Mayorkas on DACA 9th anniversary: When will Congress give Dreamers the lives they deserve?

Right now in a community somewhere in the United States, parents are explaining to their daughter what it means that she does not have “papers.” They explain to her that, even though she came here as a toddler and she has known no country but ours, her lack of documentation brings fragility to the opportunities they hope will be hers, to the future she will build for herself and to the dreams she already has.

They will point to the recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals who took care of her in the hospital, who teach her at school, who usher her in church, and they will explain that these wonderful young people face the same uncertainties in their tomorrows. The daughter will not understand why that is so, and neither should we.

On Tuesday we celebrate DACA’s ninth anniversary. This extraordinarily successful policy has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young “Dreamers” by making them eligible for work authorization and providing a measure of protection from deportation. This anniversary must propel Congress to finally pass the permanent legislative protections that would give Dreamers the opportunity to earn citizenship – so that they can live their lives with true certainty, free from fear.

DACA offers stability and opportunity

Since it was announced in 2012DACA has been grounded primarily in the Department of Homeland Security’s well-established authority to exercise prosecutorial discretion. For more than 825,000 people who have benefited, the policy has created the opportunity to live more freely and to invest in themselves and their communities more fully, without the fear of being ripped away from the only home they know.

These young people grew up in our neighborhoods, studied with our children in school, played on the same sports teams and celebrated decades of birthdays and holidays here in the United States. In fact, many DACA recipients grew up not knowing that they weren’t citizens because they were American in every way except on paper. When they sought driver’s licenses or applied to college, many learned of their status for the first time, and the limitless opportunities they dreamed of suddenly dimmed.

Thanks to DACA, these young people have built their lives in our shared country, started families and launched careers. They have lived in America on average for more than two decades.In fact, no person who now has DACA has lived in this country for fewer than 14 years, and on average they were 6 years old when they arrived.

Rally at the Supreme Court in Washington in 2020. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP)

More than 250,000 U.S. citizen children have a parent who is a DACA recipient.Nearly a third of DACA recipients are essential workers such as doctors, nurses, farmworkers and food service providers helping our communities survive and recover from the pandemic.

This issue is personal to me because I had the great privilege of helping the Obama-Biden administration create and implement DACA when I served as the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Years of tireless work from Dreamers themselves made clear that we needed to take every step possible to provide deserving young people with some degree of protection and continued opportunity to work and support their families.

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I am proud of the effectiveness with which we were able to implement the policy, working with advocates to make a real-life impact on so many. I continue to be proud of the steps the department is taking, at the direction of President Joe Biden, to do everything in our power to continue to protect DACA recipients and help them thrive. Today, our department is working hard to advance the president’s directive that we preserve and fortify DACA, and we are making swift progress in our rulemaking efforts.

But the simple truth is that while DACA has been overwhelmingly successful for all our families and communities, it is not a permanent protection. That fact was made painfully clear during the last administration, which placed DACA and Dreamers themselves under constant threat.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas testifies on Capitol Hill on May 13, 2021. IT: NYMV401 (Photo: Graeme Jennings/AP)

Give Dreamers same chances I had 

It is a priority for this administration to help these hardworking young people and millions of others like them. To deliver to Dreamers the certainty they deserve, President Biden put forward the U.S. Citizenship Act on his very first day in office, and he has urged the Senate to pass the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. Both bills have already passed the House with bipartisan support. These measures would help secure the chance to earn citizenship for millions of undocumented individuals, including DACA recipients and younger Dreamers whom the previous administration blocked from applying for the program.

It is long past time for Congress to come together and pass permanent protections for these young people. The majority of Americans agree. Until that happens, we in the Department of Homeland Security will continue to exercise our discretion as the law provides and deliver some measure of relief, however tenuous it may be. 

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I understand the hope of so many of the Dreamers I have had the privilege of meeting. I came to the United States with my family when I was 1 year old. We came as refugees from Cuba seeking the safety and freedom that my parents knew we could only find here in America. Because there was a pathway to citizenship that allowed me to secure legal status, I had the unbridled chance to work hard and build a life and a family here.

The opportunity to earn citizenship was vital to my success in this country, and today it is my highest honor to be able to serve my country as the secretary of Homeland Security. Citizenship made this possible for me, and my own story is not so different from that of the many young people who hold DACA right now. It is long past time for them to be able to earn citizenship, too. On this ninth anniversary, we recommit to this renewed opportunity and to putting the American dream within reach of the young people who are Dreamers.

Alejandro Mayorkas is the secretary of Homeland Security. He led the development and implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @AliMayorkas

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