My husband woke me up with excitement in his voice, “DACA is here to stay!” I was happy to hear it, but I didn’t trust the feeling.
I remember when Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) was first announced in 2012. It sounded like a gift. It was a policy based on the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, to refrain from pursuing removal cases against young undocumented people who were brought to the United States as children.
Many who qualify don’t remember the place of their birth. Their earliest childhood memories are here in the United States. Some didn’t learn they were undocumented until they were in their teens, ready to explore their options for higher education.
DACA also opened the door for these young people to legally work in the United States by issuing them work permits. Work permits paved the way for them to open bank accounts, pay taxes, and attend universities. I could see that DACA had the potential to change lives.
Many people came to me, as an immigration lawyer, asking for help to apply for DACA. They were surprised to see the worry in my face. I warned them that as much as I understood the opportunity DACA presented, it was not rooted in solid ground. It wasn’t statutory law. It was based on a policy memorandum signed by the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) Secretary under President Obama. I warned them that Obama would not be president forever and that a future president with a different outlook might be elected. I told them that the stroke of one pen was giving them an opportunity, but the stroke of another might destroy it.
Over time, I observed how DACA changed the lives of two people close to my family. One of them is an expressive artist who works on large commissioned art projects around the United States, including one for the San Diego Airport. The other, a high performing student, became a physician’s assistant and is providing healthcare to San Diegans.
While the artist and physician’s assistant were growing into contributing, productive adults, a different president was elected with a different outlook. The new administration attempted to rescind DACA. The new DHS Secretary had set a deadline for DACA to expire. Federal Courts intervened and nationwide injunctions were entered, preventing DACA from expiring. The administration did not relent. It took the matter to the United States Supreme Court.
The last few years have kept DACA recipients on edge. They see a dream that seems within reach. They know what a productive life in the United States looks and feels like. But the sands have been shifting under their feet.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision brought on a moment of jubilation, but I was right not to trust the feeling. The decision, partly premised on a procedural failure, bought more time. But DACA recipients are vulnerable to political winds. They continue to stand on shifting sand reaching for an illusory promise. Without grounding in statutory law, DACA remains a mirage. It can disappear.
Vaani Chawla is an incoming Lawyers Club board member, the immediate past president of the South Asian Bar Association of San Diego, founder of Chawla Law Group, APC, and provides legal representation to families and businesses in immigration matters.