I remember the day the announcement came – I was at the AILA Annual Conference in Nashville, TN. A vast ballroom had been opened for a special session and a sea of AILA members watched, many weeping openly with joy, as President Obama formally announced the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative. We may not have been “in the room where it happened” to quote Hamilton, but it sure felt like we were in the midst of a joyous day for DREAMers and everyone who cared for them.
To say AILA immediately sprang into high gear is an understatement – we worked with the Obama Administration to get precise details about information that was going to be necessary to file. I think past president David Leopold may have been the one to pioneer the use of Facebook posts to prove continuous residency but we as AILA members worked with our clients to figure out innovative strategies to “cross every t and dot every i.”
Chapter after Chapter built out pro bono clinics and opportunities for DREAMers to come in and get help to submit applications. In a number of cases, they were actually able to find out they were eligible for a different, more permanent benefit they’d been unaware of until an AILA member attorney pointed it out. My law firm, like many others, took on DACA cases at a discounted fee, to encourage applicants to have legal representation for this important process. Our community benefited from DACA recipients who then became new nurses, teachers, and firefighters. Those were exciting, hopeful days.
But DACA was only ever a stop-gap measure. We saw the effort by the Obama Administration to make deferred action more widely accessible to parents of American children (“DAPA”) fail. We saw the Trump administration seek to terminate the DACA program without proper notice, even for those already in it. We saw new applicants turned away. And in every way we could, we advocated for a permanent change–legal protection for DREAMers that no future Administration could endanger.
I wish I could say 10 years later that we’d succeeded but we haven’t. Through litigation, we were able to blunt the harm to DACA the Trump Administration sought to inflict. But Congress has yet to pass permanent protections for DREAMers or anyone else; we all remember Comprehensive Immigration Reform failed to get across the finish line in 2013. In the years that followed, AILA has worked tirelessly with a broad coalition of interest groups to reach a compromise — but the politics of immigration have only grown more divided. The Biden Administration has made efforts to protect DACA recipients but in talking to DREAMers, they don’t feel safe. Who could blame them?
This DACA-versary, I am recommitting to doing everything I can to see that dream become reality. These young people have built their lives here. America should honor and recognize that, see the benefits we’ve all reaped from their presence, and demand Congress pass legislation to protect and legalize DREAMers as well as the many others who have lived for years in this country in legal limbo, once and for all.