by Maria de Lourdes Ramirez-Flores
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
More than 600,000 Mexican Dreamers who are DACA recipients are caught between a government that uses them as scapegoats and bargaining chips to get federal funds from US Congress to build a wall; and a government that makes them empty promises — and in reality counts on them staying where they are.
Dreamers are young immigrants who arrived to the US before turning 15 years old, were younger than 31 years old as of June 15th 2012, and have lived continuously in the US since June 2007. Right now, Dreamers and DACA are at the center of the political debate in the US. Any informed discussion on this topic should start with the fact that Dreamers (not only Mexican Dreamers) are valuable members of society. First and foremost, there is no evidence that Dreamers are “taking jobs from ‘Americans’”. In addition they pay more taxes than the social benefits they get, which is not a bad deal for US taxpayers. Dreamers are not lowering wages. In fact, giving immigrants DACA-type status can raise the wage for other workers in similar positions. To sum up, from an economic point of view terminating DACA is nonsense. And the decision makes no sense from the social perspective either.
To obtain DACA, young undocumented immigrants have to have a clean criminal record, be enrolled in school, have a high school diploma or GED, or an honorable discharge from the military. In other words, they have already “proved” they are respectable and productive members of society and that they have earned the right to stay in the US.
Dreamers did not choose to come to the US — they were brought by their parents—though blaming their parents is a shortsighted way to think about this issue. For most Dreamers, the US is the only place they have known. Although human dignity is not conditional to achievements, it is worth remembering that those who have met DACA requirements defeated structural and social barriers and made the most of the opportunities that the US offered them: 45 percent are in school (72 percent pursuing at least a bachelor’s degree) and more than 90 percent has a job (69 percent moved to a better paying job after receiving DACA). Dreamers can be entrepreneurs, doctors or healthcare professionals, teachers, or volunteers. Just like everybody else in the US, they are pursuing the elusive American Dream.
Yet, on Tuesday, September 5, Jeff Sessions, US Attorney General, announced the end of DACA in a message that, to say the least, was constructed around inaccurate assertions. The legal argument to end DACA is that it was passed through an Executive Memorandum and not by the Congress. This, Trump’s administration argues, is unconstitutional (although academics argue that the procedure by which Obama passed DACA was lawful). The termination of DACA puts the fate of Dreamers in the hands of Congress, who have six months to rule on this matter. Needless to say, Trump’s administration has faced backlash from a wide range of actors such as universities, companies, NGOs, and the civil society. As of Thursday, September 14, 16 states and the District of Columbia had sued the administration over DACA termination (15 states + DC on September 6, and California on September 11).
Trump based a considerable part of his campaign messages on attacking Mexican immigrants, Mexicans, and Mexico. In part, it is important to note that the decision on DACA is associated with the dehumanization of undocumented immigrants. After all, according to the campaign, they are “illegal aliens” and “criminals.” In fact, the states that are suing Trump’s administration over DACA are arguing there is unlawful discrimination against Mexicans. Given his history of animosity and dehumanization of these immigrant youths, it is not farfetched to believe that Trump is using Dreamers as a bargaining chip to obtain funding to build one of his trademark campaign policies: a wall between Mexico and the US.
Though Hurricanes Harvey and Irma will likely change how the budget is determined, it is important to think—at least as a mental exercise— about what would happen if the hundreds of thousands of Mexican Dreamers were sent to Mexico. This is important because the Mexican government cannot just simply forgo any responsibility over these young people. If the worst happens the Mexican government should be prepared to receive them. This preparation starts by stopping the false cliches of welcoming them “home”. Let’s just think about some aspects of what “welcoming Dreamers with open arms” implicates.
The first thing to point out is that the 618,342 Mexican DACA recipients would not arrive in Mexico at the same time. They would arrive in a gradual manner. And they would likely not come by themselves. The current age of DACA recipients is 16 to 35 years old, which means a non negligible share have spouses or children. Though specific demographic data on Mexican Dreamers is not available, data suggests that 80 percent of foreign-born Mexicans in the US are married, and about 25 percent of DACA recipients are parents.
In sum, the Mexican government should be aware that the number of people who could potentially resettle in Mexico would be larger than 618,342 people. All of them need housing, healthcare and a certain degree of safety. A large share of them and their family members need education and jobs. Though in 2014 the Mexican Government established a strategy called “Somos Mexicanos” to help people who have been repatriated, it may not be adequate to help returning Dreamers. It offers identity documents, phone communication with family members, local and national transportation, a job listing, and shelter. But this is designed for individuals, not for families. There is no mention of education or orientation to reintegrate them into Mexico. But let’s look at some important concerns individually.
The most basic thing people need to resettle is a place to live. How is the Mexican government going to guarantee that the 618,342 Dreamers and their families will have housing? The shelter that the Somos Mexicanos strategy allegedly provides is only temporary help. Is there an implicit assumption about relocation into extended family homes, into their old abandoned homes — the ones the family left behind when they migrated to the US — or is the government counting on houses built using remittances?
Is the government assuming Dreamers have savings or means to buy or rent housing? If Dreamers are educated and young, it is likely that they and their families would gravitate towards urban areas. This is a key factor that needs to be discussed: the Federal government should coordinate with big cities such as Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey and Puebla. These cities need a local strategy to help Dreamers and their families. Mexico City has begun some actions, though they are beyond the scope of this article, which is focused on the Federal Government.
The second area of concern is health. The Somos Mexicanos strategy includes affiliating Mexican return migrants to the Popular Insurance, Seguro Popular, which is a health insurance that covers people who cannot afford private insurance and who do not have access to other state forms of insurance. In principle, this seems to guarantee that Dreamers and their families would have healthcare coverage. However, the system is already saturated, and Dreamers and their families would put increased pressure on it. How is the Mexican Government planning to make sure that Dreamers and their families—as well as the rest of the population—have real access to healthcare?
The third area of concern is security. This is a problematic topic, given the levels of violence in some areas of Mexico. This violence is caused by drug cartels, but also by other types of crime. How is the Mexican Government going to prevent Dreamers and their families from becoming prey of drug cartels and being recruited by them? How is the Mexican Government going to guarantee their safety, when it has not been able to protect those who are already living in Mexico? Some journalistic research suggests that, upon returning to Mexico from the US, drug cartels try to recruit young immigrants. My preliminary research on Mexican-American children (US born children of Mexican parents) that resettle in Zacatecas Mexico suggests that these children are at risk of joining organized delinquency.
The fourth area of concern is education. In this aspect, we need to think about Dreamers who are in high school, college or graduate school and the children of Dreamers who are US citizens. The Mexican authorities need to consider this large influx of students and to make space in schools for them, something that requires increasing the resources of the schools.
With respect to the return migrants and their children, they face a big challenge: it is one thing to speak Spanish, and it is a different thing to write and read in academic Spanish. The Mexican school system is not prepared to receive a large influx of children and youth who don’t have any formal training in the Spanish language.
Most of them will eventually learn, but after periods of frustration and alienation that can lead some to drop out of school. The other big issue within the realm of education is enrollment and validation of studies. Though children are not legally required to present their birth certificates and educational documents to enroll in school, some schools in rural areas still require it. . In this respect, it is important to mention that universities such as the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the Instituto Politécnico Nacional are implementing policies to help young Dreamers access college. However, there are important barriers that would need to be discussed, such as scholarships.
The fifth broad area of concern is helping Dreamers and their families obtain income through a job. This is basic: What are working-age return migrants going to do for a living? Will the families make enough to cover their basic needs? This is a fundamental question in a country that is being criticized by the US and Canada in NAFTA negotiations for keeping low wages (see a table of Mexican minimum wage data). In addition, a big problem that Dreamers would need face is the level of informality in the job market.
About 60 percent of the Mexican working population is employed in the informal economy. The implication is that, if they get a job, it not likely to have Social Security benefits. This has important consequences for Dreamers and their families over their life course. For example: they may not be able to secure retirement benefits. It is important to mention that there could be some effects related to remittances, but this topic is lengthy and it is beyond the scope of this text.
The Mexican government has obligations towards Dreamers. Their immediate obligation is to acknowledge that, even though the US is home for them, they are Mexican citizens and they should be able to safely return to Mexico if they choose or are forced to do so. The Mexican government should aid Dreamers in their negotiation with the US Congress, but it also needs to plan for their eventual return. The first step needs to be to stop making empty promises.
Maria de Lourdes Ramirez-Flores is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Cornell University. She is a Mexican citizen. Her research looks at return migration and how the US-born children of return migrants integrate into Mexican society.