Twelve years ago, I met four impoverished teenagers at a high school in Arizona. They were born in Mexico, brought to the United States as children, and attended school in Phoenix. Without residency papers, their future job prospects were severely limited, but they nonetheless decided to enter an underwater robotics contest sponsored by NASA and the US Navy. They went up against some of the best collegiate engineers in the country, including a team from MIT. They built their robot out of junk and cheap plastic pipe, named their creation Stinky, and went on to win the championship.
Resourceful, driven, dedicated—the kind of young people our country needs, I remember thinking at the time.
Today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that President Trump’s administration is rescinding a five-year-old executive order that protects students like these from deportation. The order, known as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), allows foreign-born kids who were raised in the US to stay in the country, attend college, and work. It recognizes that these students, known as Dreamers, are American and have an immense amount to contribute to the nation. If Congress doesn’t act to try to save DACA, approximately 800,000 people will be subject to deportation. We are talking about the mass expulsion of an entire generation of kids and young adults.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Contributing Editor Joshua Davis (@joshuadavisnow) is the author of Spare Parts, which tells the story of the 2004 Carl Hayden Community High School robotics team.
In the years since their victory in the robotics competition, the four young men from Phoenix have struggled to pursue their educations. As undocumented students, they did not qualify for in-state tuition and couldn’t afford out-of-state pricing. Despite proving themselves to be among the best young engineers in the country, they were obliged to work as day laborers, janitors, and cooks. Two of them were eventually able to obtain legal residency, but the other two remain undocumented. For them, DACA provided the first semblance of safety they had ever known and allowed them to pursue college degrees, start companies, and apply for engineering jobs.
The administration’s decision is baffling to them. “Trump is turning away the wrong people,” says Lorenzo Santillan, one of the teammates now coming to grips with the idea that he could be deported. “We’re here to contribute. We don’t know any other country.”
Santillan feels particularly betrayed because Trump announced in January that DACA permit holders “shouldn’t be very worried.”
“I do have a big heart,” the president said at the time. “We’re going to take care of everybody.”
Dreamers have a long history of having their hopes dashed. Since 2001, representatives in Congress have attempted to pass legislation that would offer protections to foreign-born residents who were brought to the US as children. (The proposed law is known as the Dream Act—Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.) The legislation has repeatedly failed, which led the Obama administration to issue its 2012 executive order creating DACA.
Signing up for DACA was already a risk. To enroll in the program, participants were required to register with the government, providing their home address, bank account info, and birth certificates. They worried what might happen if a subsequent administration used the data to track them down. The concern was so pronounced that Jeh Johnson, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security during President Obama’s second term, wrote Congress with assurances that “the US government represented to applicants that the personal information they provided will not later be used for immigration enforcement purposes.”
Eventually some 800,000 young people applied for protection under DACA, and the government now has a long list of undocumented immigrants. As Trump sets up “deportation task forces,” Santillan worries that the government might target him next. He also points out that if immigrants are afraid of being deported by the police, they will be less likely to report crimes.
In fact, that’s already happening. Since Trump was elected, Hispanic people in Los Angeles have reported 25 percent fewer sexual assaults and 10 percent fewer cases of domestic violence, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. Similar drops in reported crimes from Hispanics have been observed in El Paso, Austin, San Antonio, and Denver. The end of DACA will only exacerbate the problem. “We will be more scared of the police now,” Santillan says.
Every two years, DACA permits need to be renewed, but Sessions’ announcement today puts renewals and applications for new permits in jeopardy. As existing permits begin to expire, one of the first effects will be that permit holders will no longer be able to legally work. Businesses will be forced to fire tens of thousands of people. It will have an immediate economic impact on companies who will lose employees. At the same time, individuals will likely turn to the black market for work.
As a result, the move to end DACA isn’t just a blow to its 800,000 participants—it’s a direct assault on the US economy. DACA participants represent a huge pool of talent that will soon be forced into the shadows. And more broadly, Trump’s decision ignores the very real contribution immigrants make to US prosperity: 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. Immigrants start more than 25 percent of new businesses. The US is the world’s largest economy, and immigrants have always been a critical component of it.
Oscar Vazquez had perhaps the most dramatic journey of the high school roboticists from Phoenix. After I wrote a 2005 article about the team for WIRED, readers contributed to a scholarship fund for the students. At the time, Vazquez was a day laborer, but he was eventually able to use the donations to obtain a mechanical engineering degree from Arizona State University. After graduating, he applied for legal residency but instead was barred from the US for 10 years. He found himself picking beans in a field in Mexico before landing a job at a car parts factory in Sonora. He didn’t understand why the United States was treating him this way.
After Senator Dick Durbin interceded to have the 10-year ban overturned, Vazquez returned to the US and promptly enlisted in the Army. He became a US citizen in boot camp, served a tour of combat duty in Afghanistan, and now works as a computer programmer for BNSF, the train company. “The US is failing to see the potential in these students,” Vazquez says. “We want to be useful.”
Now that DACA is phasing out, Congress needs to take action. Congressman Mike Coffman of Colorado is attempting to convince his colleagues to pass a measure that would permanently protect the 800,000 DACA permit holders. In this divided and fractured political climate, it may end up being something that Democrats and Republicans can agree on.
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