Supreme Court hands Trump Administration defeat with DACA ruling

In the wake of the recent SCOTUS decision, Victor Fernandez examines the history of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, its strengths and limitations, and this history’s implications for future movements.

On June 18, 2020, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to block the Trump Administration’s plan to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.  This is a huge blow to the Trump Administration, which ran on an anti immigrant platform.  The decision follows the decision by the Supreme Court earlier this week upholding workplace protections for LGBTQ+ Americans, further adding insult to injury.

Supreme Court Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion stressing the following:

“We do not decide whether DACA or its rescission are sound policies,” Roberts wrote. “The wisdom of those decisions is none of our concern. Here we address only whether the Administration complied with the procedural requirements in the law that insist on ‘a reasoned explanation for its action.'”

In essence, the Supreme Court struck down the way in which the administration proceeded with the rescinding of DACA, not whether they were allowed to do so or not.

For the immigrants rights movement, which has seen such little victories in the past decade, such a ruling is a definite victory.  DACA has allowed hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants, who were brought into the country as children, to live their lives without fear of deportation.  It has opened opportunities in their educational and professional lives which were previously unattainable.  This reform is something the immigrants rights movement should defend.

However, DACA does have its limitations.  For one, it applies only to minors who were brought into the United States by their parents.  It also requires registering with the government.  One protection the undocumented have from ICE showing up at their door is that the government doesn’t know they exist.  But most importantly, DACA is a temporary stay of deportation that has to be renewed periodically and could be rescinded through executive order.  Thus, while DACA allows undocumented youth to temporarily regularize their status, it puts them in a precarious situation whose outcomes are subject to the whims of whichever administration is in power.  If they get an administration hostile to immigrants, as we have now, which properly rescinds this program, DACA recipients are sitting ducks to a government that has all their information and is willing and able to use the full might of the deportation machine.

The basis of these limitations is rooted in the nature of the way this measure was created.  After the 2006 Immigrant Rights Marches which stopped HR4437, the immigrant rights movement split into two camps: on one side, a small camp who pushed for the legalization of the undocumented and tried to build mass movements;  on the other a larger and more politically connected camp which sought to funnel the movement into voting for the Democratic Party in hopes of passing the problematic Comprehensive Immigration Reform.  The latter was successful in mobilizing Latinx voter turnout for the 2008 election, which saw Obama win the presidency and the Democrats sweep the House and Senate.

Fast forward to 2012 during Obama’s reelection campaign, and not much had been done to help the undocumented.  Republicans were stonewalling Democrats on immigration reform while the Democrats and their allies in the movement had settled on a strategy of appeasing the Republicans with enforcement measures in hopes that the latter would allow a path to legalization.  

As a result of this standstill, Dreamers, undocumented youth who entered the US as minors and supported the DREAM ACT, began to organize to pass their legislation.  The DREAM ACT would allow them to obtain temporary legal status if they went to college or joined the armed forces.  Yet, unlike the larger movement who sought to lobby Democrats, the Dreamers used a combination of activism and civil disobedience to achieve their goals.  Such actions included sending undocumented young people to Mexico who publicly crossed the border back into the US, dressed in their graduation gowns.  During their eventual detention, the activists would document the way people were treated at the detention centers, further embarrassing the Obama administration.  This series of actions culminated with sit-ins at Senator McCain’s office and President Obama’s campaign offices.  

The response from the Democrats and the rest of the movement was fierce.  Democratic Illinois Senator Dick Durbin., one of the bill’s original sponsors, criticized the students who sat in at McCain’s Senate office building. Despite the fact that the protest was orderly and respectful, a Durbin spokesman told the press, “Today’s demonstrations by some DREAM Act supporters…crossed the line from passionate advocacy to inappropriate behavior…Sen. Durbin believes that we will win this fight on the merits, not through public demonstrations or publicity stunts.”  Sections of the movement called the Dreamers selfish for focusing on their own demands as opposed to the broader Comprehensive Immigration Reform bills.  They were painted as only caring for themselves and forgetting about their parents.  This was further aggravated because some Dreamers questioned aspects of Comprehensive Immigration Reform, which had anti immigrant enforcement measures combined with nebulous and problematic pro immigrant reforms.

On June 15, 2012 Obama announced the creation of DACA.  It was billed as a temporary measure to help the Dreamers  until Comprehensive Immigration Reform passed.  However, it was a calculated move by the Democrats on two fronts.  First, like many initial reforms pushed by the ruling class, it was meant to appease and pacify the movement, hoping to demobilize it.  Second, given its temporary nature and necessary renewal by the executive branch, it would tie the lives of the Dreamers to the Democrats, ensuring that they would not only vote, but organize to get them elected so as to maintain their current status and not be deported.

The DACA victory provided a huge set of lessons for the movement.  The movement was led by the undocumented themselves.  Understanding that they couldn’t vote, they were able to use the power of their self organization and willingness to put themselves on the line to proudly announce that they were “undocumented and unafraid.”  At a time when lobbying and voting were showing their limitations as strategies, the Dreamers showed how the strategies of protests and civil disobedience could get results.  Unfortunately, attacks and falling support from sections of their own movement combined with the life changing nature of DACA led to the eventual demobilization of the Dreamers.

The decision by SCOTUS on Thursday shows that while DACA is still alive, it is still limited, and the movement from below needs to grow and fight for a permanent solution to the needs of the undocumented.  Such a movement should take the lessons of the Dreamers and apply them to a mass movement that won’t stop until we win legalization for all, an abolition of these racist immigration laws along with their enforcement mechanisms, and open borders.

Victor Fernandez

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