header icons

DACA, DAPA, and the poor outside our door

Since 9/11, our nation has become more and more afraid, in exact proportion to our fevered attempts to disconnect ourselves from the poor and huddled masses of the earth. The more troops we send to stamp out Evil, the more Evil seems to grow. The higher the fence at our border, the more we fear those on the other side. And it makes a kind of sense: if you disconnect yourself from others, you can no longer see that our fates are bound up together. It begins to look like it is us against them, or, worse, me against the cosmos. If I think that I am alone, unconnected, in a hostile and dangerous world, I will lash out in fear and hostility to protect myself. As an example of this dynamic, we can do no better than to take a look at the sorry spectacle of the fight over immigration reform.

On June 15, 2012, President Obama announced that he would use his executive authority to temporarily protect from deportation, under certain conditions, the DREAMers, undocumented young people brought to the U.S. when they were children. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allows teens and young adults to apply for protection against deportation if they were brought here before the age of 16, have lived here for at least 5 continuous years, have a clean criminal record and are attending or graduated from high school or its educational or military equivalent. Oh, and to pay fees of $465 to the government  – DACA pays for itself, no taxpayers money is involved.

DACA has been a tremendous success, with over 700,000 young people receiving relief from deportation so far. For the first time they had a chance to contribute to what, for many, is the only society they have ever known: the opportunity to get a job legally and pay taxes, to get a driver’s license, to open a bank account, to get a credit card, and most importantly, to know that, at least for now, they can come out of the shadows without the nagging fear of arbitrary deportation.

One year after DACA, in June of 2013, by a vote 68-32, the U.S. Senate passed S.744, a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have allowed many of the undocumented, including the DREAMers, to remain legally in the United States, and most importantly, have a path towards earning citizenship. It would have changed the current mish-mash of immigration preferences to a point system to encourage the immigration of those whose skills and talents would allow them to make immediate contributions to the economy. It was a bipartisan compromise: the bill called for securing the border by hiring an additional 40,000 Border Patrol. Nobody got everything they wanted, but it represented a giant step forward in changing an immigration system that just about everyone agrees is broken.

The Senate bill never had a chance in the House of Representatives, dominated by members who consider any form of immigration reform as “amnesty.” Realizing this, President Obama announced on September 6th, 2014 that he would issue further executive orders to expand the protections granted by DACA.

The undocumented in Houston and their friends, families and supporters were on pins and needles as we awaited the President’s decision. We had a watch party at Casa Juan Diego on November 20th, the day of the announcement, in anticipation of good news.

At first, we were disappointed, as the President’s orders did not protect all the people who needed protection, in particular the parents of the DREAMers. But as we thought back on the faces of the people we knew, people who it would help, we felt much better. One part of the order was the expansion of DACA to reach an even greater number of DREAMers.  Helping even more people was the major new program, DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents) that promised much needed protection from arbitrary deportation for a large number of mothers and fathers whose children are U.S. citizens, directly addressing one of the most indefensible aspects of current immigration law, the deportation of the parents of children who are here legally, children that are often way too young to protect themselves after a parent is removed.

Right after the President’s announcement, I received messages from several former Catholic Workers asking, “This is good, right?,” not quite sure what to think. I share their ambivalence. Obviously, it is great that, unless the Su-preme Court says otherwise, we have a reprieve from the heart-breaking spectacle of watching parents being forcibly separated from their children (talk about anti-family policy!).  But DAPA, like DACA before it, will not fix our broken immigration system. It applies to less than half of the undocumented community. There is no path to citizenship. Worse yet, executive orders are tem- porary. What one president can do, another can undo. Already, the leaders of the House of Representatives are calling for the elimination of both DAPA and DACA. With a stroke of a pen, the next President can order the deportation of all the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens, all the DREAMers.

Already, lawsuits have succeeded in obstructing the sign-up process for the new available protections with plans to block the same process for DAPA when released later this year. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is once again the staple of cable news and talk radio. We try to reassure our guests that the hatred they see on television and hear on the radio does not represent America, that America is better than that. We tell them that those who work so hard against them simply do not know them; if they did, they would never do or say those things.

But, I have to admit to myself, often there really is a fundamental difference be-tween our guests and the people who are so afraid of them. Our guests, by and large, come from societies that are communal. They are connected, deeply connected, to family and village. Their very poverty teaches them that they are not alone, cannot be alone, for their survival depends, every moment, on their connections with one other.

Americans, on the other hand, live in a very rich society, one that all but worships individualism. Since we have money and power, it is tempting to think that we need neither God nor each other. And the other guy, maybe he wants to take away from me what is mine!

At its worst, this fixation on me, me, me; mine, mine, mine can lead to the denial that human beings were created for community. If it were true that human beings were basically alone, separate, that it was just me against a pitiless universe, pulling myself up by my own bootstraps, relying only on myself, it would indeed be a very frightening and dangerous world out there. I would need protection against all these dangers confronting me, protection from change, from people who do not look like me. I would need more and more border security, more Border Patrol, more state troopers, more National Guard.

We tell our guests that the people who seem to hate them so much are disconnected, which makes them afraid, and that fear is the root of what they do and say.  It is not personal, we say, they are reacting against a bogyman of their imagination.

At Casa Juan Diego, being disconnected is not our problem! We follow the Catholic principal of Personalism. As Pope John Paul II put it before he was Pope, “The person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.” Or, as Dorothy Day said, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

As Catholic Workers, we are not working on behalf of abstractions such as “the poor,” or “the undocu-mented” or whatever. We are working for human beings who come to our door, human beings with names and faces and stories. We help not so much by giving them food or shelter, but by giving them of ourselves. And we must do this communally, whether we want to or not: our individual efforts are so pitifully inadequate compared to the enormous needs of our guests that trying to do the work as individuals would be ludicrous.

While this means that we cannot hide from the suffering of others, it also opens up our lives to a thousand little kindnesses every day. Somewhere in this balance between horror and beauty, between tragedy and redemption, we become a little less afraid, and this is our greatest strength. We are free in our weakness, in our connectedness.

I do not know what sustains the President as he struggles for immigration reform against those so adamantly opposed to both immigrants and reform. I would guess that making decisions affect-ing the lives of millions of people is both difficult and lonely. Perhaps it might help him (and certainly his blood pressure!) to come to Casa Juan Diego and meet our guests, to hear their stories, to connect more closely with the people he is trying to protect.

I know that it helps me.

For more information on DACA and DAPA, visit:

http://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian/consideration-deferred-action-childhood-arrivals-daca, and http://www.uscis.gov/immigrationaction.

For comprehensive information and support in Houston, visit http://citizenshipcorner.org/.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXIV, No. 2, March-May, 2015.