OP-ED: Congress must save DACA

Dr. Branscombe earned her Ph.D. at Texas Christian University with her expertise in Modern U.S. History, Immigration history and Borderlands.

Courtesy of Jensen Branscombe

Dr. Branscombe earned her Ph.D. at Texas Christian University with her expertise in Modern U.S. History, Immigration history and Borderlands.

Dr. Jensen Branscombe, Assistant Professor of History

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On September 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a popular Obama-era program that regularized the status of young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. The White House is delaying the end of DACA for six months, giving Congress time to intervene with legislation to save the program and shield its recipients from deportation. Congress must get this done. There are roughly eight-hundred thousand DACA recipients, and they deserve the chance to succeed in and become a citizen of the country they call home.

These “DACAmented” immigrants, known as Dreamers because they are working towards a stable and secure future in the US, include hundreds— perhaps thousands—of students in the Texas A&M system. Dreamers entered the country without authorization, but they came through no fault of their own. Like any group of young people, they are a diverse population. Some serve in the U.S. military or go into public service. They help and support their communities.

A few, like Alonso Guillen—who died rescuing Houstonians in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey—have even given their lives for others. Most are average children and young adults, going to school, attending college, working and planning their futures in the only country they have known. They are indistinguishable from U.S. citizens, other than the fact they are now living in a state of uncertainty about their ability to stay in the country.

President Donald Trump has a clear, tough-on-immigration stance. His campaign was filled with anti-immigrant rhetoric and immigration raids are on the rise since his inauguration. The administration’s latest move to rescind DACA fulfills a campaign promise and is rooted in nativist and largely unfounded arguments that immigrants (including Dreamers) take jobs and, according to Trump, “victimize” U.S. citizens.

As a candidate and as president, Trump has also expressed sympathy for Dreamers. Now he has a chance to work with members of Congress to save a program that most U.S. citizens support. If Congress fails to act, or if the president decides not to sign a bill saving DACA (if it does not include funding for his border wall, for example), it will fuel the fire of some GOP leaders who are attempting to undermine the legacy of our immigrant past.

The U.S. had open borders for much of its history. Starting in the late nineteenth century with the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Congress began passing exclusionary immigration policies. In 1924, nativists scored a major victory with the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act. Also known as the National Origins Quota Act, the law cut overall immigration, established quotas for European immigrants, and included a “barred Asiatic zone” that effectively ended all Asian immigration to the U.S. Congress finally abolished the quota system with the passage of the 1965 Hart- Celler Immigration and Nationality Act, which President Lyndon Johnson praised at the time for repairing “a very deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American justice.”

Even during the period of restrictive immigration policies in the early twentieth century, there were eloquent defenders of immigrants. These include poet Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet “The New Colossus,” has adorned the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty since 1903; British playwright Israel Zangwill, who popularized the melting pot analogy for U.S. urban culture in 1909; and Meyer London, a member of Congress who offered a powerful defense of immigrants during congressional debates in the early 1920s.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, when the federal government starting repealing exclusionary immigration policies, the celebration of the U.S. as a nation of immigrants has been a common feature of U.S. culture and politics.

Democratic and Republican presidents since the end of World War II have consistently praised our immigrant past and our welcoming of world refugees. John Kennedy, as a senator in 1958, published a book titled “A Nation of Immigrants” that recounted the importance of immigration in U.S. history.

In another example, Ronald Reagan observed in 1981 that “our strength [as a nation] comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.”

Despite the disturbing periods of intense nativism and the reactionary and restrictive policies we have implemented as a country, recognition of immigrants’ contributions reflect what most U.S. citizens value today. This celebratory narrative is currently under attack, however. Members of the Trump administration are undermining the modern American value of being a nation of immigrants. This new line, expressed by White House advisors like Stephen Miller and administration officials including Jeff Sessions, is critical of both unauthorized and legal immigration.

On August 2, Miller expressed his belief that the Statue of Liberty should not be viewed as a symbol of welcome to the world’s poor, huddled masses because Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” was added years after the erection of the statue. Similarly, then senator Jeff Sessions, in an October 2015 interview with future Trump presidential advisor Steve Bannon, offered unqualified praise for the 1924 Immigration Act, a bill that was not only incredibly restrictive, but also passed with the support of eugenicists and white supremacists bent on preserving Anglo- Saxon dominance in the United States.

If Congress fails to protect Dreamers, arguably the most sympathetic immigrant group in the U.S., it will be giving power to the narrative of some in the administration that we should not celebrate our diversity and immigrant past. Dreamers themselves will be forced to reimagine what the United States represents. There are positive signs a deal saving DACA is in the works that could offer long-lasting relief and security to DACAmented people. The futures of these students are at stake, and so is the very way we as a nation think about and teach the history of US immigration.