DACA and Obama: A false paragon?

‘This is about basic decency’

Then what was deporting 3 million undocumented immigrants?

More deportations occurred under the Obama administration than any other presidency. Then why are we pretending he is a friend to/of undocumented immigrants?

Former POTUS with some of the “Dreamers” (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)


The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a deportation-deferral program passed in 2012 that protects 800,000 young people and allows them to work, is being abolished under the Trump administration. In light of Donald Trump’s decision to rescind DACA, former president Barack Obama posted a Facebook message bashing his successor’s decision. It threatens 800,000 Dreamers with unemployment and consequently, deportation. Many have taken to social media to applaud Obama for taking a stance against Trump and defending the programs established under the Obama administration. The juxtaposition between Obama and Trump’s governing has positioned Obama as the paragon of a progressive politician, especially with regards to immigration policy. But what is lost in their comparison is the incredibly high number of deportations that occurred under his presidency. In his two terms, Obama deported more people than any other president, including George W. Bush. The Obama administration oversaw 20,000 deportations every month compared to Trump’s current 16,900. Although the safety and prosperity of DACA recipients cannot be denied, and although theridicoulousness of Trump’s actions should not and cannot be downplayed, we must recognize the weaknesses in the immigration policy handed from Obama to Trump. Now, more than ever, is not the time to indulge in the glorification of leaders like Barack Obama. As we defend Dreamers from the removal  of DACA, we must remain critical of past leaders as well, so as to ask our current and future politicians to do better. DACA and Obama both have one thing in common, action that doesn’t do justice to the intent. 

What is DACA and who are the Dreamers?

DACA, which was founded by the Obama administration in 2012, gives children of undocumented immigrants work permits and eligibility to temporarily remain in the country. DACA is specific to ‘low priority’ undocumented immigrants with good behaviour. These young people are referred to as Dreamers. Although DACA provides many life-saving and necessary opportunities for children of undocumented immigrants, the limitations of the policy are overwhelming. There is a reason that organizations like the Moratorium on Deportation Campaigns deem it as the ‘bullshit statement.

Via a report from the Metropolitan Policy Program at Bookings, to qualify for the DACA program, applicants must meet the following criteria:

  • Have arrived in the United States prior to age 16
  • Have continuously resided in the United States without legal status since June 15, 2007
  • Be less than age 31 as of June 15, 2012 and at least age 15 at application (unauthorized immigrants under 15 but in removal proceedings are also eligible to apply)
  • Be currently enrolled in school, have graduated high school or obtained a general development certificate (GED), or be an honorably discharged veteran
  • Have not been convicted of a felony or multiple or serious misdemeanors and not pose a threat to national security or public safety

Prosecutorial Discretion: Safety or Entrapment?

As reported by organizations like Moratorium on Deportation Campaigns and activists like Yasmin Nair, an application to DACA in itself already puts undocumented immigrants at risk. If the application fails, not only is the applicant’s lack of legal citizenship revealed, but it also puts the status of their entire family in question. Homeland security has the jurisdiction to hand over the information of applicants who are not accepted into the program over to ICE. In 2014, out of 643,000 applications for DACA, 13% were denied. This contingency puts a great strain on individuals seeking a temporary work permit and temporary residency. It is clear why some would opt out of this life-changing program to keep from putting themselves or their family in danger of deportation and entrapment.

Again, the provisions DACA provides are all temporary. Not only that, but the provision can be revoked at any time as it is not a matter of law. DACA does grant undocumented immigrants a legal temporary status of residence, which would have made it more difficult for Trump to reverse, and would have protected recipients more. Every two years DACA recipients must renew their deferred status, and if they do not qualify for whatever reason, they are now in the Homeland security database and run the risk of being deported. The lives of DACA recipients are always in limbo and living under constant threat of deportation even with ‘deferred’ deportation policies, and as prophesied by multiple news agencies before the threat of Trump, recipients were always under threat of losing the program when Obama’s term was over. At it’s worst, prosecutorial discretion leaves you in the government system with a ticking time bomb of deportation. Prosecutorial discretion “affects the fate of more noncitizens than any other government action.” What’s more is that because it is an immigration policy that was passed in congress, it cannot be fought in court, and so if prosecutorial discretion does lead to deportation, it is exempt from any judicial review.

DACA inherently draws a moral line between the ‘good’ undocumented immigrant and the ‘bad.’ To qualify for the program, one must have completed certain steps that determine success, such as graduating high school and being enrolled in a post-secondary. Circumstances that inhibit accomplishing these steps, such as supporting family with a full time job or taking care of younger siblings and the like that make it difficult to finish high school, are not considered by DACA. On November 24th 2014, Obama had announced a series of ‘executive actions’ that would target only “felons, not families.” But as stated by the American Immigration Council, ‘this fails to account for the fact that there are a great many “felons” who have committed only immigration offenses and pose a threat to no one.’

Obama ‘deporter-in-chief’

Time and time again, studies have shown that harsh immigration laws and the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants does not reduce crime. Under Obama–dubbed ‘deporter-in-chief’ by immigration activists–the extensive crackdown on deporting undocumented immigrants cost the country billions of dollars but more importantly, jeopardized the livelihoods of 2.5 million people and subsequently their families. The subject of these deportations were in many cases non-violent criminals. As stated by the American Immigration Council, whole new classes of “felonies” have been created which apply only to immigrants, deportation has become a punishment for even minor offenses, and policies aimed at trying to end unauthorized immigration have been made more punitive rather than more rational and practical. In short, undocumented migrants themselves are being criminalized.

It makes sense that immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, are statistically less likely to commit crimes than non-American migrants. Statistics even show that more immigration results in lower crime rates. Most undocumented immigrants arrive in the country to flee violence and for better opportunities. For undocumented immigrants, involvement with any form of law enforcement may result in police to ask for proof of residency, thus jeopardizing their livelihoods. This is especially a problem when undocumented immigrants are the victims of crimes, as they avoid reporting altogether.

It is easy to dismiss these deportations as merely targeting criminals when ignoring the legal discrepancies that deem some crimes committed by undocumented immigrants as felonies, while the same crime is not considered a felony if committed by an American citizen. The American government and the Justice system continues to fail displaced undocumented immigrants and further criminalizes their existence as well as their children’s.

Obama’s legacy does include the establishment of DACA in the face of an adverse congress, as well as his efforts to establish a similar program for the parents of Dreamers referred to as DAPA, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans. DACA itself significantly improved the mental health of many undocumented immigrants and raised many families out of poverty. But this does not take away from the fact that his administration was responsible for deporting millions, nor does it diminish the weight of the shortcomings of the program, most notably the risk of entrapment when applying for the program.

We must do everything in our power to fight for Dreamers and the only program in place that allows them to secure jobs and temporarily be protected from deportation. But as we do this, we must not turn a blind eye to the flawed immigration policies he instilled. This understanding emphasizes the necessity of DACA, especially when there is no better alternative. We must realize that the dehumanization and deportation of undocumented immigrants is an ongoing trend in American presidencies, rather than blame it on a single figure like Trump. This is essential, and it is the only way we can hold our politicians, past, current, and future, accountable for their lack of effective legislation, and the only way we can bring about positive change to the system.

Mahtab Laghaei

Mahtab Laghaei

Policy Intern at InPRA
Mahtab Laghaei is an undergraduate arts student at the University of British Columbia. She was born in Tehran and raised in Vancouver, where she is the editor in chief of a local arts and culture magazine. Her experiences living in the diaspora has inspired her activism and political endeavours which she explores through writing for different publications and volunteering with local organizations.
Mahtab Laghaei

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