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Débats. Reflections on the Interplay between Race, Ethnicity and Migration

The Interplay of Race, Immigration Policy and Belonging for DACA recipients

Marie L. Mallet-Garcia
p. 265-269

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1This contribution examines the interplay of race and legal status in the identity formation of Latino migrants in the United States. It focuses on undocumented youth who have been granted temporary relief from deportation and explore how the turmoil around the program has exacerbated their intersecting vulnerabilities.

2This contribution discusses the importance of the legal status. I examine one aspect of migration and race that deserves more attention, which is the intersecting vulnerabilities that undocumented migrants who are also ethnic minorities face. It draws on the interviews of more than one hundred undocumented immigrants that I conducted from 2012 until 2020. This article focuses specifically on one group; on undocumented Latino youth in the U.S. who were granted temporary relief from deportation under the DACA program.

  • 1 López, Gustavo, Krogstad, Jens Manuel, «Key facts about unauthorized immigrants enrolled in DACA», (...)
  • 2 Krogstad, Jens Manuel et alii, «5 facts about illegal immigration in the U.S, online post, 12 June (...)

3DACA was a program which was introduced in June 2012 by president Obama. The full name of the program is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and it is a program set up through an executive order that offers temporary deferral of deportation for two years to young people who meet rather strict conditions. The reason this program was created was because the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has been increasing since the 1960s1. This number has now stabilized at approximately 10.5/11 million undocumented immigrants on U.S. soil2.

  • 3 Baker, Bryan (2018), Estimates of the Illegal Alien Population Residing in the United States: Janu (...)

4The majority of those who are undocumented are from Mexico, and among the undocumented population, there are an estimated 5.6 million undocumented children and young adults under the age of 34, who were brought as children, and were raised in the United States3. They are a generation in limbo, because they were born abroad so they are not U.S. citizens but raised alongside their U.S.-citizen peers. There is a conflict between their social integration and the fragile legal framework underlying their presence in the country.

  • 4 Patler, Caitlin, Laster Pirtle, Whitney (2018), «From undocumented to lawfully present: Do changes (...)

5Although it has undeniable benefits, the DACA program is not unanimously popular. In the relatively short period of time since its implementation, the DACA program already had significant positive impacts on its recipients and their family members. It has improved their socio-economic status, by granting them access to higher education, to employment that better matches their skills and ambitions. It allowed them to be better integrated into society, and improved their physical and mental health, through «the positive emotional consequences of transitioning out of undocumented status for immigrant young adults4».

  • 5 Alcalde, M. Cristina (2016), «Racializing undocumented immigrants in the age of color-blindness: M (...)

6Despite the various positive aspects of DACA, the program’s benefits remain limited for several reasons. Some of these reasons are due to the shortcoming of the program itself and some are due to the context in general. First, there is a trend that concerns Latinos in general in the U.S. & undocumented immigrants in particular. Let me explain. The past decades have seen the emergence of a rhetoric of colour-blindness, which contrasts with the reality of violence against some minorities5, particularly African Americans and Latinos. What we actually see is a gradation: visible minorities still face discrimination and violence, and the likelihood of it happening increases for those who also happen to be immigrants and it culminates for those who are also undocumented.

  • 6 Del Real, Deisy (2019), «“They see us like Trash”: How Mexican Illegality Stigma Affects the Psych (...)

7What this violence, discrimination or inequality means is that visible minorities are perceived as not belonging, even those who are present on U.S. soil legally. Latinos in particular are victims of this. Latino immigrants to the U.S. only become Latinos when they arrive there. Before migrating to the U.S., they are defined by their national origin. Even though the U.S. census clearly indicates that Latino is an ethnic category and that they can be of any race, there is a clear trend towards the racialization of Latinos in the U.S. Latinos are boxed into the non-white category, and they are ranked based on their social characteristics and thus placed in a racial hierarchy6.

  • 7 Mallet-Garcia, Marie L., Pinto-Coelho, Joanna M. (2018), «Investigating intra-ethnic divisions amo (...)

8The very use of the term Latinos as a way of grouping a very heterogeneous group together is problematic for this very reason7, but it is also justified by some of the benefits that minorities, particularly visible minorities, get from this, I am thinking of programs such as Affirmative Action for instance.

  • 8 García, San Juanita (2017), «Racializing “Illegality: An Intersectional Approach to Understanding (...)

9Another phenomenon on U.S. society that also affects Latinos is the conflation of being Latino with being Mexican and thus being undocumented. So Latinos who are visible minorities experience both the stigma of being a racialized ethno-racial minority group and they also experience the additional burden of being considered undocumented regardless of their status. Some of them are third or fourth generation, but are still racialized and considered as outsiders, as not belonging8.

  • 9 Oliviero, Katie E. (2013), «The Immigration State of Emergency: Racializing and Gendering National (...)

10Some researchers even suggest that the legal status sometimes becomes a proxy for race. In the U.S., illegality is strongly associated with being Mexican and, by extension being Latino. This goes even further, as illegality becomes criminalized. In recent years, there has been a trend towards the criminalization of undocumented status. You might remember a now quite famous moment, during the presidential campaign, when Trump expressed his concern over «bad hombres» coming into the country. His choice of words—he did not use ‘bad men’—referred to Mexican men, especially those who are undocumented. His comment reinforced the image that ‘illegal’ Mexicans represent a danger («they are rapists»), and should therefore not be allowed in the country, and deported9.

11This affects DACA recipients because even though they have temporary legal status, they only have temporary legal status and some of their family members are most likely still undocumented. More importantly, they are often still considered as not belonging even though they were raised in the U.S. and a large number of them only have a poor command of Spanish.

12Now that we have looked at the context in which DACA is being implemented, and the issues that it presents, let’s turn to the DACA’s intrinsic shortcomings. Despite the obvious benefits that are well documented in the literature, there are a number of issues with the program which contribute to perpetuate this racialization of Latinos. First, the program creates uneven opportunities for its recipients across the United States, and so it creates a patchwork in an immigration system when they need to be uniform; States can use their discretionary powers to decide whether to grant access to in-state tuition or financial aid for instance and this can make a major difference as to whether DACA recipients can pursue a college education.

13Another issue, and an important one, is that DACA only offers temporary relief, as opposed to a permanent solution, and therefore its positive impact, notably its economic and health related benefits, will remain limited. It fixes the imminent problem of deportation without fixing the larger problem of racialization and exclusion and in fact just holds undocumented migrants in a legal status of limbo.

14Finally, another central issue of DACA has to do with the concept of deservingness. You might remember that President Obama also tried to implement the DAPA program—Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful permanent residents. This attempt failed for various legal reasons but also reinforced this idea that only those who are ‘innocent’ should be offered relief from deportation. In a way, the implementation of DACA further divides the immigrant community, by creating a deserving group of immigrants—the DREAMers who are eligible for DACA—in opposition to those who are not eligible for the program and whose presence is thus further criminalized and delegitimized. By stressing the fact that these young people should not be penalized for their parents’ decision to immigrate illegally, it places the blame on the parents, and those who entered illegally or overstayed their visas consciously. Considering that these children’s situation results from no fault of their own further legitimizes harder punishment for other categories of undocumented immigrants.

  • 10 Mallet-Garcia, Marie L., García Bedolla, Lisa (2019), «Transitory Legality: The Health Implication (...)

15When Trump says that some Mexicans are rapists, he dehumanizes immigrants and reinforces the cleavage between ‘deserving’ young adults who wish to pursue a higher education and ‘undeserving’ older males who come to the country to seek better economic opportunities. What my own work on DACA also shows is that the current context of restrictive immigration policies and highly racialized anti-immigrant rhetoric, symbolized by the attempted rescission of the DACA program, is quite telling of the longstanding stirred up fears about immigrants in the United States, who have often been perceived as changing the fabric of U.S. society in a negative way10.

  • 11 Vargas, Edward, Sánchez, Gabriel, Váldez, Juan (2017), «Immigration Policies and Group Identity: H (...)

16Restrictive anti-immigrant policies have a profound effect on immigrants’ lives as well as on the lives of their family members, who may themselves be U.S. citizens11. The increased sense of social exclusion and vulnerability that my interviewees have expressed during the interviews and more generally experienced since the 2016 presidential election have had and will continue to have ripple effects. It reduces their feelings of belonging, causes higher levels of stress and an overall decreased perception of well-being. Even if these DACA recipients are offered an eventual path to citizenship, having experienced DACA rescission, which led to them to feel that their lives and futures were at the mercy of a capricious federal government, has already had a negative effect on their sense of belonging in the United States and likely will continue to reverberate long into the future.

17So, to conclude, it is important to remember that undocumented Latino immigrants in the U.S. experience many intersecting vulnerabilities. DACA recipients epitomize this, as they still face a number of issues. The DACA program gave them legal visibility but this very visibility made them more likely to being racialized and stigmatized as illegals. Their legal inclusion paradoxically led to more social exclusion, as they became more aware of anti-immigrant sentiment. This is astonishing because before DACA they were socially included but their transition into adulthood completely transformed their lives. The precarity of their legal status causes them to experience what I call «transitory legality» which is characterised by increased feelings of exclusion (not belonging) and hopelessness, a heightened sense of vulnerability, and lack of trust in the government. The conclusion that I draw from this research is that reform needs to be more comprehensive.

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Notas

1 López, Gustavo, Krogstad, Jens Manuel, «Key facts about unauthorized immigrants enrolled in DACA», online post, 25 September 2017, Pew Research Center [available online on: <www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/25/key-facts-about-unauthorized-immigrants-enrolled-in-daca/>].

2 Krogstad, Jens Manuel et alii, «5 facts about illegal immigration in the U.S, online post, 12 June 2019, Pew Research Center [available online on: <www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/06/12/5-facts-about-illegal-immigration-in-the-u-s/>].

3 Baker, Bryan (2018), Estimates of the Illegal Alien Population Residing in the United States: January 2015, Washington, DC, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics.

4 Patler, Caitlin, Laster Pirtle, Whitney (2018), «From undocumented to lawfully present: Do changes to legal status impact psychological wellbeing among latino immigrant young adults?», Social Science Medecine, 199, pp. 39-48, DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2017.03.009.

5 Alcalde, M. Cristina (2016), «Racializing undocumented immigrants in the age of color-blindness: Millennials’ views from Kentucky», Latino Studies, 14, pp. 234-257, DOI: 10.1057/lst.2016.6.

6 Del Real, Deisy (2019), «“They see us like Trash”: How Mexican Illegality Stigma Affects the Psychological Well-being of Undocumented and U.S.-born Young Adults of Mexican Descent», Advances in Medical Sociology, 19, pp. 205-228, DOI: 10.1108/S1057-629020190000019010.

7 Mallet-Garcia, Marie L., Pinto-Coelho, Joanna M. (2018), «Investigating intra-ethnic divisions among Latino immigrants in Miami, Florida», Latino Studies, 16, pp. 91-112, DOI: 10.1057/s41276-017-0108-5.

8 García, San Juanita (2017), «Racializing “Illegality: An Intersectional Approach to Understanding How Mexican-origin Women Navigate an Anti-immigrant Climate», Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 3 (4), pp. 474-490, DOI: 10.1177/2332649217713315.

9 Oliviero, Katie E. (2013), «The Immigration State of Emergency: Racializing and Gendering National Vulnerability in Twenty-First-Century Citizenship and Deportation Regimes», Feminist Formations, 25 (2), pp. 1-29; retrieved November 22, 2020, [available online].

10 Mallet-Garcia, Marie L., García Bedolla, Lisa (2019), «Transitory Legality: The Health Implication of Ending DACA», California Journal of Politics and Policy, 11 (2), [available online], DOI: 10.5070/P2cjpp11243090.

11 Vargas, Edward, Sánchez, Gabriel, Váldez, Juan (2017), «Immigration Policies and Group Identity: How Immigrant Laws Affect Linked Fate among U.S. Latino Populations», The Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics, 2 (1), pp. 35-62, DOI: 10.1017/rep.2016.24.

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Para citar este artículo

Referencia en papel

Marie L. Mallet-Garcia, «The Interplay of Race, Immigration Policy and Belonging for DACA recipients»Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez, 51-1 | 2021, 265-269.

Referencia electrónica

Marie L. Mallet-Garcia, «The Interplay of Race, Immigration Policy and Belonging for DACA recipients»Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez [En línea], 51-1 | 2021, Publicado el 15 marzo 2021, consultado el 18 mayo 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/mcv/14766; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/mcv.14766

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Marie L. Mallet-Garcia

University of Oxford

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