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A future in limbo: Why Congress must act on DACA now

The Hill logo The Hill 10/8/2021 Fernando Chang-Muy, opinion contributor
A future in limbo: Why Congress must act on DACA now © Getty Images A future in limbo: Why Congress must act on DACA now

On Sept. 27, the Biden administration announced a new proposal for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to preserve the Obama-era program. Since it was established in 2012, DACA has been the subject of ongoing debate and political partisanship. And although President Biden's proposed rule will go through a public comment period, the Department of Homeland Security underscored the necessity of congressional action to protect and preserve the program permanently.

The call for congressional action serves as a reminder that young immigrants still face similar experiences to those who traveled to this country more than 50 years ago. Just as Congress provided a pathway to citizenship via the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966 (CAA) that regularized the immigration status of undocumented Cubans and their children, Congress now needs to provide permanent status to young people who live in the U.S. temporarily under President Obama's DACA executive order.

Luis Ayala, a student who contributed to this article, and I are immigrants who came to the United States 50 years apart - I came from Cuba and he from Mexico. Although from different countries, our parents both hoped to provide a better life for us in the United States. And while we have had access to and opportunities for the better life they dreamed about, we grew up living in fear of deportation because of immigration laws. The CAA provided me the opportunity for adjustment of status and to be a lawful permanent resident; Ayala remains in limbo with the fate of DACA unknown. As a DACA recipient, he knows he and his family are at the mercy of the government.

There are millions of so-called "Dreamers" currently residing in the United States - though only about 700,000 are protected under DACA. And although they live, work and attend school in the U.S., their futures here are uncertain. Therefore, we are urging Congress to act on DACA without further delay.

The need for immigration reform is more important than ever. The humanitarian issues at the border have only gotten worse since President Trump left office, and after no action from the Biden administration, we are reminded of how slowly both the legislative and executive branches have been - and still are - in responding to our needs. A recent poll shows more than 70 percent of Americans support giving DACA recipients a pathway to citizenship, so why hasn't there been any action?

Though our ages and countries of origin differ, our backgrounds have many similarities. Our parents worked in kitchens, on construction sites, in grocery stores, and as truck drivers lugging heavy sacks of sugar and rice on and off trucks, so that we could eat, have an apartment to live in, and go to school. We grew up quickly, interpreting for our parents as the bridge between them and expensive immigration lawyers. As children, we negotiated fees, filled out forms and kept calling immigration lawyers when months and years passed without updates from them about our legal status.

Our experiences then and now mirror that of many young people today who balance studies, part-time work, interpreting, form-filling and chasing after immigration lawyers. They are all too aware that the worries of food, housing, money and employment keep their parents awake at night - and that their futures in this country remain unguaranteed.

One thing is clear: A lack of action from Congress has prevented the reform the system so desperately needs. In fact, Congress has failed to address immigration issues since the last time they amended the law in 1996. With a slim Senate majority and the executive power under Democratic control, now is the time to help DACA recipients obtain a clear path to citizenship. Without legislation, colleges and universities could expel students and cut off financial aid, and employers could fire young workers.

Temporary protection through DACA has allowed many young people to buy their first homes and cars, and to work legally in the U.S. and pay taxes - but DACA recipients must renew their status every two years, and the security they are working hard to build is not secure at all.

Congress can change the lives of undocumented youths in this country. By creating a policy that affects the most vulnerable and by regularizing immigration status, it can ensure that immigrants take part in all aspects of this country as legal citizens. Today's undocumented immigrants may be tomorrow's small business owners, factory workers, renters and homebuyers. Their children could win the National Spelling Bee. Let's not forget - Albert Einstein, Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger are among refugees who contributed to their adopted countries.

Though he remains in immigration limbo, Ayala soon will graduate from Penn's Wharton School. If his past success is any indication of his future, he no doubt will contribute to making America even stronger - but we must ensure he has that opportunity.

Fernando Chang-Muy, born in Cuba, teaches international refugee law at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. Luis Ayala, born in Mexico, an undergraduate at the Wharton School, contributed to this article.


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