david kerr H&S

Earlier this month, a federal judge said the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program could accept new applicants.  This was after the Supreme Court earlier this year overturned President Donald Trump’s cancellation of the program. 

For young people in the program known as DACA it’s been a tortuous four years, but these recent legal reprieves don’t do much for their status.  They are caught in a legal limbo, one they can’t get out of.  It’s a bureaucratic nightmare right out of a Franz Kafka novel, something I didn’t read by choice (they’re too depressing). 

However, with every policy problem there is always a personal side to consider. 

I am thinking of one of my students in my American government and politics class at Virginia Commonwealth University.  He is a nice young man and like a lot of the kids in my classes probably no older than 21.  VCU has a diverse student body – diverse in terms of the swath of our culture it takes in, as well as the number of immigrants and foreign students who attend. 

But this young man had an accent just like mine.  In other words, he sounded as though he was born and raised in Northern Virginia.  And yes, we Northern Virginians, as disparate as we are, have an accent. 

However, what I found out during one class break was that his story was far more complicated than I thought.   Given his interest in foreign affairs and the military I had, as I frequently do, suggested he consider going for a commission in the Navy.  Sorry, I am a one-man recruiting station.  However, there was one hitch and it was a big one.  He told me that wasn’t possible because he was in this country under the DACA program.

In other words, he came to this country illegally (no nice way to put that) with his parents when he was a small child.  Thing is, he had no choice in the matter and by circumstance grew up as a typical American boy.  He played tennis for his high school. 

At the time we had this chat, things were getting rough.  President Trump had cancelled the program, and the student told me was facing the prospect of going back to Mexico.  However, that wasn’t much of an option.  He told me his Spanish was terrible, and, what’s more, he had no memory of living there.  Falls Church, Fairfax County schools, certainly, but Mexico might as well have been on another planet.

I don’t know what happened afterward, only to presume that he is continuing to drift in a legal limbo not of his making.

DACA was originally intended as a reprieve.  However, it doesn’t fix anything.  For a while, at least, Democrats and Republicans, and even President Trump for a time, supported some kind of path to a more permanent status for these young people who had entered the country with their parents.  

DACA is not some kind of free pass.  The applicant’s status is deferred.  They have to have clean records, can’t get in any trouble, and have to pay their taxes.  But that’s it.  The path from “deferred action” to anything better just doesn’t exist.  It’s a big program, and Northern Virginia is home to about 12,000 participants.  They’re all young – the average age is 24 – and the one thing they have in common is that they don’t have many options. 

Of course, they’re lucky to be able to stay in the United States, but it’s not as though they have anywhere else to go to.  They’re “de facto” Americans already.  Some have been here since they were toddlers, and now, all grown up, about as American as can be, we’ve left them hanging.

Sure, there is the argument that we should send them home.  Their parents violated the law, and the status of their children is an unfortunate consequence.  However, we’re not a cold-hearted people, we are a nation that makes allowances for people caught in the middle and opens doors for people from all over the world.  In the long run it’s an outlook that’s served us well.

David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years. 

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