be time to implement it, meaning the Department of Homeland Security has to create an application, Dreamers have to hire an attorney, Dreamers have to collect all the paperwork, they have to file for their permanent residency, and then they have to wait for the Department of Homeland Security to notify them of acceptance and that is a months-long process in and of itself. So if Congress doesn’t both pass the DREAM Act and roll out full implementation of that program by March 6th, people will start to fall out of status.”

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Of her plans, Dhalla said, “It’s really hard to plan for a future that is so uncertain and so temporary in so many ways. For me in particular, I always wanted to go to law school, but DACA is only good for two years at a time and law school is three years. There’s so many questions that people have and so many things that people want to do that are really restrained because of our immigration status, and it’s a status that I in particular didn’t knowingly walk into. I don’t think anybody wants to be undocumented, it’s a really tough life. It’s not something I would wish on anyone. You’re constantly looking over your shoulder and avoiding any type of interaction with the police, which is pretty detrimental when you consider that many people who are undocumented don’t call the police when their house gets robbed because they’re too scared.”

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“DACA recipients in particular are a unique group because we went to elementary school here, we went to middle school here, we went to high school here, many of us went to college here, we have good paying jobs that allow us to pay property taxes and give back to our community in so many ways. It makes sense to keep us here, not only economically, but turning us away—it’s morally wrong for so many reasons.”

The full interview, which is well worth listening to, is available on the podcast. Dhalla also pointed us to her organization’s website for more information on the DREAM Act and how to help DACA recipients.

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Big Time Dicks can be found on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, iHeart Radio, and on the NPR One app.

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Want to tell us about a Big Time Dick in your life? Send us a voice note to BigTimeDicks@jezebel.com. Also, please rate and subscribe to the podcast, and recommend it to your friends, to make sure others are able to get their weekly dose of dick. If you need an antidote to this dark (but explained in a fun, relatable way) subject matter, check out our sister pop culture podcast DirtCast.

Senior Editor, Jezebel

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DISCUSSION

thenoblerenard
The Noble Renard

The real issue is, no matter how much we shout about how DACA-holders—who grew up in this country, speak perfect English, love football, baseball, hot dogs, fried chicken, and the red white and blue—are American, a solid majority of Republicans do not believe that they will ever, ever be “American.” And this is no matter whether there is a legal path or not. From a poll put out very recently:

Note how only 35% of Republicans agree with the statement that a “real American” can be an immigrant! No matter how much you discuss all the cultural aspects of DACA-holders, how they’re part of their communities, how they feel like Americans, it won’t matter to a hardcore Republican. Because, frankly, Americanness to them requires one to trace your lineage back generations; jus sanguinis (right of the blood) defeats jus soli (right of the soil).

But there’s an interesting counterpoint to that. When you actually poll on the meat of DACA, you find that partisan differences largely fall by the wayside:

So what does it largely mean? Well, I think those two things put together kind of shows that Republicans largely tolerate immigrants (while a large percentage of them just hate immigrants in general). If they think immigrants have jumped through all the correct hoops, well, they can stay, as long as they don’t get in the way of the “real Americans” who grew up here.

But no matter what, most Republicans will never accept that a Hernandez or a Wang or a Patel are Americans. Why? Well, because to the majority of Republicans, the first thing that jumps to mind when they think of Americans is white people. An America stuck in the era of restricted national quotas and wholesale immigration blocks on non-white nations.

So what do we take from all of this? We need to stop talking about immigration as an economic issue, for one thing. The moment we agree to discuss the economic import of immigrants as a policy measure, without discussing their humanity, the right of family reunification, humanitarian protections, and our country’s ideals, we put the ball in the Republican court and pitch immigration as an “us vs. them” dialog. But it’s not. Immigration is “us + us.” It’s how we all improve, and how we all get better as a country.

/There’s also a deep, deep lack of understanding of our immigration system. People generally just don’t understand how any of this works. They think “My ancestors came the right way,” not realizing that their ancestors likely came at a time when American had open borders. Seriously. We didn’t even invent the concept of getting a “visa” before coming here until 1924.