Last Thursday, three dozen immigrant students gathered for an emergency meeting at Hunter College, a public university on the east side of Manhattan. The mood was grim: two days earlier, in furtherance of his ‘America first’ agenda, President Trump had announced the termination of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme. Daca had given some 800,000 undocumented Americans – including hundreds of Hunter College students – the right to work and temporary protection from deportation. But it was created, in 2012, by presidential fiat, not through legislation, and so fell short of granting permanent residency or citizenship. ‘It made no sense,’ as Obama explained in response to Trump’s repeal, ‘to expel talented, driven, patriotic young people from the only country they know.’
Daca was a substitute for the failed Dream Act, which would permanently decriminalise young people who are in the US without permission. It has repeatedly failed to pass Congress since it was first introduced in 2001. Many of the ‘Dreamers’ were brought to the country as children, by parents fleeing war or extreme poverty. Sebastian Villegas was nine months old when he and his mother came from Puebla, Mexico, to join his father, who was working as a builder in New York. ‘The fact that we were undocumented didn’t hit me until senior year of high school,’ Villegas told me, ‘until I was applying to colleges and they requested paperwork.’ (His younger sister was born in New York and is therefore a US citizen.)
Without a Social Security number, Villegas was ineligible for financial aid or government loans. He enrolled at a local two-year college, ‘the only school I was able to afford’. But in his second year, he transferred to Hunter, and later won a scholarship for ‘Daca-mented’ youth. Daca has allowed him to work on the books, as a tutor and a hospital research assistant, and to pursue his studies without fear. He has renewed his paperwork twice; it is now set to expire in 2018.
Villegas’s story is both typical and, given the inevitable line-drawing in every nation’s immigration policy – between good and bad, deserving and undeserving – nothing short of exemplary. Even in this xenophobic time, nearly 60 per cent of Americans support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children.
Trump does not, though he won’t say so explicitly. After his attorney general gleefully announced the termination of Daca, Trump tweeted that Congress had a deadline of six months to legalise the program. ‘If they can’t, I will revisit this issue!’ In the days since, the president has gestured toward co-operation with House and Senate Democrats. Immigrant-rights advocates are urging Congress to pursue a narrow, stand-alone vote on the Dream Act. A more comprehensive bill on immigration reform would come with unsavoury compromises: amnesty and citizenship for some and expedited deportation for others.
‘In trying to pass a Dream Act as soon as possible, it has to be with no strings attached,’ 19-year-old Rafael Monroy-Rojas told me. ‘Our parents will be affected if immigration enforcement goes through.’ This was among the potential consequences of legislative horse-trading discussed at Thursday’s emergency meeting. Could Daca be renewed before the six-month end date? Yes. Would Hunter College provide counselling to its 650 undocumented students? Yes. What would the passage of a full Dream Act mean? Unclear.
Many students at the meeting were despondent, but Monroy-Rojas felt more angry than sad. Trump’s repeal of Daca, he said, was only the latest salvo in an ‘attack on immigrants that has been going on for some months’. Monroy-Rojas isn’t directly affected by the president’s decision. He had emigrated from Spain too late to qualify for Daca (applicants were required to have been continuously present from June 2007 on), and so is unable to work on the books, ineligible for scholarships, and vulnerable to detention and deportation. While his classmates took on paid internships, Monroy-Rojas put on a gas mask and worked alongside his mother cleaning burned-out apartments – until this summer, when, thanks to a patchwork of grants, he instead interned at a non-profit law office.
Trump’s cancellation of Daca and push toward a legislative solution put Monroy-Rojas and his sister in a strange position. They would be eligible for the Dream Act, as currently written. If Congress were to push the bill through and Trump sign it into law, Monroy-Rojas could apply for permanent relief, including a work permit and eventual citizenship – something Daca never offered. ‘Both my sister and I have felt excluded, and this time, we’re not. We have a Congress that barely works, but there’s still some sense of hope,’ he said. And he would savour the irony of ‘the most racist president in a good while being the one to sign the first immigration reform in more than twenty years’.