VOL. 133 | NO. 52 | Tuesday, March 13, 2018
DACA Limbo Creates Anxiety, Skepticism
By Bill Dries
As the deadline passed last week for a replacement for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – or DACA – executive order of the Obama administration, uncertainty and skepticism about the political process were two of the local reactions locally from those on the front lines of immigration.
“Anxiety, anxiety, anxiety,” is how Christian Brothers University president John Smarrelli described the atmosphere among Dreamers – those with DACA status – at his institution.
“Students are just concerned about what the future holds for them, what’s going to happen,” Smarrelli said on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.” “What we’ve been trying to do is push legislation to get a permanent solution to DACA.”
But Mauricio Calvo, executive director of Latino Memphis, said hopes states sue the administration, favoring a court ruling on either a new case or one of the several pending that have already effectively stalled efforts surrounding DACA.
“The reality, and we’ve said this over and over again, is Congress is so broken,” Calvo said. “They cannot get anything done. They are reacting based on elections and just political games rather than good policy. And that is the frustrating thing.”
President Donald Trump did away with DACA but withheld any attempt to enforce the lack of the executive order for six months, giving Congress time to pass a legislative version of it.
Those whom the executive order applied to can apply for renewal of it. But no one can apply for new status under DACA.
Smarrelli said some Dreamers at CBU are feeling pressure to leave college.
“Most of them are first generation – have no concept of college,” he said. “The fear of deportation – their families are putting tremendous pressure on them, saying, ‘You may want to quit school because you are going to be deported and you need to save your money.’”
Calvo puts the number in Memphis registered under DACA at 3,500 to 4,000 and the number of those who came to the U.S. illegally as children and found their way to Memphis at 12,000.
He said it’s hard to get a precise number of those with DACA status in Memphis.
“We have criminalized immigration. Immigration law is not criminal law,” he said. “There are criminal consequences to immigration but it’s a victimless offense. … Should there be a consequence? Absolutely. Should there be a penalty? Yes. But that doesn’t mean we need to come and handcuff people and divide families?”
Calvo said locally, Immigration and Customs Enforcement – or ICE – agents have been active in detaining immigrants for a variety of reasons.
“The kind of people they are detaining – we have no priorities,” Calvo said. “Everybody is a priority. When everybody is a priority, that’s a pretty unsafe state. … You are just randomly picking people up.”
Meanwhile, local law enforcement “are not really crossing lines,” he added.
“They have been tremendously good toward immigrants,” Calvo said. “When any community is terrified of their own law enforcement that makes it an unsafe environment for everybody. If immigrants are afraid of police, they will not report crimes. If they do not report crimes that makes all of us unsafe.”
U.S. Attorney Mike Dunavant, in a “Behind The Headlines” interview that is to air Friday, made a distinction between the immigration laws his office enforces and those enforced by ICE through a separate immigration court.
“What we are focused on in the U.S. attorney’s office, however, is what we refer to as a criminal aliens. I think words are important here. Immigrants are people who have come here legally or are in the process of obtaining legal status properly,” he said. “Aliens are people who are here illegally. … Those people who come here without permission – they are not here legally and then commit additional crimes that violate federal law – those are the ones we are focused on.”
The additional federal crimes Dunavant gave as examples are gun trafficking, drug distribution, document fraud and repeatedly re-entering the country illegal.
Asked if the enforcement effort by his office would include those in the country illegally but who are holding down a job and/or pursuing an education, Dunavant said, “I would say that is not a person who comes on my radar because I don’t know about them unless (ICE) brings them up on charges.”
“I would say that if that person is here and yet they are going to school and they believe they are being productive, there is still a violation of the law and there is a consequence for that, either administratively or criminally,” he added. “I would tell you the ones that come to my attention, the ones that are brought to me for criminal investigation and prosecution, are those who are here illegally, who have come back illegally and continue to commit crimes that endanger our people, our society here in West Tennessee.”
Jennifer Sciubba, associate professor of international studies at Rhodes College and an author on immigration issues, said DACA is part of a larger and longer-running national debate that is constantly shifting.
“Ultimately, throughout American history we’ve been open to immigration and then we’ve closed the door. And a lot of it has been based – the times we close the door – on race, ethnicity, particular country of origin,” she said. “It’s back and forth always in American history.”
Sciubba, whose work includes teaching classes in the politics of migration and on population and national security issues, said immigration isn’t an issue that falls along Republican and Democratic lines.
“It really divides the parties within themselves. You have these pro-business Republicans who often because of their employment situation, they really want to be more open to immigration,” she said. “We even have businesses in Memphis … they need people brought here to get a tech job. … But then also on the Republican side we know that there are people who are very nervous about the changing demographics of America – the shift in identity and the fact that America is becoming, frankly, less white.”
The division among Democrats has different constituencies.
“Often a lot of your blue-collar workers and your union workers, they get caught up in at least the rhetoric and the feeling that their jobs are being taken away,” she said. “And on the Democrat side you have the pro-immigration people, who from a human rights standpoint or from a civil rights standpoint they want to see America more open.”