Making history happen: Reflecting on DACA and its impact

By Patty Arteaga, Nancy Bercaw, José Centeno-Meléndez, Alex Hanesworth, and Delia Beristain Noreiga
Graduation cap, gown, rainbow-colored stole, and costume wings in the pattern of Monarch butterfly wings. The top of the cap is decorated with flowers and  has a message, "I am one of those people Mexico sent."

In 2011, one year after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act failed to pass through the Senate, members of Dream Team Los Angeles (DTLA) met for dinner to strategize. DTLA was unwilling to give up on the national campaign which had been led by several hundred U.S. undocumented organizations comprised of Black, Asian, Queer, and Latinx activists. To push the federal government to act, DTLA decided to bypass Congress. Instead, they formed a coalition and went directly to the president with a new idea—expanding the use of Administrative Relief to provide protection from deportation. They knew the plan was feasible and had the support of leading lawyers across the nation. The timing was critical. In 2012, President Barack Obama was running for reelection with a fragile hold on critical swing states with significant immigration from all parts of the world. After presenting the memo to the White House, the coalition initiated sit-ins, demonstrations, and hunger strikes at Obama campaign headquarters to pressure the president to act. And it worked. On June 15, 2012, President Obama announced a new policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  

“We got everything we had been fighting for,” said Neidi Dominguez. “It is as if they just copied and pasted our memo and issued it as the Executive Order.”  

Yet as the president himself recognized, DACA was a temporary fix. And the fix had mixed consequences.  

To explore the history of DACA on its 10th anniversary, the museum's Undocumented Organizing Collecting Initiative reached out to three undocumented organizers to share their reflections from inside the movement. Over the past three years, the team has been studying how undocumented immigrants (people without legal status to reside in the United States) have become an unexpected political force in the United States. Along the way, they've learned that today's undocumented movement echoes moments in our nation’s history when people without the vote transformed the nature of citizenship—emancipation, the woman suffrage movement, and the civil rights movement. As people who make history, these organizers add an important first-person perspective into how change happens.  

Maggie Loredo organizes returnees and deportees in Mexico City providing services and safe haven through Otros Dreams en Acción (ODA) and Poch@ House. She, alongside her deported and forcibly returned community in Mexico, challenges the U.S. undocumented movement to rethink the goal of citizenship based on their experiences. Instead, they advocate for greater freedom of mobility across borders to address family separation and exile. Maggie was born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, grew up in Georgia and Texas, and currently resides in Mexico City. She has home, family, and community in each of these four places.

Patrice Lawrence is an artist and activist working to end anti-Blackness reflected within immigration policy and in the undocumented movement itself. She is the executive director of the UndocuBlack Network, which organizes for Black migrants both currently and formerly undocumented.

Dulce Garcia is an immigration attorney and DACA recipient who sued the federal government after it rescinded DACA. One of the plaintiffs in the 2019 Supreme Court case, Department of Homeland Security et al. v. Regents of the University of California et al., she reflects on the impact of ongoing deportation on the humanity and contributions of undocumented immigrants.

Dulce, do you remember when DACA was announced?

Dulce: I remember my mom called me on the phone and said, “Are you watching what Obama is saying?” We were celebrating on the one hand because of all the wonderful things Obama was saying about us as people. The fact that the President of the United States was acknowledging us, in this beautiful sentiment, was something to celebrate. We were in disbelief.

But then reality hit. Some of us are going to be protected, but not all of us are going to be protected. The first thing I did when I heard about DACA was to calculate who would benefit, and who would not. I was good to go, and my younger brother was good to go, but my older brother was not. It's very painful to know we left people out. It's 2022, and they're still left out.

Graduation cap, gown, rainbow-colored stole, and costume wings in the pattern of Monarch butterfly wings. The top of the cap is decorated with flowers and  has a message, "I am one of those people Mexico sent."
Jairo Javier Morales qualified for DACA and earned his B.A. from Ripon College without threat of deportation. On graduation day, he celebrated all aspects of his identity as a queer, undocumented Mexican and American artist. Morales’s cap and stole will be on display in “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States” in the Molina Family Latino Gallery, the first exhibition of the new National Museum of the American Latino. (2020.0048.01)

Patrice, what runs through your mind on the 10th anniversary of DACA?

Patrice: Anniversaries, especially those that are big milestones, are a good time for reflection, reflecting, celebrating, and correcting. First of all, my congratulations to the organizers who have pushed and done what they were told was impossible every single day. To the undocumented people, to those who have DACA, had DACA, could have had DACA, or had their DACA taken away: thank you for showing up. Because of your resilience, more has been made possible in the past 10 years than has been for a very, very long time.

I hope that on this 10th anniversary of DACA, we can have some real conversation about what has got to change. DACA should not be reserved only for folks who fit a certain narrative about who is deserving and who is not. We see this division when we think about the history of migration and immigration in the United States, and it is reflected in policies and politics today. Currently, being human is not enough for you to have access to resources. And that's not right. Everyone should be seen as a human being and treated with dignity.

“Anniversaries, especially those that are big milestones, are a good time for reflection, reflecting, celebrating, and correcting.”  

—Patrice Lawrence, executive director for the UndocuBlack Network

Maggie, is this an issue in Mexico?  How does DACA play out there?

Maggie: DACA creates divisions both here and in the U.S. by contributing to the idea of the good immigrant versus the bad immigrant. In Mexico you have this narrative that the DREAMer is going to save the economy of Mexico. They are seen as brilliant people, and the government wants to figure out ways to bring that talent to Mexico. And then there is the narrative of the deportee as an economic burden who is stereotyped as a criminal, uneducated, not smart, or old. It's always one extreme or the other with no vision of shared experiences.

DACA forces you to fit into this mold of being perfect. “Why do I have to be like this extraordinary person?” But if you’re not, it has repercussions that will end in a possible exile. Deportation. So we should start rethinking our narrative.

How have you begun re-thinking these narratives in Mexico?

Maggie: Those of us who were forced to return or were deported to Mexico question the role of citizenship more than when we were in the U.S. We have citizenship here and see very clearly how citizenship doesn't grant you access to a dignified life. And that’s true in the U.S. too. Just think about Black Lives Matter. Black Americans have citizenship, but their humanity isn’t respected. Citizenship doesn’t grant the freedom and liberation that we've been looking for. As the years have gone by, we’ve been talking a lot about mobility.

We focus on mobility because we keep experiencing exile. First, when we came to the U.S. we were exiled from our communities and our families in Mexico. Now that we are back in Mexico we are exiled from the U.S. and our family there. So we talk to undocumented folks in the U.S. saying, “You know, you are also in exile.” And our parent’s generation are not even talking about the vote or citizenship. They want to see family, have a driver’s license, and not to be deported. So I think the movement is shifting towards mobility versus citizenship.

Protest poster. Front has the message "We stand with Dreamers" and is signed "Cortez Howney, Houston, Texas." The back has the hand-written message, "I'm here for my student Dennis, who is being detained. #FreeDennis."
Cortez Downey made sure his voice was heard on March 5, 2018, the day that DACA was rescinded. A teacher from Houston, Texas, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to let people know that his students were being deported. (2018.0073.15)

Patrice, what can we learn from the history of DACA? What do you envision for the future of immigration?

Patrice: Anniversaries are a very good time for us to learn from the past. Unfortunately, focusing on the good you are doing can sometimes make you miss out on the bad that you're causing as well. Millions of individuals do not have access to DACA. How many Black people have DACA? Many who are eligible for DACA do not know that it exists even after ten years. The reality is that there are inherent biases, and that racism continues to persist. So we have got to be mindful about how we are crafting the legislation so that it is equitable to begin with. On this 10th anniversary, we need to make sure that we do everything in our power to secure green cards and citizenship for more people.

The truth is, if we all make demands, what we are asking for is not that difficult. It takes guts, courage, and political will, and we must push further than our imaginations can take us. And then, push beyond even that. We are all due dignity. I want us to get relief for undocumented people and make sure that the next immigration program is not anti-Black.

Woman stands in front of a group of protestors outside of a courthouse. She is holding a yellow protest sign that reads, "#ResidencyNow for Liberian DED Holders."
UndocuBlack, African Communities Together, and other Black-led civil rights groups rallied outside the U.S. District Court in Worchester, Massachusetts, as it decided the case of African Communities Together v. Trump on October 9, 2019. Pictured here is Dr. Yatta Kiazolu, a plaintiff in the case, who sued the Trump administration for terminating Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), a memo protecting Liberians from deportation. Within months, these organizations drafted Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness Act (LRIF) providing permanent protection and a pathway to citizenship for DED holders and Liberian nationals residing in the U.S. since November 20, 2014. The measure passed on December 20, 2019. Image courtesy of UndocuBlack Network

Dulce, what lessons do you draw from DACA 10 years later?

Dulce:  DACA was a federal solution to suppressing the undocumented movement. It was a compromise, and we wanted more. We wanted our parents to be protected. We wanted our siblings to be protected. We wanted the next generation of DREAMers to be protected. Ten years ago, I thought if we had DACA that we would be U.S. citizens by now. I did not imagine that we would be still undocumented despite the praise we receive, the degrees we earn, or the taxes we pay. DACA is still tied up in litigation, and my future is uncertain. So I have to stay in line. I have to comply, to remain law abiding, and to continue to pay into the system.

It's such a contradiction: our movement and the ground we covered in the last 10 years is definitely something to celebrate, but at the same time DACA serves as a tool of oppression. Our power is undeniable, but we are still threatened.

Placard with a photo of Dulce Garcia in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building, with the text "Dulce's #HomeIsHere."
Undocumented activists held up posters like this one to support those who filed suit against the government when it rescinded DACA. As one of the plaintiffs, Dulce Garcia felt a surge of hope when she heard their voices outside the Supreme Court. Image courtesy of Nancy Bercaw

Dulce Garcia, Patrice Lawrence, and Maggie Loredo reflect the multifaceted undocumented immigrant movement. Together, they lend insight into a signature moment in U.S. history where people without citizenship or the right to vote are changing the nation. Our intent as public historians to is to lay a good foundation for understanding how people come together to make change. Here is more information on the Undocumented Organizing Collecting Initiative, including the initiative’s ethical guidelines, digital resources Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like and History in Real Time, and for classroom use, Learning Labs, and related lesson plans.

Nancy Bercaw is a curator of political history and deputy director of the Center for Restorative History (CRH). She works with the Undocumented Organizing Collecting Initiative (UOCI). Patty Arteaga is the CRH program coordinator and project lead for the UOCI. Delia Beristain Noreiga is the UOCI’s assistant oral historian. José Centeno-Meléndez is the UOCI’s oral historian. Alex Hanesworth is the UOCI's curatorial assistant.