The “Ugly American” and the DACA Debate
In saying this, I realize I am privileged to the extent that, while what Trump says might affect me emotionally, what he says is unlikely to affect my daily existence to the extent it disrupts it or completely changes it. For recipients of legal status under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, the stakes are much higher, and as such, every Tweet has the potential to signify a policy shift which could make for a life-altering event. Akilah Johnson, in a recent piece for The Boston Globe, explores this reality for so-called Dreamers, who have to monitor the volatility of Trump’s Tweets the way others might follow the ups-and-downs of the stock market (and increasingly so in the wake of fears of a brewing trade war). Johnson provides a bit of context thusly:
On Easter morning, Trump began a series of tweets about DACA, border security, and the country’s immigration laws, and there has been at least one nearly every day since, though he has been tweeting about immigration since before taking office.
But young immigrants said they don’t see themselves in many of the tweets, which equate immigration with criminality one day and express sympathy for DACA recipients who have been “abandoned” and received “very unfair” treatment in another.
It’s as if, they say, their academic accomplishments, hard work, and individual stories mean little. Instead, they are reduced to stereotypes in the immigration debate that is playing out on social media. The declarations of support are even more confusing, they say, because it was Trump who seeks to end the program that shields them from deportation.
And so each news alert or iPhone notification about the president’s ever-changing immigration agenda can be panic-inducing.
That Donald Trump’s mindset and position on specific issues tend to vacillate—I’m being kind here—is no big secret or surprise. Assuming he even understands what he’s talking about, and that’s a big enough assumption as it is, Trump lacks the familiarity with the underlying subject matter and its nuances by virtue of not having seriously considered it as a function of his political inexperience. To a certain extent, the malleability of his stances reflect the notion he is a novice, as well as the high probability he seems unprepared to take the lead on areas like immigration because he not only wants to deflect blame or responsibility but that he also was unprepared to win the 2016 presidential election in the first place.
Beyond learning on the job, however, Trump’s treatment of DACA recipients via Twitter reflects an attitude toward their plight that representatives of both parties at times have seemed too ready to embrace: that of behaving as if DACA is a mere bargaining chip and not something which affects hundreds of thousands of young people currently residing in the United States. Earlier this year, DACA negotiations were a notable sticking point in spending bill negotiations that ultimately resulted in a relatively brief government shutdown, but a shutdown it was. Democratic Party leadership apparently had its fears that Republican legislators would refuse to hold a vote on the immigration issue assuaged by Mitch McConnell’s promise that hearings on the matter would be forthcoming.
That was in January. We’re into April now, and evidently, little progress in Congress has been made on the subject of DACA, leaving Trump to unleash Tweetstorms about illegal immigration with his usual reckless abandon and even address the topic during the White House Easter Egg Roll. Seriously. At the time of the shutdown’s end, activists and other advocates for Dreamers maligned Chuck Schumer et al. for what they saw as “caving” on DACA, a characterization that was not lost on the GOP and other conservative critics who took their own opportunity to take jabs at their opponents at the center-left of the spectrum. Specifically, pro-immigrant groups voiced their disappointment with Democratic leadership agreeing to anything predicated on a Mitch McConnell promise, which would be—and these are my words, but I’m sure the sentiment is shared—like trusting a pack of wolves not to touch a juicy steak. Three months later, it appears their concerns were well justified.
What is singularly disturbing about the political gridlock surrounding DACA, and whether it is “dead” or simply in limbo following the passing of the March 5 deadline set by President Trump to get a deal done, is that, amid the inaction and turmoil, Trump’s voice is amplified. This is a terrible development because in making illegal immigration a central theme of his campaign and into his presidency, Trump has exploited Americans’ fears about immigration, legal and not—as well as their lack of knowledge about the subject and/or refusal to adequately fact-check. On Easter morning, he raged about “big flows of people” trying to come to America and take advantage of DACA. He also has Twitter-shouted about “caravans” of dangerous criminals trying to cross the border and has blamed Democrats for standing in the way of reform and wanting to let would-be Mexican border-crossers in unchecked. Presumably, it’s because the Dems are banking on undocumented Latinos to illegitimately vote by the millions for them, you know, despite there being any evidence of this whatsoever.
Like Akilah Johnson, Tessa Stuart, writing for Rolling Stone, spoke directly with Dreamers back in September 2017 to discuss the confusion surrounding DACA and the misconceptions that might exist as a result of hateful rhetoric related to its fate. In particular, the young people consulted for this piece hoped to debunk these myths about them and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals:
Myth #1: DACA recipients can just become citizens.
Even Barack Obama as President was explicit about the idea that DACA is neither amnesty nor immunity nor a path to citizenship. As Astrid Silva, interviewed for the article, outlines, one of the primary benefits of DACA is an Employment Authorization Document, or EAD. But as Silva asserts, the current immigration picture is more complex than a situation like in The Proposal where Sandra Bullock marries for papers, and as Stuart spells out with the help of Rep. Ruben Kihuen, the first Dreamer elected to Congress, it’s much different than it was some 30 years ago, when immigrants who overstayed their visas could adjust their status.
Myth #2: DACA allows immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to stay indefinitely.
Nope. As Stuart spells out, the window for qualifying to receive DACA is a fairly narrow one: one had to arrive in the United States before the age of 16, live in the country since 2007, and be younger than 31 as of June 15, 2012. Of the 1.7 million people eligible, fewer than half actually have registered for the program, and have had to apply for a renewal of their status every two years.
Myth #3: DACA recipients “put our nation at risk of crime, violence, and even terrorism.”
Wrong again. That’s Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, espousing his views based on tolerance as head of the Trump administration’s totally impartial Department of Justice. Felony convictions and multiple or significant misdemeanors disqualify DACA recipients, as do those who are considered “a threat to public safety or national security.” The vast majority of Dreamers are law-abiding, America-loving people. Which makes Jeff Sessions full of you-know-what.
Myth #4: DACA gives undocumented immigrants access to federal benefits.
DACA recipients can obtain driver’s licenses and go to college. But they can’t receive federal financial aid, nor can they even enroll in a healthcare plan under the Affordable Care Act. For the young people trying to afford school, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals at least affords them the opportunity to work while they go to school so they can apply for private loans. People who harp on the supposed glorious “benefits” received by Dreamers overstate their case, and understate the contributions made by these immigrants, including but not limited to paying income taxes.
It should be stressed that Donald Trump is not the only influential voice to espouse anti-immigrant views steeped in racism and xenophobia. Worldwide, migration and refugees/asylum-seeking has helped put a strain on relations between ethnic groups; in Europe, for instance, one need look no further than the notion Marine Le Pen was one of the finalists, so to speak, in the race for France’s presidency that ultimately saw Emmanuel Macron elected, or how the Brexit referendum was pushed by far-right elements within the United Kingdom.
Besides, for Trump to succeed with a presidential campaign that, on Day One, bashed Mexicans as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists (with some good people; gee, thanks), he had to tap into prejudices shared by his supporters and others who voted for him. Though not an altogether significant group, a certain percentage of voters in the 2016 election went from casting their ballots for Barack Obama in 2012 to buying a ticket for the “Trump Train.” While economic factors and Trump’s faux populism had a part to play in this, the trepidation of white Americans over the nation “losing its identity” and of having “their culture” diminished by the influx of other ethnic groups likewise figured heavily into Trump’s upset electoral victory.
All this aside, Trump regularly ginning up the “deplorables” within his base deserves every bit of condemnation one can muster, and for the conservatives who cling to trickle-down theories of economics and change, this should inspire a proportionate sense of shame. While still misplaced, it would be one thing for Trump and his administration to more provincially focus their intensity on those undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes or are otherwise found guilty of significant misdemeanors, as he indicated he would do while stumping for votes.
Instead, Trump being Trump, DACA recipients are liable in their own right to be detained or deported, with boasts of “DACA being dead” and no opportunity wasted to throw members of Congress (especially Democrats) under the bus, and Trump keeping with the nonsense about a wall furnished and paid for by Mexico. Meanwhile, Trump, Jeff Sessions, and their conservative ilk continue to push the myth that DACA recipients and immigrants in general are more likely to commit crimes. This is made especially galling when considering that immigrant children often outperform their peers in school, as Bruce Fuller, sociologist at UC-Berkeley, and others have observed. By this token, we should be outraged that Trump et al. are attacking our best and brightest.
Apple CEO Tim Cook, during an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes for Recode’s Revolution TV special, spoke about how DACA is not an immigration issue, but a moral issue. Indeed, by going after Dreamers, the Trump administration is demonstrating its penchant for cruelty in threatening to deport those who came here as young children and who have little to no recollection of living in the country of their birth. People, who, moreover, contribute to America’s rich cultural tapestry, not to mention its economy. Even those who trumpet the need to uphold our nation’s laws seem to have their priorities in disarray. Are we content to punish DACA recipients for the “sins of their parents,” as outgoing GOP senator Jeff Flake would say? Is that “making America great again?”
The DACA debate is one that should serve as an impetus for all of us as Americans—native, immigrant, and otherwise—to consider who and what we support, and where we are going as a country. For members of the Republican Party, it is high time for them to contemplate how long they can continue to push false narratives about immigrants given a rapidly changing and increasingly diverse pool of individuals here. For Democrats and conscientious members of the electorate, it’s time to reassess whether or not we are doing enough to advocate for DACA recipients, open borders, and other liberal/progressive policies related to immigration. The shadow of the so-called “ugly American” looms large over the battle to protect a vulnerable subset of the U.S. population. Whether or not we care enough to put aside our hate and privilege, and act on these matters, is the question ultimately worth asking.