President Obama made it clear after he rolled out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012 that he'd done everything he thought he could do to protect unauthorized immigrants from deportation. He believed he was legally allowed to let about 1.2 million "DREAMers" (young unauthorized immigrants who'd been brought to the US as children) apply for protection from deportation and work permits through the DACA program, but not legally allowed to expand the program to other groups of unauthorized immigrants.
The DREAMers themselves disagreed. The people who benefited from Obama's first major executive action on immigration, in 2012, were the people who took the lead on pressuring him to do more in 2014. With Obama's announcement last week that he's making sweeping executive changes to immigration policy, the activists won.
But they lost one battle near and dear to the hearts. There is no separate protection for their parents — the "original DREAMers," as the activists called them — in Obama's new plans. If the parent of a DREAMer also has a child who's a US citizen or permanent resident — of any age — the parent can get protection from deportation; but a parent whose only children are DACA recipients won't be eligible.
The Original DREAMers
The question of parents is why most of the leading immigrant activist groups rejected a bill proposed (although never drafted) by House Republicans, which would have granted legal status to them but excluded their parents. And it's why groups led by DACA recipients were willing to openly call on President Obama last year and this year to expand executive action before some other advocacy groups were.
When I interviewed organizers who were working on DACA outreach earlier this year, they shared an understanding that they were building the infrastructure for future policy victories, and for future waves of applications for relief. And the first group that came up, often, was their parents.
As one activist put it: "Our parents are the original dreamers. Their love and entrepreneurship allow us to have aspirations and dreams. They made sure we were safe, fed, and educated so we could embody their own dreams and aspirations that unfortunately they could not reach in our homelands...Gracias papi. Now I will fight for you."
Why DREAMers' parents aren't protected by Obama's new actions
The broad contours of what Obama would be doing on immigration became clear about a week before the president's formal announcement: he'd be expanding the DACA program to eliminate some of the age restrictions, and would create a new program for parents of US citizens and green-card holders. But even at that point, the administration still hadn't made up its mind about whether or not to include the parents of DACA recipients in the new relief program as well.
A day or two before the announcement, the administration decided to exclude them. The reasoning, which they laid out carefully in an official legal memo, was that they felt they could give relief to DREAMers themselves for "humanitarian" reasons, and they felt they could give relief to parents of US citizens and legal residents because they'd eventually be eligible for legal status anyway.
But providing the DACA program to DREAMers, and then expanding relief to their parents, would be piling one executive action on top of another — letting a group of unauthorized immigrants qualify for relief simply because of their relationship to another group that had qualified for relief. And they felt that was a bridge too far.
Many advocates have rejected this reasoning — after all, it's grounded more in precedent than it is in any specific part of immigration law. But it's also clear that the administration wanted to be able to claim to critics, and even in court (if congressional Republicans try to sue to stop the new program), that they saw some limit to what the president could do on immigration. By having a group to point to that was deliberately left out, the administration is able to make the case that it was guided by the law — not solely by a desire to please constituents.
The administration was also boxed in by the way it's chosen to talk about the original DACA program — it's cast DREAMers as victims, as children brought here "through no fault of their own," who need to be allowed to stay simply for humanitarian reasons. That's a frame that young unauthorized immigrants themselves had deliberately moved away from even before DACA was established — because they recognized that it made them look good at the cost of making their parents look bad. They didn't feel it was their parents' "fault" they'd brought their children to the US — they saw it as an act of courage. That's where the phrase "original DREAMers" comes from.
Ironically, the way the administration's plan was characterized in early leaks — parents of children who were under 18 — very few parents of DACA recipients would have been included. Immigrants aren't eligible for DACA before the age of 16; the Migration Policy Institute estimated that only about 70,000 parents had one unauthorized-immigrant child between the ages of 16 and 18, but no US citizen or legal resident children.
As it turns out, the Obama administration's final plan would have included many more. There's no age cap on how old a US citizen or legal-resident child has to be for the parent to qualify for the program. That means hundreds of thousands more parents of DACA recipients could have qualified, if they'd been eligible.
Will families who've been left out keep fighting?
Even though parents of DACA recipients aren't automatically eligible for relief, many of them will in fact qualify for the new program — because while their older children came here as immigrants and now have DACA, their younger ones were born in the US and are citizens. But for DACA recipients themselves, that split feels arbitrary. One leading activist group told me that of the DREAMers they had staying in DC to lobby last week, about half of their parents are included in the new program; the other half aren't.
They say they're going to continue fighting for relief to get expanded even further. But with only two years of Obama left, and the possibility of a future Republican president who could reverse even the existing deportation-protection programs, it's going to be an uphill battle. Meanwhile, many of the leading activists who are DACA recipients put their lives on hold during the campaign that led to last week's announcement: they've left or postponed grad school, or split their time between their hometowns and DC. Many of them have been doing full-time advocacy for several years. If some of them decided they were tired of fighting, and wanted to get on with their lives, it would be understandable.
UPDATE: This article was updated to be as explicit as possible that parents of DREAMers who also have children who are US citizens or legal permanent residents will be eligible for protection from deportation under President Obama's executive actions.