Caught in-between: How the success of DACA shows us why we must push for more
Nothing emphasized the binary, exclusionist definition of America than my sister’s DACA journey. My sister, like many young Latinas and Latinos, is caught in an in-between state of acceptance. She was born in Mexico but was raised in the US. Not welcomed, but not rejected. DACA brings ample opportunity for many Latinas and Latinos. Yet, it cannot welcome generations of Latino communities into the US narrative, instead opting to label them into a liminal state of belonging.
My sister is eight years older than me. We fought, and we bonded as most siblings do. I remember her spending a lot of time in her room, listening to music so loud that the entire house pulsed with her R&B boom-bap.
She also sang a lot. The same Ne-Yo and Usher songs I heard through her door, I would hear when she was out and about the house. She wanted to be a singer. To me, she already was one, but she wanted to be a famous singer. To her, it was the ticket to wealth. It was the ticket out of our trailer park and into a world where our mom and dad didn’t have to work so hard.
My sister graduated high school and attended what was then Mesa State College in Montrose, CO. She was an art major. As she attended classes, she would take me with her to campus and have me sit outside on a bench for 50 minutes, a Poptart acting as our contract. She’d tell me carefully and urgently that I was not to leave that bench and not to talk to anyone.
Today, I wonder how much she worried while she was taking notes. I wonder how she kept the focus, knowing I was out there alone. She didn’t come back for a second semester.
When Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) arrived through executive order, it was a joyous day in my household. Finally, the dark, looming fear of immigration enforcement dissipated just long enough to have hope shine into the lives of my two sisters. At first, a feeling of disbelief. I was more concerned with Tech Deck dudes and Hot Wheels more than I was with politics, but I felt the weight of the announcement through the tears in my family’s eyes. Even in my youthful innocence, I knew that immigration was a problem my family faced, a dark topic that we only talked about in the privacy of our home.
One especially hot day in Phoenix, AZ, my sister found herself in an argument with a white woman near a storage lot. The details are blurry to me today, but it concerned my sister not having a pass to be on the premises with her. She had left it in the U-Haul we brought. Things escalated, and the police were threatened to be called. My family left swiftly. A long lecture in the car ride home ensued about how we cannot afford to get into any arguments with white people. To always be favorable and admit wrongdoing regardless of actual malice as the fate of the family, the status of one of our own is and always will be at stake. And at the end of the day, we’d rather be abused than deported.
Years later, after my sister applied and received her DACA, she moved into healthcare, following approximately 8,500 other beneficiaries that work as “home health and personal care aides, nursing assistants, orderlies, and psychiatric aides” in the U.S.
She had found a calling, helping others fulfilled her, despite the long hours and hard work. She took pride in her profession, carving out her life in the same community she spent years hiding within.
But in 2016, political rumors rose again to the surface, threatening to repeal the peace of mind of hundreds of thousands of Dreamers.
The years after DACA saw its recipients get jobs to attend college, get a driver’s license and get 401(k)s. But suddenly, the infrastructure they had spent years building suddenly began to crumble.
What DACA has done
The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic saw my sister working the front lines alongside 4,300 other DACA recipients working in essential industries. The large DACA workforce that mobilized during the pandemic, providing essential services, shows how much these individuals care for their communities, but also how critical their role is to its sustainability.
There are over 616,000 DACA recipients in the U.S., all of which have their unique stories and perspectives about what it means to be American.
Many of these recipients have little semblance of their life before coming to the U.S. The Center for American Progress (CAP) estimates that the average DACA recipient arrived in the United States at seven and that over one-third of arrived before the age of five.
According to The Migration Policy Institute, about 34 percent of those immediately eligible for DACA lived in families with annual incomes below the federal poverty line.
After receiving DACA, my sister gained wiggle room, able to entertain the prospect of upward economic mobility. After acceptance into the program, over half of workers moved to a job with higher pay or with health benefits, my sister being one of them. More telling is that over half of them moved to a job that better fit their “long-term career goals.”
DACA recipients opened bank accounts and applied for credit cards in historic numbers. Once given the chance, these communities mobilized to forge a new economic path. Unlocking banking and credit systems allowed these individuals to contribute to their communities by spending, saving and investing capital that they have earned in the years leading up to the announcement of DACA.
Higher paying jobs and increased social mobility played no small part in allowing DACA recipients to enter and remain in higher education. Social security numbers granted to these students allowed them to apply for FAFSA, giving them their Estimated Family Contribution for financial aid petitions.
The effects of DACA rippled throughout the lives of its recipients. Cathartic was seeing my sister realize her potential in ways that she knew were possible. My sister, always stubborn in her self-belief, finally proved herself right: she wasn’t impotent, a loser in the eyes of others. Rather, she was a cannonball ready to fire, waiting for the slightest opportunity to show what she was capable of.
DACA, for all that it’s done for its recipients, doesn’t do nearly enough.
There are over a half-million DACA recipients in the U.S. and it feels as though they get stereotyped as one group waiting in line for the same opportunity.
DACA has functionally welded the immigrant experience into one collective plight. Never do the words “DACA recipient” consider the immense amount of diversity found in that population pool. The national narrative behind DACA revolves around the group as a whole, what they can and cannot offer the United States.
The narrative surrounding Dreamers labels them as fighters, champions that must prove their status within a foreign system. It’s ridiculous. Constantly, are DACA recipients measured against themselves, scored as if to prove their merit. The character of each recipient is picked apart, examined under a microscope. Perfect is the expectation. This standard sets an unreasonably high bar that our immigrant communities must consistently meet, one that no natural-born citizen ever has to measure up against. Even when our communities do meet these expectations, the reward is not acceptance, but merely tolerance.
On top of the performative standards placed on our immigrant communities, they are subjected to verbal abuse at a national scale. Offensive national rhetoric has extremely dehumanized my sister and those like her. Terms like “alien” and “illegal.” When we use these words, we strip the humanity from our people. We position them as wrongdoers and criminals. In this country, we see immigrants as those looking to benefit from the U.S. system of government. Never do we talk about the benefit that immigrants provide to the country and our communities in specific.
Many DACA recipients have gone off to universities, started their own business, bought a car, opened a private practice, had children, bought homes and lived a healthy, well-intentioned quarter-life. My sister, now well into her 30s, has succeeded in significant amounts in her quest to find purpose. Her successes are celebrated as an overcoming of adversity, directly recognizing the barriers that status places on people like her. Yet, zero policies are enacted to remove them.
It’s not lost on my sister the fact that any administration can come along and challenge the program, again dangling her fate over the fires of the judicial system. The fear of undoing her progress will live in the back of her mind, the minds of hundreds of thousands, until there is a tangible change to immigration and naturalization in the U.S.
But the pathway to citizenship is traveled at a molasses pace. DACA recipients have been waiting for decades for citizenship. It is not forgotten that DACA was billed as a placeholder until more meaningful change came.
Caught in-between is where these communities have found themselves. Still, they find themselves in the margins, unable to escape their synthetic purgatory. Just out of reach from what could have been.
The American experience is propagated as centered on inclusivity. The foundation of the nation, as it’s taught to us all in school, is built on the idea that our nation is great because of the diverse sets of people who come together to bring the dream to reality.
We’ve seen the communal benefits of the DACA program. We can see the evidence in the story of my sister and those that share her experience as a young migrant. They’ve come and fought hard to claim a slice of the American Dream for themselves. They’ve positively contributed to the narrative of the U.S. over decades. We, as a nation, owe them for their contributions. The least we can do is finally accept them as a crucial part of our society.
Until then, they are forced to wait for the country they love to finally love them back.
Hector Salas writes for Voces Unidas. He is a graduate of Colorado Mesa University and grew up in Rifle, Colorado. Hector writes about politics and power concerning Western Colorado.