Republican officials in Texas are celebrating after successfully suing the federal government over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
DACA has been a GOP target since 2012, when President Obama created it to protect undocumented young people who’ve spent their whole lives here. It’s faced numerous GOP legal challenges and a suspension of the program under Trump.
In spite of a 2020 Supreme Court ruling that upheld DACA, a new Texas federal court ruling by anti-immigrant judge Andrew Hanen deemed the program “illegal,” leaving hundreds of thousands of young immigrants in limbo once more.
One is Fatima Flores, political director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, who had just renewed her DACA status. Flores sees the ruling as “an attack on our immigrant communities,” putting thousands in jeopardy of losing their employment, benefits, and housing — or even at risk of deportation.
The ruling is even more disappointing considering the role DACA holders have played as health care workers during the pandemic. After the Supreme Court ruled against Trump’s suspension of the program, an estimated 30,000 health care workers with DACA status were allowed to continue their critical work.
Their contributions were widely recognized in the medical field. The American Medical Association’s general counsel cited the central tenet of health care — “do no harm” — and argued: “If we strip this population of caregivers out of the system, that’s pretty significant harm.”
Now, Hanen’s ruling threatens to do just such harm as the United States experiences another surge of COVID-19 infections.
The Biden administration will appeal Hanen’s ruling, but Flores worries a legal challenge will take too long. Worse, a newly enlarged conservative majority on the Supreme Court could end the program altogether.
A more direct pathway to cementing DACA is through legislation. Reform could potentially pass through the Senate budget reconciliation process — requiring only a simple majority instead of a filibuster-proof supermajority.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has released a $6 trillion budget blueprint that puts $150 billion toward pathways for legal status for immigrants, including DACA holders. Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, is also leading on the issue.
Perhaps more importantly, conservative Democrat Joe Manchin (D-WV) — a crucial swing vote — has signaled that he supports passing immigration reform in this manner.
There’s a clear economic case to be made for legalizing undocumented immigrants in the federal jobs and infrastructure bill.
The Center for American Progress recently found that if all undocumented immigrants were offered citizenship, it “would boost U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) by a cumulative total of $1.7 trillion over 10 years and create 438,800 new jobs.”
If only DACA recipients were legalized, it “would increase U.S. GDP by a cumulative total of $799 billion over 10 years and create 285,400 new jobs.”
In either case, the authors find that all American workers would see their annual wages increase. In other words, legalizing immigrants will benefit everyone. But keeping exploited undocumented workers in the shadows drives wages down for everyone.
Flores pointed out that the clock is ticking. “We can’t leave 2021 without some legalization efforts,” she warned, because the 2022 midterms are around the corner.
People like Flores have had their lives turned upside down for decades awaiting a political solution. “I came to this country when I was six,” she told me, “and I am 30 now. And I am one of millions of people who have been waiting for something to happen.”
“We’re done waiting,” she said. “We’re done having to take a back seat. We’re done playing nice.”