It’s been nine years since former President Barack Obama signed an executive order to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — or DACA. It protects nearly 700,000 immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children from deportation.
The program withstood a three-year legal challenge from the Trump administration but now has renewed support in the White House from President Biden. However, DACA remains somewhat fragile. DACA recipients – often called “DREAMers” – have to apply for a renewal every two years.
During Biden’s inauguration week, Greisa Martínez Rosas, DACA recipient and executive director of United We Dream, the largest youth-led immigrant network in the country, told Here & Now that she hopes the new administration prioritizes the safety and healing of immigrant communities.
The optimism and hopefulness she expressed at that time stemmed from the power of UWD’s movement, Martínez Rosas says.
“Six months later, we are seeing record deportations and expulsions … under Biden,” she says. “I am [still] feeling determined to ensure that millions of undocumented people in this country win citizenship this year and [make] really clear that Democrats have, not only the prerogative but the political pressure to deliver this year.”
Hours after his inauguration, Biden ordered the Department of Homeland Security to preserve and fortify the DACA program. Martínez Rosas says the administration’s underlying support of the program has been essential for many DACA recipients, including herself.
The program’s preservation allowed her to visit and hug her father for the first time in 15 years after being separated by deportation.
“It was a moment I never thought would happen,” Martínez Rosas says. “To be in his arms, to see the age in his eyes, but to be able to share with him in the excitement and the joy of what this new administration could mean for millions of people.”
Nevertheless, DACA is not enough, she says.
“Millions of people deserve the same ability that I had to visit their family members, to live lives without deportation,” Martínez Rosas says. “And we need that protection to be permanent.”
Vice President Harris called for permanent legal status on the program's anniversary last month.
“Even with DACA in place, we know that DREAMers live in a constant state of fear about their status and about their future,” Harris says. “And it is critically important that we provide a pathway to citizenship to give people a sense of certainty and a sense of security."
The DREAM Act, legislation meant to permanently protect young immigrants, has still not passed through Congress. The act was first introduced in 2001, and the partisan divide over immigration has widened immensely since then.
Earlier this year, the House passed The American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Modernization Act, two pieces of legislation that could pave a pathway to citizenship for more than 4.4 million qualified DREAMers. But it’s something the Senate has not made a priority since.
UWD activists are pushing legislators to use their power to enact this change, Martínez Rosas says.
“We're calling on Democratic leadership to include immigration in the reconciliation package,” Martínez Rosas says. “To ensure that citizenship is one of the ways in which this country can recover from the attacks of Donald Trump and his presidency, as well as what we have experienced together during COVID.”
Among the challenges immigrant communities have had to face is the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their health and personal lives. A lack of access to health care resources and working essential jobs that often require in-person contact lead to an increased risk of exposure. COVID-19 has also impacted immigration processing across the country.
“Many of us are still facing the aftershocks of having lost family members, of having undocumented family members excluded from relief efforts, of being able to see delays in applications, being able to be processed and have protection from deportation,” Martínez Rosas says.
"Our lives are on the line."Greisa Martínez Rosas
But there’s competition for Biden’s attention. Since preserving and fortifying the DACA program, he’s been focused on managing the pandemic and fighting to pass an infrastructure deal. Martínez Rosas says DREAMers will gain Biden’s attention the same way they did with Obama — by holding the president accountable to deliver on his promises.
“Our lives are on the line,” she says. “We’re asking him to deliver citizenship for millions … not only because it’s good for undocumented people, but it’s good for the country.”
For at least a decade, Martínez Rosas has been fighting for this immigration reform package many DREAMers similarly envision. When it happens, she imagines herself celebrating with millions who have worked together to ensure a pathway to citizenship.
“For me, it would mean that I'd be able to care for my father as he ages,” she says. “That I'd be able to take a sigh of relief when it comes to deportations.”
But even after then, her work and efforts will not let up.
“I would just recommit myself to the fight,” Martínez Rosas says. “So I'll enjoy the victory because it will come. I know that we will win and be preparing for the fights to come.”
This segment aired on July 8, 2021.