‘Undocumented Immigrants Are Constantly Used as a Bargaining Chip’

Janine Jackson interviewed Tina Vasquez about DACA for the September 8, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Immigrant protest (cc photo: Molly Adams

(cc photo: Molly Adams)

Janine Jackson: Now there are thousands of people marching in the street across the country in support of the immigration program DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Democratic lawmakers are speaking out in support, thus demonstrating what the Washington Post called a “lurch to the left,” and corporate media are presenting a clear for-and-against battle over the program that allowed some 800,000 people who came to the US as children to legally work, drive and travel outside the country.

But if the “against” argument is obvious, and obviously bogus—they’re criminals who steal jobs while somehow simultaneously draining welfare—the argument of supporters and recipients is not always especially thoughtfully explored. Tina Vasquez is the immigration reporter at Rewire. She joins us now by phone from North Carolina. Welcome to CounterSpin, Tina Vasquez.

Tina Vasquez: Thank you for having me.

JJ: While it’s being covered in some places as an “issue”—you know, a “litmus test” for Democrats or some sort of political volleying on the part of the White House—you heard from a number of young adults who were recipients of DACA, and they had a nuanced understanding of the program. But first, they were clear that it had improved their lives in meaningful ways. What were some of the things they talked about? What has DACA meant for them?

TV: There are overarching things that are very clear, because it provided work authorization and allowed people to get driver’s licenses. There are still challenges even if you are DACA  recipient when it comes to going to college, because in states like mine in North Carolina, they still have to pay out-of-state tuition, which is more than three times the cost for citizens. And so there are still a lot of hurdles.

But generally speaking, it allowed people to get better-paying jobs, it allowed them to get jobs in their field of study. It dramatically increased the type of jobs that they were able to get, in terms of how much they were paid, what kind of benefits they received, and enabled a lot of people to go to community college, to go to state universities. So those are just the big picture stuff.

A young man that I interviewed from North Carolina was very clear in that DACA, for him and for a lot of people in his community, helped in ways that American citizens maybe take for granted,  in terms of having a driver’s license and being able to safely drive his siblings to school. Or his parents, who are undocumented and who are afraid to drive, or of having any sort of interaction, as undocumented people, with law enforcement, he was able to drive them out of state to visit other family members. He was able to travel within the United States and have the proper documentation to be able to show TSA. Before, that was very scary for him; he only had his Mexican passport. So just things like that, that we don’t think of, and then maybe larger, overarching things that have really improved their lives.

JJ: We know that the right-wing story is false and driven by anti–brown and black immigrant animus. Let’s not say “anti-immigrant,” because come on. But I know that many advocates want to caution us from what is sometimes presented as the counter-argument, which is this line that, “unlike their parents, DACA recipients didn’t do anything wrong.” The phrase “through no fault of their own” comes up a lot. Or that, really, “all of them are working three jobs and going to college at night,” you know. It isn’t that DACA recipients aren’t striving, but that picture, some folks seem to suggest, even if it persuades some people in the short term, it’s not really long-term all that helpful.

TV: If I’m speaking to a person who has DACA, or an undocumented person, and they use that sort of framing, that’s up to them to do. But in terms of the framing that I use in writing about DACA, I avoid phrases like “DREAMers,” I avoid the narrative that they came here through no fault of their own, or that their parents brought them here and it’s not their fault, they shouldn’t pay for their parents’ mistakes.

Because these young people were undocumented before they received DACA. DACA is not a permanent legal status, it’s simply a program. And so that kind of language, to me, demonizes their parents, and it demonizes who they were before they received DACA, and I don’t think that’s helpful to anyone. Their parents made very hard choices to come to the United States, and using that framing isn’t at all necessary to illustrate why removing DACA, rescinding DACA, is so harmful, and so tragic to young undocumented people, or young DACAmented people.

JJ: Can you remind us, just a little bit, of how we got to DACA? Because, certainly, we know that immigrant advocates fought for it, but it wasn’t that it was exactly their first choice. What was some of the trajectory here?

Tina Vasquez

Tina Vasquez: “DACA…was very hard-won by young undocumented people, and it wasn’t just something that was given to them by President Obama.”

TV: The DREAM Act has been in place since 2001, and so now there’s talk of the DREAM Act again. And based on people that I’m speaking to, and people who’ve been in the immigrant rights movement for a very long time, it’s like reopening a wound. Young people were very, very invested in the DREAM Act, and in it providing this pathway to citizenship, and then it just never happened. And then Obama became president, and there was lots of talk of comprehensive immigration reform, and large immigration moves that were supposed to be made within his first 100 days of office, and that never happened.

And so young people began demanding some sort of administrative relief. And DACA’s been called a lot of things, from amnesty to citizenship. It’s neither of those things. It doesn’t provide a pathway to citizenship. But at least for two-year intervals, they knew that they wouldn’t be deported, they knew that they could work and they can go to school, and that’s all that it’s been. But it was very hard-won by young undocumented people, and it wasn’t just something that was given to them by President Obama.

JJ: Right. Well, the implication now from media is that there’s a possibility that Congress might “save” DACA. But that seems like a rock that bears looking under. Are there concerns about what it might mean to have Congress work out a deal on preserving DACA?

TV: The primary one is the one that’s sort of constant. It’s that immigration and undocumented immigrants are constantly being used as this sort of bargaining chip. So while helping one population of immigrants that we’ve deemed “acceptable,” or young, good people that we should be giving these things to, that demonizes another group of people, and it’s often their parents. And so the way this is often set up is that one group of people has to suffer in order to give other things to other groups of people.

And I think with border-wall funding, that’s certainly a concern. I think to save DACA, that’s what will be proposed, and that’s throwing millions of people under the bus. And that’s also really troublesome, because the border exists, it’s heavily militarized, and it has been since President Obama funneled billions of dollars into it, and hired many, many Border Patrol agents. It’s just unnecessary. And people that I’ve interviewed who live in those communities will tell you how unnecessary more border-wall funding is. But I think that’s the game that’s going to be played in order to save DACA.

JJ: Yes, I heard NPR say that Steve Bannon had convinced Trump to “spare DREAMers and use them as a strategic asset in the coming immigration policy battles.” I don’t think “spare” means there what they think it means.

TV: Right.

JJ: Going forward, of course, there is a lot of uncertainty. But some of the people that you heard from said, you know, we’re not most worried about falling out of status, we’ve been out of status. But the database does concern them—not just being newly deportable, but being so easily findable. Is that a concern that you’re hearing?

TV: Yeah, that’s one that’s being expressed a lot. I mean, just the amount of information that the Trump administration has, and the way that it’s already utilizing it, when we look into how the VOICE office is structured, and the DHS VINE database, which has the location and identifying information of undocumented immigrants that are in ICE custody in detention centers, and that anyone can go to and look up their status updates on their cases, and where they are.

And now you have this DACA database, that not only includes things like biometrics and personal identifying information for young DACA recipients, but also information on their family and places that they have lived, which also endangers their families who are mixed status or who are undocumented. So it’s really, really troublesome. And there is little reason to have faith in the Trump administration, and in thinking that they won’t utilize or weaponize this information.

JJ: I wonder, finally, how you think journalists can contribute to that paradigm shift, to that shift from, you know, “let’s help the children and punish their parents,” and that sort of thing, to a more holistic understanding of immigration? What would you like to see change in reporting?

TV: I don’t think that we should assume that we know the framing that will help different populations of immigrants under attack right now. A lot of young people that are protesting right now aren’t just doing it for themselves, and doing it for DACA, but they’re doing it for the 11 million undocumented immigrants that currently reside in the US, and who are their families. And so asking people, what would be useful for people to know, you know, if you’re interviewing someone who has DACA, what do you want people to know, what do you think is being missed by the media? What are some misconceptions that you think are out there? Let them pave the way. You know, they’re living this, and they know what’s best.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Tina Vasquez, immigration reporter at Rewire. You can find her work online at Rewire.news. Tina Vasquez, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

TV: Thank you for having me.


This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.