The White House and Congress are getting an earful from faith-based and other human rights organizations alarmed that a federal judge in Texas ruled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to be illegal, placing the legal status of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants at risk.
U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen’s July 16 ruling ordered the U.S. government to cease approving new applications for DACA, an Obama-era initiative that grants work permits and protection from deportation for immigrants brought illegally into the U.S. as children. However, the decision did not immediately bar existing participants from the continued legal protections of the program.
Since July 16, letters and statements from immigrant rights supporters have deluged government and media outlets, demanding that federal legislators provide a permanent fix to the plight of DACA recipients, who are known informally as Dreamers.
“We plead with you to work together in good faith to reach consensus — most urgently, for Dreamers, but ultimately for the larger population of undocumented immigrants in our communities.”
The Obama administration enacted DACA, in large measure, because Congress for years has refused to pass significant immigration reform.
“Judge Hanen’s decision underscores the importance of a permanent solution to these longstanding challenges, which only Congress can provide. We plead with you to work together in good faith to reach consensus — most urgently, for Dreamers, but ultimately for the larger population of undocumented immigrants in our communities,” the Evangelical Roundtable said in a July 20 letter to Congress.
John Mark Boes, advocacy engagement and programs manager for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship joined the chorus: “The time for Congress to act is now. This decision only furthers the state of limbo that 700,000 have experienced. If DACA continues to be held in such limbo, we must act now to secure legal status for those who are vital contributors to our communities. Barring future DACA applicants only serves to hurt our communities. To be serious about equity, we must provide a path forward to citizenship to DACA recipients, who through no fault of their own, were brought here.”
CBF and other faith-based organizations are organizing more education and advocacy events this week.
The National Immigration Forum has produced an online letter that CBF and other partners are urging congregants to sign. The Interfaith Immigration Coalition will offer a webinar titled “Citizenship for All: Faithful August Recess Advocacy” on July 27. The webinar will offer strategies to advocate with legislators to create a path to citizenship for Dreamers, holders of Temporary Protected Status, and essential workers, including farm workers.
Predictably, last week’s ruling also shocked many of the nation’s 650,000 DACA recipients, who have experienced ups and downs brought by four years of an anti-immigrant Trump administration and Republican legislators trying to undo Obama’s legacy.
“I am experiencing panic even though the judge’s ruling doesn’t really affect me right now,” said Dreamer Ricardo Morones Torres of Austin, Texas. “It is an indication that the program could be halted at any moment and that I could be barred from renewing in the future. That makes it very nerve-wracking for me because I have a family to provide for. I recently purchased a house. How would I cover my mortgage and taxes?”
Morones Torres, 34, a law school graduate and DACA enrollee since 2013, said he is concerned for those who are in the initial application process.
“I do feel for the younger generation of Dreamers who were looking at the program as on opportunity to have some sort of relief and move on with their lives somewhat. I was in their position at one point,” he explained. “It is nerve-racking when the future is so uncertain and you are constantly worried about deportation.”
The White House called Hansen’s ruling “deeply disappointing” and vowed swift legal action.
“The Department of Justice intends to appeal this decision in order to preserve and fortify DACA. And, as the court recognized, the Department of Homeland Security plans to issue a proposed rule concerning DACA in the near future,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
The U.S. House this year already has passed the American Dream and Promise Act, which includes solid protections for Dreamers. However, the Senate, where Democrats hold only a one-vote majority, has yet to vote on the legislation.
“Only Congress can ensure a permanent solution by granting a path to citizenship for Dreamers that will provide the certainty and stability that these young people need and deserve,” Biden said. “I now renew that call with the greatest urgency. It is my fervent hope that through reconciliation or other means, Congress will finally provide security to all Dreamers, who have lived too long in fear.”
Polling has shown that a majority of Americans favor protections for some immigrants already in the U.S., including DACA recipients.
“Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about the situation at the border and the number of migrants coming in, but at the same time, many are still in favor of reforming the (immigration) system,” Ipsos researcher Mallory Newall said in a report summarizing an NPR/Ipsos survey published in May.
That majority also favors providing a legal pathway to citizenship for some immigrants already in the country, Newall said. “We see support for allowing law-abiding migrants to become citizens under specific circumstances and also reforms to ensure better treatment of those at the border, particularly children.”
The Ipsos/NPR survey found that 68% of Americans either “strongly support” or “somewhat support” allowing undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children — the very category covered by DACA — to become U.S. citizens.
The poll also found that 83% of Democrats, 63% of independents and 54% of Republicans feel the same way.
A majority of respondents also favor a path to citizenship for farmworkers and other essential workers (71%) and for immigrants granted temporary legal status after fleeing war and natural disasters (70%).
“When you just ask people overall if they’re in favor of giving all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a path to citizenship, views are pretty split,” Newall said. “But when you look at specific groups … most Americans can agree that if they meet the qualifications, if they go about it legally, then there should be a path for them.”
National and grassroots organizations alike have testified to the resilience and value that Dreamers have in U.S. society and to the economy. For some, it’s personal.
“I am sad for the hundreds of thousands of potential first-time DACA applicants who are permanently blocked from receiving DACA. I cannot imagine the disappointment and hurt that they feel,” said Greg Smith, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel and director of an immigration legal services program in Fredericksburg, Va.
While Smith’s program through LUCHA Ministries deals largely with asylum cases, there are occasions to assist DACA applicants.
“I was grieved this week having to inform a recent high school graduate that their DACA application, filed in February but yet to be processed by (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), will now not be processed due to the Texas district court order,” he explained.
Smith said he believes DACA recipients will respond with strength and courage to the latest threat against the program: “One thing I’ve found in the Dreamer community as a whole is an unbelievable resilience and determination to speak out forcefully for their cause, and I think this will be the case with this most recent ruling.”
Smith isn’t the only Baptist to protest Hansen’s decision.
“Once again, government inaction is hurting individuals. This court decision confirms that a fair and just solution for our broken immigration system is needed immediately,” said Daniel Patterson, acting president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “Too many immigrants live needlessly in constant fear. It doesn’t have to be this way. Christians must not waver in pleading the case for these fellow image-bearers.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops joined in the call for Congress to act, explaining that DACA recipients are integral to society.
“Dreamers contribute to our economy, serve in our armed forces, and raise American families, but they are prevented from becoming full members of our society,” the bishops said in a statement. “All Dreamers, not just those receiving DACA, deserve the opportunity to achieve their God-given potential in the only country most of them have ever known.”
Here are comments from other faith community leaders engaged in immigration work:
“Judge Hanen’s July 16 decision to block new DACA applications — including the tens of thousands of initial cases mired in limbo due to crisis-level processing delays at USCIS — is mean-spirited and plain wrong.” — Anna Gallagher, executive director of Catholic Legal Immigration Network
“While it stops short of immediately ending DACA protections for current recipients, Judge Hanen’s decision only compounds the uncertainty that Dreamers face — and the urgency of a permanent legislative solution. DACA recipients and other Dreamers are working, studying and contributing to the only home many of them have ever known — and nearly 1 million of them have worked in essential industries as we respond and recover from a devastating pandemic. Fortunately, permanent legislation for Dreamers has overwhelming public, bipartisan support. The policy solutions are there — now we just need the political will.” — Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum
“For years, Americans of all political persuasions have agreed that Dreamers are a vital part of American mosaic. The present judicial order highlights the urgent need for bipartisan congressional action to protect DACA recipients. As Hispanic Evangelicals who know firsthand the contributions of Dreamers, we lament this decision impacting thousands of God’s children and call for immediate bipartisan action.” — Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition
“This new decision is devastating for these resilient young people, and for their families, churches, communities and employers. Congress should not wait for further court decisions: they must act immediately to finally pass legislation that the significant majority of Americans, including the majority of evangelical Christians, say they support.” — Scott Arbeiter, president of World Relief
“There are so many issues dividing our country right now, but creating a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers is not one of them. There is overwhelming support from constituents in both parties, and it’s about time that our representatives listened to us. Dreamers contribute so much to this country and their lives should not be in limbo any longer.” — Tess Clarke, director of We Welcome Refugees