“This is temporary. It could end one day.”
This the warning I gave every potential applicant for DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that I helped counsel before they applied.
Now it is. Even as Congress has six months to do something with a program designed to help undocumented immigrants who arrived in this country as children, the Department of Justice has made clear it is winding down the program.
I volunteered as an immigration lawyer throughout rural Tennessee in 2012, helping people get registered with Obama’s new initiative. I remember the musty smell of church basements we’d turned into makeshift legal clinics and the sizzling sound of barbacoa from the kitchens of the family-owned Mexican restaurants where we’d meet for individual consultations.
“We hope it won’t [end]. But you have to understand that it could,” I would tell those asking about the program.
I remember watching the sinking realization of what that meant registering immediately on the faces of parents who’d gathered years of school, vaccination, church, and utility records to help support their children’s applications. They knew that applying for DACA was a risk.
“All of this information is going to be in the hands of a government agency that’s offered no guarantee they’ll use it only for good. We can’t know what tomorrow will bring.”
In both tone and in substance, the announcement to end the program on Tuesday sought to criminalize and stigmatize DACA recipients.
“The effect of this unilateral executive amnesty ... denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a speech about the end of DACA that played to the worst elements of Trump’s nativist base.
There was no recognition of families who’ve been kept together because the threat of deportation was removed, no mention of the permanent contributions to the United States made by DACA recipients who joined the military, got medical degrees, or taught in public schools, and no acknowledgement of the hundreds of billions of dollars DACA wound up pumping into the US economy.
Instead, a president who just nine days earlier pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio — a man who racially profiled Latinos, who forced inmates in his jails to wear pink underwear and who routinely violated civil rights — sent an attorney general who repeatedly lied to Congress under oath to lecture immigrants brought to this country as children about the rule of law.
For those who were there from the beginning, how the administration chose to end DACA was as morally repugnant as the decision itself.
What DACA applicants feared most
Together with nonprofit legal services organizations, I, like many immigration lawyers, counseled individuals and families in free legal clinics throughout my home state of Tennessee. I worked with Nashville-based legal services nonprofit Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, which made it part of its mission to screen, advise, and protect as many of the roughly 20,000 DACA-eligible youth in Tennessee.
As with other programs benefiting immigrants who’d previously lived in the shadows, such as Ronald Reagan’s ‘86 amnesty program, getting the wrong legal help or no help at all could prove costly and harmful. Rumors that the program itself was a ruse designed to ensnare people into deportation sowed fear in immigrant communities. Unscrupulous attorneys and predatory notarios set up phony “DACA waitlists” that would get the unsuspecting applicant a spot in some imaginary line, for a hefty fee, of course.
But mostly, there was fear of DACA’s temporary nature and what might happen if people exposed their presence to a government that had been hell-bent on deporting them in record numbers. So we worked to educate communities about who was eligible, what they had to prove, and how to assess the potential risks and benefits of applying.
A typical clinic lasted from 8 or 9 am Saturday morning until well past 10 pm that night. The communities we served had been living under the oppressive “Juan Crow” regime of criminalization, racial profiling, for-profit detention, and mass deportation.
Most who lived in mixed-status families knew all too well how a broken taillight or ill-advised stop at the carniceria while the state patrol car sat in the parking lot could lead to arrest, detention, and permanent banishment from children and loved ones. Now, despite their fears — and even persistent rumors that ICE or the sheriff was watching these legal clinics for people they might want to deport — families and communities began to emerge from the shadows of systemic xenophobia and into the promised light of authorized, if temporary, immigration status.
The counseling sessions took a familiar course.
“What if my mom was deported in the ‘90s and came back? Will ICE come and get her?”
“Someone in our house used a made-up social to pay taxes. What should we do if we get a real one?”
“Will the police here in my town try to deport me or my family before we have a chance to apply if we seek the records we need to apply?
Families struggled to find reasons to follow their hopes through the thicket of fear. I tried to strike a hopeful yet realistic tone when I answered their questions. Some of my colleagues with less experience in deportation defense told me I was being alarmist. Still, I felt a duty to make certain every DACA applicant truly understood the risks of it ending.
From these familiar conversations emerged a predictable, heartbreaking divergence of opinion within the families we counseled. The parents almost always wanted their children to apply, no matter the risk to themselves. They’d tell us, “I came here for my children, to make a better life for them. If it means the police come for me but my children are protected, I will deal with that when it comes.”
On the other side of the ledger were the potential applicants. These kids, many of whom were in high school, would earnestly do the cost-benefit analysis and tell me they’d rather not be able to have work authorization or go to college if it meant their mom, dad, brother, or sister might one day be apprehended and deported.
The greatest unknown driving these internal disagreements was the government. What would ICE do if it got their information? How would ICE use it if the program ends?
For many, a hard-learned mistrust of the humanity and fairness of our immigration enforcement regime counseled hesitation. Some waited for years before applying. Others chose never to apply at all. I’ve had more than one DACA-eligible deportation defense client tell me, “Why would I just give the government everything they need to deport me and my family?”
Most at our clinics ultimately took the leap of faith and applied. They chose hope over fear and experience. By doing so, they permanently altered the political and social landscape of the small towns where they lived.
DACA created a ripple effect in rural communities
I’ll always treasure the memory of meeting Jonny (name changed to respect privacy), the 6-foot-3, stocky high school lineman who I was certain came to the clinic to ask about a person working on his family’s horse farm. He had a thick Southern accent, wore a stylishly tattered University of Tennessee camo hat, complete with the fishhook adorning the bill, and sported a John Deere T-shirt, jeans, and Carhart boots. He was a self-proclaimed “redneck.” To the shock of his coach, many of his teachers, and his teammates, and honestly, me, he was undocumented. He may have just learned the news himself.
The process of gathering the records Jonny and so many others needed to prove their physical presence and clean criminal history transformed these country towns.
Church members who’d previously regurgitated the “law and order” talking points of the xenophobic, anti-immigrant politicians and pundits changed how they viewed their neighbors, and reacquainted themselves with the Biblical command to love and welcome the stranger.
Business owners who wrote letters of recommendation to prove applicants’ continuous presence in the United States felt for the first time that they could and should speak out for their undocumented employees.
Teachers and counselors began to understand that academic outcomes can depend on whether a parent has been whisked away to a far-off detention center, leaving no breadwinner and traumatized family behind.
Libraries started GED and ESL programs to help young, working parents meet the education requirements — a high school diploma or GED — needed to apply.
Sheriffs, politicians, and elected officials in small towns began to see for the first time how many of their constituents had a dog in the fight for sensible immigration policies. In towns of just 5,000 or 10,000 people where only 50 or 100 votes can turn an election, many officials realized antagonizing and scapegoating immigrant populations could one day be a losing political proposition. Some even had an honest change of heart.
It was coming out of the shadows and trusting in the government enough to apply for DACA that brought all of this to light. The hundreds of thousands of people who applied for DACA represent the triumph of hope over fear on a massive scale.
Today it appears, at least at the executive level, that their hope may have been misplaced. When Donald Trump announced he would sunset the DACA program, my thoughts immediately turned to all of my clients in rural Tennessee who took this leap of faith. What will happen to them? What will become of their families? At what cost do we stamp out their hope and replace it with fear?
The strength and determination of these individuals and their communities carried them forward before DACA, and the power they built with DACA’s help will sustain them after it ends. DACA was not given by the previous administration as a matter of grace; it was demanded and secured by the courage of immigrant organizers who made protecting these youth a political necessity. The changes DACA brought about within immigrant communities cannot t be wiped away by the craven bigotry of this administration. These changes are permanent. The power immigrant communities who fought for and benefited from DACA has only grown. The darkness in the shadows may be creeping toward them, but they’re not going back.
Hope will triumph over the fear.
R. Andrew Free is the founder and managing attorney of a social justice legal startup based in Nashville, Tennessee. He and his team focus on stopping deportations, attacking criminalization and mass incarceration for profit, and holding abusive bosses, government agencies, and officials accountable in federal court. As a movement-minded, client-centered advocate, Andrew provides strategic advice to organizers, allies, and affected communities in struggle throughout the Deep South and around the country. Follow him at @ImmCivilRights.