In 2012, President Obama’s Administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals–or DACA–program, which deferred removal and granted work permits to certain aliens who came to the United States prior to their 16th birthdays, who have no serious criminal issues, and who meet certain educational or military-service requirements. As usual, the statistics from the government are hard to understand, but it seems that about 730,000 individuals have benefited from the DACA program.
But now that Mr. Obama is “out” and Donald Trump is “in”, many DACA recipients fear that they will lose their tenuous status, and possibly face deportation. This concern is understandable. Mr. Trump has promised to “immediately terminate” the program, and since DACA beneficiaries have submitted their biographic information to USCIS, the government can more easily track them down and try to deport them. Also threatened with deportation are “Dreamers” – aliens who would benefit from the DREAM Act, which would have provided relief to a broader range of non-citizens than DACA, had it become law.
So are there any defenses to deportation for DACA beneficiaries and Dreamers? What can these people do now to start protecting themselves?
Assuming the new President ends the DACA program (which can be done by executive action, without Congressional involvement), DACA recipients would have a number of defenses to deportation (though this could change if the President and Congress modify the immigration laws). My primary focus here is asylum, but before we get to that, there are other possible defenses that DACA beneficiaries might consider: Claims to U.S. citizenship, improperly issued/served Notices to Appear, Cancellation of Removal, Adjustment of Status based on a family relationship or a job, residency applications based on being a victim of a crime or human trafficking. In short, there are many possibilities, and if you currently have DACA, it is worth thinking about whether any of them apply to you. This might entail researching the issues yourself or–if you can afford it–talking with a lawyer (if you cannot afford a lawyer, there might be free services available to you).
For many DACA recipients and Dreamers, I imagine that asylum will be the only viable option. To win asylum, an applicant must demonstrate that she faces a well-founded fear of persecution on account of her race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group. This means that in order to win your case, you will need to show that someone wants to harm you for one of these reasons. If you fear return because your country is generally crime-ridden or war-torn, that is probably not enough to win an asylum case. You need to show a specific threat based on a protected ground (I’ve written in more detail about this issue here).
Most of the “protected grounds” are pretty obvious. If someone in your country wants to harm you because they do not like your religion or race or political opinion, that is easy to understand. But what is a “particular social group”? The law defining particular social group or PSG is complex, and different courts have reached different conclusions about what constitutes a PSG. For purposes of this blog post, it is easier to give some examples of PSGs, and then if you think you might fall into one of these categories (or something similar), you can talk to a lawyer to further develop your case. Some common PSGs include members of a family or tribal group, LGBT individuals, women victims of FGM (female genital mutilation) or women who fear FGM, and people who are HIV positive. Other groups of people that some courts–but not others–have found to constitute a PSG include members of a profession (doctors, journalists, etc.), former police officers, former gang members, former U.S. embassy workers, street children, people with certain disabilities, people who face domestic violence, union members, witnesses/informants, tattooed youth, perceived wealthy individuals returning from abroad, and “Americanized” people. These last two PSG groups might be of particular interest to DACA recipients and Dreamers.
Creative lawyers (and asylum applicants) are coming up with new PSGs all the time, but if you can fit your case into a group that is already recognized as a PSG, that certainly increases the likelihood that your case will succeed.
To win asylum, you also need to show that someone (either the government or someone who the government is unable or unwilling to control) wants to “persecute” you on account of one of the protected grounds. You will be shocked to know that the term “persecution” is not clearly defined by the law, and different courts have come up with different–and inconsistent–definitions. Persecution is usually physical harm, but it could be mental harm or even economic harm. An aggregation of different harmful events can constitute persecution.
In addition to all this, an asylum applicant must show that he filed for asylum within one year of entering the U.S. or that he meets an exception to this rule. I expect that this will be a particular issue for DACA recipients and Dreamers, since they have been here for years. If you have not filed within a year of entry and you do not meet an exception, then you are not eligible for asylum. You may still qualify for other relief, which is similar to asylum but not as good: Withholding of Removal and Torture Convention relief.
There are some exceptions to the one-year rule that may apply to DACA recipients and Dreamers. If a person is lawfully present in the U.S., that is considered an exception to the rule (technically, it is considered “exceptional circumstances” that excuses the missed deadline). For example, if a person is on a student visa for four years, and then she applies for asylum while still in lawful status, she meets an exception and is eligible for asylum. People with DACA could argue that DACA status constitutes an exception to the one-year rule. Whether or not this will work, I am not sure, but it is worth exploring. Another common exception is “legal disability,” which includes being a minor. So if you file for asylum before you turn 18 years old, you will meet an exception to the one-year rule.
Another exception to the one-year rule is “changed circumstances”. Maybe it was safe for you in your country, but then something changed, and now it is unsafe. If that happens, you need to file within a “reasonable time” after the change–hopefully, within a month or two. If you wait too long after the change, you will not meet an exception to the one-year rule.
For DACA recipients and Dreamers, asylum may be the last-ditch effort to remain in the U.S., and it may be difficult to win such a case. However, there are some advantages to seeking asylum. First, because it is written into the law (based on a treaty signed by the United States in 1968), Mr. Trump cannot eliminate asylum without the cooperation of Congress, and such a radical step seems unlikely. So asylum should remain an option for DACA beneficiaries and Dreamers. Second, 150 days after you file for asylum, you can file for a work permit. The Trump Administration could change this provision without Congressional action, but as the law now stands, asylum applicants can get work permits. Finally, the asylum process is slow. Normally, asylum delays are horrible for applicants (and for their attorneys), but if you are trying to delay your deportation until a new Administration comes along, asylum might do the trick. The process can take years, and if Mr. Trump follows through on his promises to deport even more people, the system may further slow down.
Whether the new Administration will move to end DACA and deport Dreamers, we do not yet know. If the goal is really to deport as many “illegals” as possible, I believe that starting with DACA recipients is a strategic mistake: Such people are well-integrated into our society and starting with them will create fierce resistance. It would be easier to step up border enforcement, block refugees from entering, and broaden detention for criminal aliens. But my suspicion is that Mr. Trump is more concerned with the appearance of progress than with actual progress. If so, DACA recipients are an easy target–the government can harm them merely by taking away their status and work permits–and this will demonstrate visible progress to those who oppose immigrants. On the other hand, there are some positive signs coming from Congress. Either way, DACA beneficiaries cannot rely on hope, they should start planning now, so they are ready for whatever the new Administration has in store.