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DREAMing of U.S. Citizenship

In 2012, President Obama initiated the DACA program to shield people brought to the United States unlawfully as children from deportation. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act providing a path to citizenship for these people had failed in Congress. Obama used an executive order to bypass Congress.

In 2017, President Trump ended the program. His administration claimed that Obama’s executive order was an unlawful end run around Congress. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that “the executive branch, through DACA, deliberately sought to achieve what the legislative branch specifically refused to authorize on multiple occasions. Such an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws was an unconstitutional exercise of authority by the Executive Branch.”

In January, 2021, President Biden reinstated the program. He asked the federal government to “preserve and fortify” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

In July, 2021, a Texas judge declared DACA illegal and ended all new applications for its protection. In a statement, President Biden said, “But only Congress can ensure a permanent solution by granting a path to citizenship for Dreamers that will provide the certainty and stability that these young people need and deserve. I have repeatedly called on Congress to pass the American Dream and Promise Act, and I now renew that call with the greatest urgency.”

Who are the Dreamers?

91% of DACA participants are working and half are in school. The Center for Migration Studies used data from the 2018 American Community Survey Census to determine how Dreamers served the United States:

  • 43,500 work in health care and social services.
  • 21,100 work in transportation and warehousing.
  • 32,800 work in retail.
  • 14,500 work in manufacturing.

All of these industries currently face severe labor shortages. Deportation of DACA recipients would be felt immediately a loss of essential services. Yet most of these jobs would not qualify as careers which would allow the employers to sponsor these workers for permanent resident status.

One Dreamer

Blanca Silva, a DACA participant, completed a communications degree at Colorado State University. She works for a communication firm that serves nonprofits in the area in the role of an account coordinator. She also volunteers as a community outreach worker for the Denver Preschool Program with the title of Preschool Navigator.

Silva is fluent in Spanish and English, having grown up in Denver and minoring in Spanish in college. She is able to help families of preschool students understand the local programs and apply for preschool scholarships funded by sales tax in the Denver area.

A soccer player in high school, Silva dreams of becoming an interpreter at the United Nations.

But Silva has just renewed her DACA eligibility. She has permission to work and study for just two years without the threat of deportation. For a $495 fee, she can apply for continued eligibility under the DACA program, but she cannot apply for a green card or for citizenship.

Although Silva was brought to the U.S. by her parents when she was a child and did not make a decision to enter the country unlawfully, she did enter illegally. She is therefore not eligible to become a permanent resident of the country she calls home. This is an essential first step toward citizenship.

As Dream Big Nevada explains, “DACA is NOT a pathway to citizenship. It is NOT legal status. It does NOT allow you to leave the country and come back. It is NOT meant to be a permanent solution to immigration reform. DACA is a work permit and temporary protection from deportation.”

Puerto Rico’s case is different

Dreamers are not citizens of the United States, but people born in Puerto Rico are. What’s the connection?

While Puerto Rico voters have chosen statehood repeatedly in status votes, there are Puerto Rican leaders who do not favor statehood. These leaders assure their followers that U.S. citizenship would be maintained if Puerto Rico became a freely associated state with the United States.

Legal scholars generally do not agree. One recent analysis points out that “[i]n the case of an independent Puerto Rico, persons holding United States legislative citizenship as of the moment of independence may be deprived of that citizenship by the United States,” and that “[i]n the case of an independent Puerto Rico in free association with the United States (associated republic), the same conclusions apply as those reached for an independent Puerto Rico.”

Just as Blanca Silva is stuck in her noncitizen status, unable to vote in U.S. elections and with the threat of deportation hanging over her head, Puerto Ricans could find themselves forcibly expatriated with a change of political status.

As the Dreamers know, U.S. citizenship is far from guaranteed, even in the face of compelling personal narratives.

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