“The reality is that DACA exists because there isn’t another form of relief,” said Sally Joyner, staff attorney at Mid-South Immigration Advocates to a crowd of 300 people at Halloran Centre last week seeking to understand how the end of the policy will play out and inform future immigration reform efforts.
Immigration experts and local recipients of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program joined Latino Memphis and area universities to discuss last-ditch efforts to save DACA, an Obama-era program that granted work permits and a reprieve to certain undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children. (Recipients are also called Dreamers for an eponymous bill, the DREAM Act, which failed to pass.) President Trump, in September, decided to end the program, which means DACA recipients would lose legal protections and face deportation.
There is a glimmer of hope if Democrats are willing to play politics, said Jeanne Batalava, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
The fate of 800,000 DACA recipients could be reversed if lawmakers use the federal budget as leverage, Batalava said. Congress must approve the 2018 budget by Dec. 8, and a provision to protect DACA could be put in that legislation. Eighty Democrat votes are needed for the U.S. House of Representatives to clinch a budget and avoid a government shutdown.
Currently, 11 million unauthorized immigrants live in the United States, and 5.1 million U.S. children have at least one undocumented parent. In Tennessee, 120,000 undocumented residents live here, according to Pew Research Center. Although just more than 1 percent — 8,340 — of all DACA recipients live in Tennessee, with 3,000 living in Memphis, it’s not an insignificant number of people for the city and state, especially taking into account the benefits DACA recipients offer the local economy.
The immigration system was last overhauled in the 1950s, and the last major piece of immigration legislation was passed in the 1980s, according to Joyner. Since then, most actions have been punitive, making it harder for immigrants to earn legal status.
“To throw parents under the bus by saying they were the ones who ‘committed the crime’ is not helpful in these discussions,” Joyner said. ‘Any legislative fix needs to fix the whole system because the whole thing’s broken.”
Chantel Barcenas, 18, a DACA recipient who has lived in the States since age 1, is terrified of what awaits when her immigration status changes next year. The Christian Brothers University freshman majoring in business administration said she can’t fathom returning to Mexico, though her older brother did just before DACA was implemented.
“I wouldn’t be able to go to school anymore. I also work, so I wouldn’t be able to work anymore,” Barcenas said. “It scares me knowing all the trauma [my brother] had to go through when he had to go back there.’
Fifteen states and Washington, D.C., have filed lawsuits challenging President Trump’s decision to rescind DACA if Congress doesn’t come up with a legislative fix. Passing a law, Batalava said, is the preferable solution.
Five bills offering pathways to permanent citizenship have been introduced in Congress: American Hope Act, Border Security & Deferred Action Recipient Relief Act, DREAM Act of 2017, Recognizing America’s Children Act and the SUCCEED Act. But the people affected by these pieces of legislation vary greatly, panelists said. Every bill requires immigrants to meet varying criteria, such as a minimum age of arrival and the length of time living in the U.S. ranging from one to five years. The American Hope Act seeks pathways to permanent citizenship for 3.6 million people. The SUCCEED Act, the most stringent of the proposed laws, seeks to offer permanent citizenship to around 1.3 million people.
Rondell Treviño, Memphis Immigration Project founder, spoke of the immigration crisis through the lens of faith.
Rondell Treviño, Memphis Immigration Project founder, spoke of the immigration crisis through the lens of faith:
“It’s a misuse of Biblical justice when people, Christians in general, don’t want to protect DACA recipients,” said Treviño, pastor of Woodland Presbyterian Church. “When people think of Biblical justice, they often think about punishment, but over and over again in the Old Testament it talks about protection and care. These individuals, made in the image of God, didn’t commit these crimes, so to blame them for things they didn’t do is a misuse of Biblical justice.”
Memphis has a lot to lose by losing DACA recipients, according to statistics shared by moderator Alex Coleman, a WREG news anchor: 97 percent are in school or the workforce; 5 percent have started their own business; 65 percent have purchased a vehicle; and 60 percent own their first home. At least 72 percent are employed among the top Fortune 500 companies.
Treviño said these numbers are indicative of the type of people DACA protects: “God has called them to do amazing things, and this is what we’re seeing,” said Treviño, whose wife, Laura Treviño, is an immigrant from El Salvador.
“Immigrants are not problems,” Treviño said. “They are people to love.”
Want to help?
Below is the contact information for the Tennessee lawmakers who have not made a public statement on DACA. Call, email or tag them in social media, and ask them to support Dreamers and #DreamAct901.
Sen. Bob Corker
Call: (202) 224–3344 or (901) 683–1910
Write: 100 Peabody Place, Suite 1125, Memphis, TN 38103
Email: Visit https://www.corker.senate.gov
Sen. Lamar Alexander
Call: (202) 224–4944 or (901) 544–4224
Write: 167 N. Main St., #1068, Memphis, TN 38103
Email: Visit https://www.alexander.senate.gov
Rep. David Kustoff
Call: (202) 225–4714 or (901) 682–4422
Write: 5900 Poplar Ave., Suite 202, Memphis, TN 38119
Email: Visit https://kustoff.house.gov/contact/email
Hello, my name is [your name] and I live in [your city]. I’m [calling/writing] to ask [name of representative] to support the thousands of recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) who call Tennessee home.
[Include a personal story if you have one]
Please co-sponsor the Dream Act of 2017 and urge for a clean version that does not support increase immigration enforcement. DACA recipients have continued to positively effect our state, and it would be against our American values of they were forced into the deportation pipeline.”
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.