With or without DACA, undocumented communities deserve protection
Eleven years ago, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program became a way for people who arrived in the U.S. as children without documentation to obtain temporary protection from deportation. Though it was established through an executive order by President Barack Obama in 2012 to address the country’s immigration issues, it does not provide the stability of a path to citizenship, nor does it protect families. And now, it’s at risk of being terminated, leaving as many as 3.6 million people with no access to the protections and opportunities the program has offered. Despite all the uncertainty over DACA’s future, immigrant rights activists and organizers have remained steadfast in supporting and protecting their communities.
In 1992, parents in Denver, Colorado organized to remove the principal at Valverde Elementary School for cruelly punishing Spanish-speaking students. That was the start of Movimiento Poder (formerly known as Padres y Jovenes Unidos). Their work has evolved, but their commitment hasn’t. “Our vision is to develop and organize the Latinx community — families, students, queer folks, and immigrant folks,” said Executive Director Elsa Bañuelos, who has been with the organization for 19 years.
What makes the organization effective is the staff reflects the community. Many are first-generation immigrants and college graduates. They live in the same neighborhoods where they organize; many are part of mixed-status families. They know the needs of their community intimately because they often represent the needs of their staff, which is 100 percent Latinx. Oscar Juarez-Luna, Movimiento Poder’s communications manager and a DACA recipient, says the conversation regarding DACA is more nuanced than people know. For example, some teenagers who are graduating from high school do not have DACA. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stopped processing new DACA requests from first-time applicants in 2022. These students comprise a diverse group of immigrants who are undocumented and, therefore, unprotected from deportation. “We don’t just need a resolution to DACA — we need a complete immigration reform,” Oscar remarked.
Similarly, Sandra Hernández-Lomelí, the executive director for Latinos Unidos Siempre (LUS) in Salem, Oregon, reported some people are deeper in the shadows and more overlooked. The organization’s origin story began in 1996 when 13 students came together to fight against immigration raids, a high dropout rate, increasing incarceration rates due to racist policing policies, and anti-immigrant proposals in the state legislature.
And while LUS was involved in the work leading up to Obama’s executive order establishing the DACA program, many of the organization’s original members have aged out. Their work has now expanded to ending the school-to-deportation pipeline. Research shows that police in schools have a disastrous impact on students and their well-being, and for children who are undocumented, the threat of deportation compounds that impact. “LUS is currently working with a 15-year-old girl who came here on a student visa. She experienced a lot of trauma and has been through the criminal legal system — her visa was taken away,” Sandra said. “It’s very likely she and others like her won’t get the support they need to stay in this country. So, the immigration system needs to be expanded and completely radicalized.”
Often for these students, schools are unsafe or unsupportive. In New York, New York State Youth Leadership Council (NYSYLC), created in the early 2000s to help advance the DREAM Act, is working to change that through a pilot program that connects teachers to immigrant and undocumented students. “We have seen that students usually identify one educator who is friendly to undocumented students and will start to turn to that teacher for guidance. The educator becomes a go-to person for students and their families,” explained NYSYLC co-executive director Angy Rivera. The pilot program is in a handful of schools. It allows undocumented students and their families to remain informed, which is essential because immigrant communities are often the target of dangerous misinformation.
As communities across the country wait for the U.S. to create an immigration system that values compassion, fairness, and respect for human dignity, organizations realize they can advocate for those and other values on a local level. “We have been focusing on community systems that we can create that will protect and support folks,” said New Mexico Dream Team (NM Dream Team) co-executive director Felipe Rodriguez. They did this by advocating for the expansion of the Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) classification in New Mexico. SIJ offers young immigrants abandoned by a parent the ability to seek permanent residence. NM Dream Team successfully worked on expanding the age eligibility for those who apply for that protection.
While DACA’s future remains in the air, these organizations and others supported by the Hazen Foundation have turned hopelessness into action. They work around the clock to provide information, resources, and care for the people in their communities. They fight to end the inhumane treatment of immigrants everywhere, like LUS, which is supporting the work to shut down an Immigration Detention Center in neighboring Tacoma, Washington. The center is accused of abusing the people detained there.
Angy of NYSYLC says despite being impacted by the same issues themselves, they will continue to serve their communities regardless of what happens. But she hopes there is a future where they wouldn’t need to advocate for immigrant rights. “In an ideal world, our work wouldn’t exist,” she said. “It would mean our mission has been fulfilled.”
No matter the future of DACA, the work to protect and empower immigrant communities and push for effective policy change will fall squarely on community organizers like our grantees.
We urge you to connect with and support our grantees leading the fight for immigration reform: