Denea Joseph was 7 years old when she said good-bye to her parents, siblings and homeland of Belize, bound for the United States of America. The little girl with copper skin and dark, soulful eyes carried few possessions. Accompanied by an aunt during that 2002 journey from Central America, she settled in with her grandmother in California and embarked on a new life. Yet there was a secret, one that involved her immigration status.
“For 16 years I’ve called America home,” says Joseph, now 24 and a graduate of UCLA. “It’s where I grew up, shared classrooms with American children, and gave back through civic engagement, advocacy and organizing. The only thing I lack is a piece of paper that would allow me to contribute and live according to my full potential.”
Joseph is among some 700,000 Dreamers—who are beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA—in the U.S. They are called Dreamers based on the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, a proposal first introduced in Congress in 2001 to offer legal status to the undocumented who were brought to the U.S. as children, with the requirement that they attend college, work or join the military.
The repeated defeat of the DREAM Act in Congress prompted President Barack Obama to enact DACA through an executive order in June 2012. DACA enables undocumented immigrants in good legal standing who arrived in America before their sixteenth birthday to receive work permits and exemption from deportation for two years; the time period is renewable so long as an individual’s conduct remains exemplary.
For DACA recipients, whose average age is 24 years old, the program began to unravel when Donald Trump, then a candidate for president, vowed to reverse the executive order. Then, in September 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the program would be phased out.
Civil liberties organizations such as the National Immigration Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU challenged the proposed shutdown of DACA in court, even as Texas and at least nine other states sued to halt the program. Round one went to the Dreamers. In August 2018 a federal judge in Washington, D.C., overturned the decision to end DACA, saying the government’s case was “inadequately explained.”
By Donna Owens for ESSENCE
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