On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration was rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, launched during the Obama era for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Until an hour before the announcement, The New York Times reported, administration officials “privately expressed concern that Mr. Trump might not fully grasp the details of the steps he was about to take, and when he discovered their full impact, would change his mind.” Sure enough, Trump soon tweeted that he would “revisit” DACA if Congress – which has failed to act on the issue for 16 years – didn’t deliver a legislative fix within six months.
Rolling Stone spoke to three so-called “Dreamers,” or migrants brought to the U.S. as children – two were eligible for DACA, and one was not – about the biggest myths and misconceptions about the program the Trump administration is seeking to end.
Myth: DACA recipients can just become citizens
Astrid Silva crossed the border when she was four years old. Today, she works at a law office specializing in immigration cases. As a vocal, visible DACA recipient – she spoke at the Democratic National Convention and delivered the Democrats’ Spanish-language response to Trump’s joint address to Congress in February – she fields a lot of questions about her status.
“The number one is why I haven’t filed to be a citizen. That’s the biggest one, and I think it makes me the saddest out of all of them because people really don’t understand our immigration system,” Silva says. “DACA doesn’t give me a path to citizenship; it just allows me a work permit.” Indeed, Obama himself noted when the program was announced five years ago, “Let’s be clear — this is not amnesty, this is not immunity, this is not a path to citizenship.”
“People watch that movie, [The Proposal], with Sandra Bullock where she gets married for papers and people think it’s like that – ‘Oh, you just have Betty White show up at your wedding and it’s great,'” says Silva. “No, it’s a much more complex situation.”
When Rep. Ruben Kihuen, the first Dreamer elected to Congress, came to the U.S. in the late Eighties, it was still possible to adjust one’s immigration status. Kihuen’s father became a legal resident in 1986, when Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to two million immigrants. He sent for his family, who came on legal visas, then overstayed them. “Our visas expired, but thanks to an immigration system that, back then, actually worked, we were able to readjust our status and be able to re-apply for legal residency and ultimately citizenship,” Kihuen says. “That’s the problem with our system right now: over 40 percent of undocumented immigrants in America today came here with a visa but overstayed their visas, but there is no way for them to readjust their status.”
Over the last three decades, the penalties for being in the country illegally have increased, Silva says. Now, “anybody who stayed here for over a year after they turned 18 begins accumulating what they call ‘unlawful presence.’ That means if you spend more than a year here after you 18th birthday, you get punished having to leave the country to adjust your status,” she says. “Once you’re out of the country, if you’ve been here for a certain time, if you’ve been caught at the border or have been deported, or if you have a deportation order, they can give you anything between three and ten years where you’re not allowed to reenter the country.”
Myth: DACA allows immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to stay indefinitely
DACA requirements are narrow and specific. Only certain immigrants could apply: those who had live in the U.S. since 2007, who came before age 16 and who were younger than 31 on June 15th, 2012. An estimated 1.7 million people were eligible, and fewer than half – about 800,000 – registered for the program. Once they’re registered, recipients must apply to renew their DACA status – which, again, only grants them eligibility to work in the U.S. legally – every two years. “People don’t understand that all it is is a work permit that says that for two years you will not be a priority for deportation,” Silva says.
Myth: DACA recipients “put our nation at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism,” as Sessions said this week
Rep. Kihuen says the narrative the Trump administration advanced – that DACA recipients are violent, criminals and terrorists – is patently false. “The attorney general when he announced they were going to rescind the DACA program basically said that they were going to target criminals and gang members,” Kihuen says. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. These young Dreamers are the best that our immigrant community has to offer.”
In fact, anyone who has been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor or multiple misdemeanors is automatically ineligible for DACA, as is anyone who poses “a threat to public safety or national security.”
Myth: DACA gives undocumented immigrants access to federal benefits
Contrary to narratives pushed by those on the far right, qualifying for DACA doesn’t make recipients eligible for any other federal benefits. “DACA recipients and undocumented people still have to sign up for selective service if they’re men between the ages of 18 and 25, even though we’re not allowed to join the service to gain citizenship,” Silva says. “We still can’t get any federal financial aid for college, you can’t receive any type of federal benefits, you still can get student loans – anything that is federal, you cannot obtain. We still can’t apply for Obamacare.”
What it does do, notes Jonathan Jayes-Green, co-founder of the UndocuBlack Network, is allow migrants to apply for private loans, as he did when he enrolled in DACA. “When the program was rolled out, I was in my third year of college. I had struggled so much to get through school being undocumented not having access to federal financial aid or a lot of scholarships, really. But in my third year I was on the verge of dropping out because I just didn’t have the money,” he says. “Once DACA was rolled out, that meant that I was able to work and go to school at the same time, access private student loans.” Today, Jayes-Green is celebrating the one-year anniversary of being a homeowner in Baltimore – something he wouldn’t have been able to achieve without DACA.