Is the dream dead? And, if so, who killed it?

On June 15, 2012, President Barack Obama stood in the Rose Garden of the White House to announce a massive change in immigration policy. For years, Congress had been unable to pass legislation to protect from deportation the so-called Dreamers, undocumented youth brought to the United States as children. In 2001, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) first introduced a bill that would have granted them a path to citizenship. But, a decade later, the Dream Act had failed—again.

Obama declared that day he had taken matters into his own hands. His administration put forward an executive action to create a now-famous program: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). “These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag,” Obama, facing pressure over his administration’s harsh immigration enforcement practices, said. (He had begun to be called a moniker that would stick: “deporter in chief.”) “They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.” As such, they shouldn’t be expelled from the country or have to live under the “shadow of deportation.”

DACA went on to become a landmark achievement of the Obama presidency—lauded for its seamless logistical implementation led by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, then head of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and the economic benefits of authorizing eligible beneficiaries to work. Crucially, it gave a lifeline to more than 800,000 young immigrants raised and educated in the United States. DACA was “a temporary stopgap measure,” Obama had said. But its success, for a time, allowed the program’s original sin to be played down. The expectation, Mayorkas told the New York Times recently, “was that DACA would be a bridge to legislation.”

Politicians could assume that change, albeit delayed, would likely someday materialize. Over the past quarter of a century, the issue of Dreamers has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress. It has been included in virtually every immigration negotiation. And the stories of promising undocumented young people have been common on front pages and magazine covers—inspiring a rare kind of solidarity that transcended political divisions. (There was even a Broadway musical.)

This year, all of that seemingly changed. 

The common-sense vision for a permanent solution for Dreamers has gone from a no-brainer to an afterthought. It used to be the case that legislative pushes for stricter border enforcement measures would not even merit consideration unless they were tied to relief for Dreamers (to say nothing of the millions of other long-time undocumented people often also included in proposals). Legislation could fail to pass, as it repeatedly did. But that signaling of support—even if in sentiment alone—made clear where Dreamers stood. Now, that tacit pact has been broken, and with little ceremony.

In an effort to appease cries of “open borders,” Democrats and President Biden endorsed a controversial bipartisan Senate border deal that would have brought about one of the harshest overhauls of the immigration system in decades. Biden lauded the bill as the “toughest” in history. He also lamented that it didn’t include a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers. Still, he urged Congress to advance it. The border deal never saw the light of day. But it begged the question: When did standing up for DACA stop being “the right thing to do“? (Or a political necessity for Democrats.)

Adding to the disregard for Dreamers is the potential end of their life raft. DACA is more at-risk than ever, relegated to die a slow death in the courts where its legality and very existence is being litigated. As Congress and the public relentlessly debate immigration policy with a laser focus on the border, the fate of Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants living in the country has become a footnote. 

“Congress used to care about the ‘Dreamers,'” the Washington Post editorial board wrote in January. “What happened?”

Janet Napolitano, the Department of Homeland Security secretary between 2009 and 2013, told me last year that when DACA began they weren’t quite sure how big the program would be. They knew what it represented: the recognition that “there was just something fundamentally unfair” about an immigration system that subjected “young people who had grown up in this country and knew only this country as home to possible immigration enforcement and deportation.” But, she admitted, “we didn’t know when we started whether we’d have five, 50 or 500 applicants.” 

Now, the numbers are clear. Almost 600,000 active DACA recipients are currently required to renew their status every two years. Each time, their ability to work, attend school, and hold a valid driver’s license is at stake. The program has been vastly beneficial. Extensive research has linked DACA to more educational opportunities and higher earnings, as well as better health outcomes. But it goes beyond those who participate. The end of DACA, says Caitlin Patler, an associate professor of public policy at UC Berkeley who researches US immigration law and the program’s impact, would be “catastrophic not just for the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients who have come to rely on the program, but also their families, schools, workplaces, communities, and the economy more broadly.” A 2018 study on the economic impact of providing legal status to Dreamers estimated that the program increased GDP by roughly $3.5 billion—an average of $7,454 per employed DACA recipient. A new paper authored by researchers at Brigham Young University also found that employment of US citizens did not fall when DACA workers moved into certain occupations—and earnings in those fields may have even increased. 

The threat of DACA’s imminent demise is real. While in office, in 2017, former President Donald Trump rescinded the program, which then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions dismissed as “unilateral executive amnesty.” The US Supreme Court blocked the termination in a 5-4 decision ruling it was “capricious and arbitrary,” but left the underlying question of the program’s legality open.

If given the opportunity, Trump would likely try to end DACA again. The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 playbook for the next conservative administration refers to it as an unlawful program. Stephen Miller, former White House senior adviser to Trump, previously called DACA “an erasure of immigration law” and his dark money-backed “lawfare” group opposed efforts to shield the initiative. “We already know what a Trump administration would do because we have had this experience,” Cecilia Muñoz, who served as director of the Domestic Policy Council under Obama and helped establish DACA, says. “You can expect DACA to shrink or disappear entirely.”

But these threats also elide the way the program is already quietly dying by a thousand cuts. A backlog of cases and months-long delays in processing applications means recipients risk losing their jobs. And short of an expansion, DACA as it currently exists will become obsolete. In order to qualify, applicants must have come to the United States before the age of 16 and have lived in the country since 2007. These requirements put the program out of reach for an entire new generation of Dreamers. “I have seen fewer and fewer DACA recipients in my classes,” Patler says. “My undergraduate students are now almost exclusively too young to have benefited from DACA, so they are facing the same barriers to pursuing higher education that undocumented students faced in the early 2000s.” 

Even those who are eligible can still be excluded because of a court order blocking first-time applications. Judith Ortiz, 21, and her twin sister first applied for DACA in December 2020. A federal court ruling had just mandated that the Trump administration restore the program. Because the sisters, who came to the United States from Mexico at the age of two, share the same last name and birthday, their lawyer advised them to apply on different dates to avoid any confusion with the processing of their paperwork. Judith’s application was filed on December 23, 2020, one day after her twin sister. That one day would mean the difference between having legal status, however fraught, and remaining undocumented. 

In 2021, Judge Andrew Hanen of the District Court for the Southern District of Texas determined in a case brought by Republican attorney generals that DACA was unlawful because the Obama administration had failed to follow the formal rulemaking process. Hanen blocked new DACA applications from being considered. (He continued to allow renewals while the Biden administration revisited the program’s regulation.) The conservative Fifth Circuit upheld Hanen’s decision following an appeal by the Biden administration and sent it back to the district court judge, who ruled against the government’s attempt to strengthen and protect DACA.

“While sympathetic to the predicament of DACA recipients and their families,” Hanen wrote in 2023, “this Court has expressed its concerns about the legality of the program for some time.” The case is now pending before the Fifth Circuit once more and could ultimately make its way to the Supreme Court. 

When it comes to the courts, Muñoz sees a “worrisome corollary” in another Obama-era program, the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). Built on the same legal premise as DACA, that initiative would have offered temporary relief from deportation to undocumented parents of US citizens and permanent residents. In 2016, an equally divided Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s ruling in the United States v. Texas case, which challenged DAPA and an expansion of DACA, and prevented the program from being implemented. 

In June 2021, Ortiz’s sister got approved. But before Ortiz’s case could come to a resolution, Judge Hanen issued the decision halting new applications and sealed a different future for Ortiz than that of her sister. Ortiz remembers how her sister cried, perhaps feeling guilty about her own luck. “I think I didn’t actually realize how much it did affect me until months later,” Ortiz says. “It hit me more once I saw how much she was able to do with just that work permit and social security number.” Because of DACA, her sister got a driver’s license, took out a car loan, and rented an apartment. 

Ortiz was the valedictorian in her high school and went on to study chemistry at Texas A&M, where she graduated last December. Had she been given the same immigration status as her sister, she says she would have qualified for more scholarships and wouldn’t have had to work under-the-table jobs while pursuing her education. The process to apply for medical schools that accept undocumented students and offer financial aid has been more challenging. She is also concerned about the passage of anti-immigration legislation like SB 4 in Texas allowing state law enforcement to arrest people suspected of having crossed the border unlawfully. “It’s scary because it’s another ‘show me your papers‘ law,” she says. 

On May 8, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “the urgent need to protect immigrant youth.” Contrary to the title, it primarily underscored the lack of political will to save DACA. Republicans chose to bring witnesses, among them the director of policy studies at the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies, to criticize Biden’s supposed “open border” policies. On the Democrats’ side, testimonies focused on the positive impact of DACA on people’s lives and the contributions of Dreamers to US society, including during the pandemic when 340,000 of them were employed as essential workers. 

In his opening remarks, Chair Sen. Durbin of Illinois, the longtime champion of DACA in Congress, laid out the stakes: “Even if he courts find, as they should, that DACA is lawful, a future administration can try to end the program.” 

But at the hearing, Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, a co-sponsor of the most recently introduced version of the Dream Act, made it clear that if it’s up to Republicans, Congress won’t be coming to Dreamers’ rescue. “Fixing DACA is not my concern right now,” Graham said. “My concern is regaining control over our sovereignty that has been lost.” He talked about addressing a “border completely open” and the “fentanyl poisoning” of Americans, even though most of the opioid drug crossing the border is smuggled by US citizens through ports of entry. “Until those concerns are addressed,” Graham said, “nothing else is going to happen on legalization.”

“I cannot imagine how we can hold these young people accountable for what you’re concerned with,” Durbin responded. But Graham remained steadfast in his goal to link migration at the southern border with a program for people already present in the United States: “I don’t mind dealing with the Dream Act population, but I don’t want to incentivize endless waves of immigration.” 

The undocumented youth remains a sympathetic and unifying symbol across political parties of the broken US immigration system. At the same time, their plight is constantly leveraged against other policy priorities, first and foremost the need to secure the southern border. While there’s virtual consensus on the need for a permanent solution—ideally through congressional action—for Dreamers, that remains as far from being realized as it did 12 years ago. As a result, they continue to live with uncertainty, their fate at the mercy of the courts and presidential administrations.

Ortiz and others have little hope that a solution for DACA will come anytime soon, especially in an election year where immigration is front and center. President Biden’s shift to the right on the issue and the recent measures gutting access to asylum at the border also inspire little confidence that the administration will go to bat for Dreamers. “We don’t think the administration has been very receptive to our demands,” says Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, deputy director of federal advocacy of the immigrant youth-led United We Dream network. “But we got to keep pushing them because they can’t keep just finding new ways to keep people out and close the border and break down our asylum system while also not helping the folks who have been here for a long time.” 

The bottom line, Macedo do Nascimento adds, is that DACA was never enough. “We worked really hard but we were also really lucky that we kept the policy and the program alive for this long,” she says. “We’ve been talking about DACA ending for a long time and now people are kind of numb to it…There is an urgency here that I don’t think folks are really grasping.”

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