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Decision time on DACA

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Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) supporters demonstrate near the White House in Washington Sept. 5. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Sept. 5 that the DACA program is “being rescinded” by President Donald Trump, leaving some 800,000 youths, brought illegally to the U.S. as minors, in peril of deportation and of losing permits that allow them to work. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuter)

President Donald Trump’s decision on Sept. 5 to rescind the 2012 policy known as DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, has started a six-month countdown. During that time, Congress can enact legislation that would either provide legal status for the 800,000 immigrant youths (sometimes referred to as “Dreamers”) who were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents without legal authorization.

DACA, which began as a temporary reprieve from deportation by the Obama administration, drew fire from even some supporters of the policy’s aims as constitutionally dubious.

Archbishop José H. Gomez, who also serves as the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, made clear in his statement that the U.S. “faces a national tragedy and a moral challenge to every conscience” if nearly 800,000 youths who have received DACA protections become subject to deportation once they expire. The archbishop pointed out that DACA recipients should not be punished “for decisions they did not make and could not make” as minors when their parents migrated to the U.S. without permission. Most came to the U.S. as small children — according to a 2017 DACA study, the average age was 6 years old — and the United States is “the only country they have ever known.”

U.S. bishops across the country have echoed the position of Archbishop Gomez, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which denounced the administration’s decision to wind down DACA as “reprehensible.”

Ashley Feasley, director of policy at the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, told Angelus News that the USCCB is making sure that DACA recipients and “Dreamers” everywhere know they have the full support of the Church, including social and legal resources, such as through Catholic Charities USA and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC). 

The U.S. bishops, she said, are looking at the DREAM Act, legislation that would provide permanent legal status and a path to citizenship, and the BRIDGE Act, legislation that would codify the existing DACA program into law for three years, until Congress comes up with a comprehensive immigration reform solution.

“The bishops are going to be pivoting to Congress now and looking to ensure there is a legislative solution to protect DACA youth, and Dreamers in general,” she said.

Framing the argument:

Human and doctrinal dimensions

Feasley said the USCCB is encouraging people to frame what happens to DACA recipients as not a simple immigration issue, but as a family issue, given that deportation would threaten to tear apart these individuals from their families, schools, work, church and society.

Matthew Green, a politics professor at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., told Angelus News that the plight of DACA recipients is one area in which the U.S. bishops can rally bipartisan support. According to a Morning Consult/POLITICO poll of more than 1,900 adults, 58 percent stated Dreamers should stay in the U.S. and have a path to citizenship. Majorities of Democrats, Independents and Republicans agreed that Dreamers should at least have permanent legal status.

However, as the U.S. bishops move forward, they are starting to draw fire from those Catholics who have deeply restrictive views on immigration, and will seek to erode support on the political right for giving Dreamer youths legal status. The first salvo came from Steve Bannon, the Catholic owner of Breitbart and former Trump strategist, who went on CBS This Morning to accuse the bishops of just wanting “illegal aliens to fill the churches,” and stated the bishops’ immigration policy is “not doctrine at all.”

The open question is whether the U.S. bishops and orthodox theologians will proactively head off this attack by making arguments from natural law and the Church’s own teaching on human life and dignity, such as Vatican II’s “Gaudium et Spes,” and showing how the teaching manifests itself in the case of Dreamer youths. St. John Paul II affirmed and strengthened “Gaudium et Spes’s” condemnation of “deportation” — both in “Veritas Splendor” and “Evangelium Vitae” — as one of the infamies that are “supreme dishonor to the Creator” and do even more violence to the societies that practice them than those who experience the injustice.

Taking local action

Comprehensive resources for Catholics looking to get informed about the Church’s position, and how to pray and take effective action are available both at the USCCB’s Justice for Immigrants website (which can be found at justiceforimmigrants.org), and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’s web portal called The Next America (thenextamerica.com).

The stakes are particularly high for Los Angeles, which accounts for more than a quarter of DACA recipients. Andrew Rivas, director of the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s Office for Government and Community Relations, told Angelus News that failing to enact legislation to protect DACA recipients would be “devastating” for Southern California.

In the meantime, Rivas said it was critical for people to “stay calm.” He said action should first begin from a point of prayer. Catholics had to focus on talking to their elected representatives and senators, and urge them and congressional leadership, to get DACA recipients legal protections codified into law.

At the same time, he said parishes and other Catholic networks have to make sure they are providing full support to DACA recipients and their families, and helping them take the next steps.

Many DACA clients have expressed “fear and apprehension” about their situation, according to Moises Barraza, a Catholic immigration attorney based in the Chicago area. But Barraza said Trump’s decision has made many people in the immigrant community realize they need to be much more engaged in the political process. Many migrants, he said, are realizing they have to take proactive measures to learn what can be done for their immigration status.

Barraza explained that DACA recipients whose status expires on or before March 5, 2018, have until Oct. 5 to renew their applications for another two years.

“It’s a very narrow window of opportunity,” he said, explaining that they needed to contact an immigration attorney right away to secure an appointment in time for the Oct. 5 deadline.

He said all DACA recipients need to work with their immigration attorneys to make sure that all their papers are in order, and strategize their long-term and permanent legalization options that do not rely on DACA.

“There are various forms of relief they may not know they have,” he said.

Decision time is close

Green told Angelus News that the six-month deadline is tight, with some advantages and other disadvantages. On the one hand, Trump’s six-month deadline for Congress occurs in March, the early beginning of primary season.

“Earlier is always better than later when it comes to an election year,” Green said.

However, he pointed out the deadline is tight: the legislative process takes time, Congress has other major priorities on its plate and has avoided tackling the status of Dreamer youths for years. The first Dream Act was proposed in 2001.

Now that Trump has forced the issue, Green said Congress could make legalizing the status of Dreamers part of a comprehensive immigration reform bill, a stand-alone bill or attach it to a must-pass bill.

“The other real possibility is Congress fails to pass legislation in time,” he said. What happens after that, for both the Church and society, is “uncharted territory.”

At that point, he said, the Church will face a “particularly compelling moment” that will demonstrate the extent to which the Church’s members and institutions are willing to put themselves on the line for youths with American dreams, but no legal status to stay in the country they call home.

 

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