Umaar Ehsan is a recent Harvard University graduate. He is from Pakistan but grew up in Fairfax, Virginia.
He is not a permanent resident. Nor is he an American citizen. He’s a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy created in 2012 by the Obama administration.
On Wednesday, DACA celebrates its 10th year. In that time, according to the Migration Policy Institute, more than 800,000 people have benefited from DACA, which permits recipients to work and go to school in the United States.
“The implications of DACA extend beyond immigration policy into the fabric of American society,” Ehsan wrote in a recent letter to President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden.
Ehsan’s father worked for the Pakistani embassy, which allowed the family to move to the United States in 1995, Ehsan told VOA.
“But eight years later, his employment term would expire, and it became mandatory for us to return to Pakistan,” Ehsan explained in his letter to the White House. “But there was one problem: This magical place called America offered too much to lose. My father decided to lean into uncertainty, overstay his term, and chose to become ‘undocumented.’ This meant that our primary mission was survival.”
Ehsan is one of the 611,470 people who currently hold DACA status, per the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the country’s naturalization and immigration system.
Yet, the program does not provide a pathway to permanent residence or U.S. citizenship.
Since its inception in 2012, DACA has been the object of numerous court cases. Former President Donald Trump tried to end the program in 2017, but the Supreme Court ruled against the administration on procedural grounds.
And it’s facing a court challenge again. On July 6, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is to hear arguments in a Texas lawsuit that challenges the legality of DACA.
The lawsuit was led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, and Republican attorneys general from Arkansas, Alabama, Nebraska, Louisiana, West Virginia and South Carolina joined in the suit. On July 16, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas found that DACA is unlawful.
“This lawsuit was about the rule of law – not the reasoning behind any immigration policy,” Paxton said of the victory. “The district court recognized that only Congress has the authority to write immigration laws, and the president is not free to disregard those duly enacted laws as he sees fit.”
The court’s ruling and permanent injunction blocked the U.S Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from approving first-time applications as of July 16, 2021. But DHS is allowed to continue to accept applications.
Current DACA recipients are still protected from deportation and are allowed to work. Recipients must renew their DACA requests every two years, and USCIS continues to process requests for those who meet the original requirements and have not left the country since their last renewal.
Who are DACA holders?
President Barack Obama, frustrated with congressional inaction on the Dream Act, created DACA by executive order in 2012. If passed, the Dream Act would have allowed a pathway to U.S. citizenship for DACA holders as well as Dreamers, a set of people who can’t apply for DACA protection because of age restrictions but call themselves Dreamers after the legislation introduced in 2001.
Some DACA recipients arrived legally, but their families later overstayed their visas; others arrived by crossing without authorization the border between Mexico and the U.S. They are now in their mid-20s to late 30s, and they come from around the world.
To meet the DACA program’s requirement, an applicant had to be enrolled in high school, have a G.E.D or a diploma, or have served in the U.S. military. Those with a criminal history – a felony, a serious misdemeanor, or three misdemeanors — are not eligible for DACA. They also had to be younger than 31 as of June 15, 2012, have moved to the U.S. before they turned 16, and lived continuously in the U.S. since June 15, 2007.
DACA was meant to be temporary, to allow Congress time to pass the Dream Act. Yet 10 years later, it has allowed recipients to buy homes, secure higher-paying jobs, and earn college degrees. The Migration Policy Institute analysis found that DACA holders contributed nearly $42 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product each year and added $3.4 billion to the federal balance sheet.
After the Texas decision, DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced a proposed rule on DACA to keep the program in federal regulation.
The administration is expected to publish a final DACA rule in the coming months, but immigration advocates have said that is also likely to face legal challenges.
Unless Congress steps in with a legislative solution, the ultimate legality of DACA is likely to end up before the Supreme Court again.
In the meantime, Ehsan said DACA allowed him to be a part of American society. As he reflects on his own experiences, he believes America was founded by people who — like him — also had dreams and big ideas.
“While I haven’t heard back from the White House, I am hopeful that resolve [for immigration reform] will materialize during this presidency,” Ehsan told VOA.