DACA decision greeted with cautious optimism

By: Kathy Hovis,  A&S Communications
June 25, 2020

While they say more needs to be done to secure permanent protected status for “Dreamers,” some Cornell faculty say they’re hopeful about the recent Supreme Court ruling, which ruled that the Trump administration’s move to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2017 was unlawful.

"I am cautiously optimistic that this ruling, while restrictive in form, sends an important message about the importance of Dreamers to the very fabric of this country, and sets the stage for long overdue legislative remedies,” said Debra Castillo, director of the Latina/o Studies Program, Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow, Emerson Hinchliff Professor of Hispanic Studies and professor of comparative literature.

Castillo and others in Cornell’s Latina/o studies program crafted a message they posted to the program website June 21, reading in part, “beyond its immediate effect of placing DACA’s dismantling in abeyance, the best outcome for the Supreme Court’s gesture remains in its potential for triggering a vigorous political response leading to widespread policy change.”

Ella Diaz, associate professor in English and Latina/o Studies, said she heard from several former and current students after the ruling, who are either undocumented or are “DACAmented.”

“It was a joyous day and you could hear it in the voices of the young people, the ones interviewed on NPR and my students,” Diaz said. “The tears were flowing from a sense of relief and a moment to breathe.”

Diaz said she knows that important work lies in converting this decision into legislative protections. Attending an event sponsored by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration June 22, she heard students and leaders there call this decision “a beginning.”

“We’ve just hit a critical mass of exhaustion. People are tired of being afraid,” she said. “We need to move these human rights and social justice platforms forward.”

Amid positive news coverage about DACA recipients and stories about Confederate monuments coming down around the country because of protests against racial injustice, Diaz said she feels hopeful.

“There are a lot of students who are deeply committed to social justice and who believe in the collective good,” she said of Cornell students involved in DACA activism. “They have plans and there is a ton of activism going on right now via Zoom.”

Vilma Santiago-Irizarry, incoming director of the Latina/o Studies Program and associate professor of anthropology, also believes that change related to immigration will most likely be triggered by grassroots activism, rather than action from the top.

But she is more skeptical about the prospects for progress, given recent history.

“Racism is intertwined with the demonization of immigration that has currently become particularly virulent, both because immigration encompasses immigrants of African descent and Latinx societies represent complex racial formations,” she said. “This is precisely why [Supreme Court Justice Sonia] Sotomayor’s opinion is a significant indicator of a crucial aspect about DACA and Dreamers that [Supreme Court Chief Justice John] Roberts' opinion conveniently sidesteps: Forms of structural inequalities impact a variety of minoritized individuals and communities in the U.S., do rise to the level of constitutional violations, impinge on their ability to survive, and erode their status as productive members of this society.”

Shannon Gleeson, associate professor of labor relations, law and history and courtesy professor in the Department of Sociology, studies immigrant worker rights and has been working with Associate Professor Els de Graauw of Baruch College since 2016 on an institutional analysis of DACA’s implementation in three metropolitan regions: the San Francisco Bay Area, the Greater Houston Area, and the New York City Metro Area.

Her research so far has found that immigrants have various motivations for applying for DACA – protection from deportation and career and educational opportunities among the main ones – but they also have multiple reasons not to apply – fear of providing information about themselves and their families to immigration authorities, lack of local legal assistance and cost of the actual application.

Gleeson said the current conversations supporting immigration fall into two camps – those who rely on the “exceptional immigrant” stories of amazing essential workers, law and medical students and health care workers who “deserve” citizenship, and a second camp who tie their arguments to broader racial justice goals and argue that immigrants shouldn’t have to prove they are more exceptional than other Americans in order to gain citizenship.

Universities, she said, have a large role to play in researching immigration issues and in supporting their own students.

“Since the prospects for a permanent resolution don’t see hopeful right now, we need to think about how will we help students apply for DACA and how we will advocate for it,” Gleeson said. Above that, Cornell needs to examine how welcoming it is for DACA or undocumented students – examining faculty interactions, police procedures and campus hiring processes for student workers, she said.

Here’s the full statement from the Latina/o Studies Program:

“We welcome each and every action and gesture of support for Dreamers, the beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA), the Obama administration’s executive initiative to circumvent an antagonistic Congress and address the plight of young immigrant children whose presence in this country responds to circumstances beyond their control. The recent SCOTUS decision, Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of University of California et al, 591 US ___ (2020), in which the Supreme Court, by the slimmest of margins—a 5-4 vote—foils the current administration’s attempt to delegitimize the program, is to be hailed and celebrated as an accomplishment in the context of the anti-immigration initiatives prevalent in our times. As the majority opinion fittingly acknowledges, these Dreamers, most of whom are Latinx, have grown to be overwhelmingly productive, long time members of US society  whose work contributes to the common weal, with settled family lives and adult obligations, and deep roots in their communities, deserving a legislative solution to their status through a viable path to citizenship.

“This decision, though, gives Dreamers but a brief respite. It does not bring closure to the precarity of their presence in the United States nor fully secures their future. Not only is the decision close, it is based on narrow procedural grounds and the majority opinion explicitly avoids ruling, even in passing, on DACA’s own legitimacy. Yet the dissenting justices equally explicitly condemn it as inherently invalid and an illegitimate exercise of executive overreach, potentially laying future grounds for DACA’s eventual demise. Only Associate Justice Sotomayor, joining the majority opinion yet dissenting on its dismissal of constitutional grounds, rises to the occasion by stressing how the administration’s public policy pronouncements, describing immigrants in highly racist stereotypes, establish legitimate grounds for constitutional claims of equal protection and document how  discrimination informs these attempts to dismantle DACA.

“In effect, the decision gives the current administration the leeway, even an invitation, to rectify the flaws that affected their rescission of DACA. In practice, this will certainly entail yet another lengthy administrative and legal battle, feeding the hope that, perhaps, a legislative solution will emerge to legalize and, thus, rectify the Dreamers’ status. Given the widespread support—74% of the general U.S. population—that they have garnered in their communities, it is evident that this particular piece of anti-immigration animus is out of step with U.S. society as a whole. But policy makers and legislators have yet to heed these expressions of public support.

“Ultimately, then, beyond its immediate effect of placing DACA’s dismantling in abeyance, the best outcome for the Supreme Court’s gesture remains in its potential for triggering a vigorous political response leading to widespread policy change. In its legalistic malabarismo, its formalist maromas, the decision underscores how political action is our best recourse for addressing the demonization of immigration now prevalent in the United States.”

The statement was signed by Castillo, Santiago-Irizarry, Diaz and other faculty, including Maria Cristina Garcia, Latina/o studies/history; Karen Jaime, Latina/o studies/performing and media arts; Sergio Garcia-Rios, Latina/o Studies/government; Sofia Villenas, Latina/o studies/anthropology; Mary Pat Brady, Latina/o studies/English and Hector Velez, Latina/o studies/sociology.


  Students at a DACA rally on campus