Attorney General Jeff Sessions announces the rescission of DACA (Credit: Tasos Katopodis / EPA)
From the time DACA was first dreamed up, it has divided illegal immigrants to America into two groups overarching groups: those who qualify for the program, and those who don’t.
Eligibility for the program requires meeting a few important standard, such as entrance into the United States prior to turning 16, no significant criminal record, and a certain educational standing. If you meet these criteria, you’re available for protection from deportation (or “deferred action”) as well as a host of benefits, including work permits.
The program is a good one, though it was always vulnerable to rollback because of the way it was enacted, as a policy memorandum, rather than as a piece of legislation. What is enacted solely be the executive branch is easily taken away by that same body. But with the conversation about DACA revived and its fate uncertain, its worth looking at why its rhetoric is problematic.
DACA participants, often known as “dreamers” because of the piece of legislation that was supposed to codify their protection, are easily the most sympathetic subsection of illegal immigrants in America. Their protection is considered an important aim by a large majority of the American population and even a decent number of Republican lawmakers. The DREAM Act has come tantalizingly close to passing on a variety of occasions.
DACA and the DREAM Act have inspired a few interesting phrases that have become an integral part of the immigration conversation. Most common is the descriptor “dreamers” itself. Even Trump, who has accused Mexican immigrants of being “rapists” and “criminals,” and Republican officials who liberally use terms like “illegals” or “aliens,” often refer to DACA participants as, simply, “kids.”
The enormous linguistic gap between “aliens” and “kids” implies a strong circumstantial and moral distinction between the two aforementioned groups — DACA participants and otherwise.
There are good reasons why proponents of DACA would prefer to use “dreamers” or “kids” as terminology, and most of those reasons are based in reality. “Kids,” for example, implies both innocence and youth. Theoretically, DACA applies only to those who were too young to even know the significance of crossing the border, or have grown up almost entirely in the United States. “Kids” shifts the burden of culpability for the illegality of residency away from DACA participants and onto their parents.
“Dreamers,” for its part, implies aspiration and capability. Indeed, DACA participants are by most accounts some of the most promising members of American society. It also reminds us of the American Dream, which is perhaps most purely realized in immigrants like those covered by DACA.
So the rhetorical divide makes sense in some ways, but it is also flawed. Its flaws fall into two categories: the strength of the actual distinctions, and the arbitrariness of DACA’s own criteria. Both these flaws should make us question the bright lines we draw between “dreamers” (in DACA) and “illegals” (outside of it).
If dreamers are innocent, how guilty are their parents? I think it’s clear that there is a distinction in between the two — we attribute agency to children — but is the gap so wide that we can easily condemn the parent? They made a choice, yes, but it was most likely one informed by desperate poverty, the threat of violence, and the simple desire for a better life. Parents of DACA participants made a decisions and must face some consequences, but I question whether the distance between these two groups of people need be so wide. Wide enough to protect one from deportation and not the other.
Essentially, I argue that if we can understand why DACA children should not be condemned for breaking the law, why we would condemn their parents for doing so? The children may be innocent of any choice, but their parents have made an understandable decisions. This very slight moral distinction does not account for the wildly different treatment each group receives.
This disparity in treatment is “easily” solved through a comprehensive immigration bill, which would look at the illegal immigration population more generally. The possibility of that happening anytime soon, however, is near-zero, thus strengthening the distinction between dreamers and their parents.
This argument attacks the moral or circumstantial reasons why the gap between dreamers and their parents is not as wide as we might think. But there are also very clear, practical reasons why referring to DACA participants as “kids” or “dreamers” grossly generalizes, to the detriment of our understanding of the wider immigration challenge.
One reason why the intensity of the rhetoric surrounding DACA is problematic is the eligibility requirements for DACA itself. They are arbitrary. Why 16 years of age and not 18, or 14? Why under 31 years old and not under 35 or 25? When does “innocence” begin or end?
You are on one side of these qualifications or the other, and it has nothing to do with how guilty you are of breaking American law, or whether you would be a benefit to American society.
DACA is inevitably crude when you get down to this level, and we should recognize what this means for how we talk about its participants.The goal here is simply to note that much of the conversation around DACA has been described in absolutist terms — you are either a dreamer, or an illegal immigrant.
While being in DACA does say something about you, it doesn’t say everything. Not being in DACA, meanwhile, should not condemn you to absurdly different outcomes.