Brown University

The DACA Rally in Providence: Why Moral Arguments Are Unlikely to Resonate with the American Right by Erin Brennan-Burke @ Brown University

On September 5, 2017, President Trump ordered an end to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program created by executive order five years earlier to offer work permits and renewable protections to 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. The President used aggravated language to describe how DACA recipients damaged the job prospects of native-born citizens and expressed concern for “the millions of Americans victimized by this unfair system.” He gave Congress until March 6 to enact legislation to save the program.

In the days following the announcement, DACA recipients and supporters gathered throughout the country – from Anchorage to Albany – to denounce the policy decision. In New York City, hundreds protested outside Trump Tower and three Democratic members of Congress were arrested when they sat down on Fifth Avenue in a peaceful act of civil disobedience. In total, there were 175 DACA protests nationwide.

I attended the DACA rally in Providence on September 8, joining more than 1,000 people who marched from Burnside Park to the Rhode Island State House. The event, which was organized by the Coalition of Advocates for Student Opportunities, was intended to both protest the revocation of protections for Dreamers and push for comprehensive immigration reform for all 11 million undocumented Americans. The chants and handwritten signs framed these policies as moral imperatives: “No more deportation: keep families together,” “Defend humanity, defend DACA,” and “Stop playing politics with immigrant lives.” When the crowd arrived at the steps of the State House, protesters gathered in a semi-circle to listen to speeches by Dreamers, immigration lawyers, and activists.

The speeches shared common themes: the inherent dignity of the undocumented, the fear of living in a country that continuously rejects you, and the frustration of needing to defend human worth through lists of accomplishments. Krissia Rivera Perla spoke to the gathered crowd about how her family’s decision to come to America was out of survival, but that she “struggles to make the government see that we, too, are human beings.” Renata Mauriz, a student at Brown University, spoke passionately through tears about how DACA was never meant to be a permanent solution and that academic achievements made her no more worthy of protection than her parents. She said:

I don’t really want to share my story of being an undocumented immigrant. I think y’all probably have all heard very similar stories of young folks who came to the United States and are practically American, blah, blah, blah, blah. I’m kind of tired of that narrative, and I’m kind of tired to have to sell the dignity of undocumented immigrants by how American I’ve become, or by how much I’ve been able to achieve or by how much I’ve been able to produce in this county.

Renata called on the protestors to resist any policy solution which offered piecemeal protections to only a subset of undocumented Americans.

The words of Renata Mauriz and other speakers deeply resonated with my lived experiences. My dad worked at a sanctuary home for recent migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border for many years, and my family has consistently hosted undocumented families in our home. Every deafening cry of “No human being is illegal! No human being is illegal!” by the protesting crowd reminded me of specific faces and personal stories told around my dinner table. I felt energized by the solidarity of the rally and galvanized to action by the moral appeals to basic human dignity. But as I walked back up the hill to Brown University, I could not help but wonder if those same moralizing claims would convince conservatives in Congress. And more broadly, what was the most effective way for protesters to frame DACA to ensure successful policy outcomes?

As Arlie Russell Hochschild explains in Strangers in Their Own Land, many ardent conservatives believe in a “deep story” in which historically marginalized groups are unfairly cutting in line to achieve the American Dream. These individuals feel personally victimized and are tired of being told that they should instead feel sympathy for people of color, women, and immigrants. Hochschild writes from the perspective of these conservatives, saying: “You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. So you have your guard up against requests for sympathy.” As Congress attempts to pass immigration reform to protect DACA recipients before the holiday recess, it is important to understand how this deep story about line cutters may be a barrier to successful policy change.

Moral appeals will be largely ineffective at convincing conservatives with existing sympathy fatigue; however, reform movements could instead center the economic and security benefits of maintaining the DACA program. The Immigration Legal Resource Center estimates that ending DACA would cost American employers at least $3.4 billion in terms of turnover and hiring expenses, as well as reduce social security and Medicare tax contributions by $24.6 billion. In a recent study, the Center for American Progress calculated that terminating the program would decrease the country’s GDP by at least $433.4 billion over 10 years.

In addition to these considerable economic benefits, it is also in the best interest of American security to preserve DACA. As Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates effectively argued in the New York Times this past week, the U.S. military is stronger and more prepared to face daunting security challenges when it draws from a diverse pool of willing young adults – regardless of whether they are documented citizens or undocumented immigrants. These specific arguments that DACA is important for economic growth and national security are more likely to resonate with “America first” conservatives than general appeals to human dignity. And as Erica Chenoweth of the Washington Post succinctly describes, “The aim is to change incentives, not to melt hearts.”

Perhaps Dreamers and activists like Renata Mauriz would prefer a political loss that preserves the moral integrity of the movement. But ultimately, partial reform to protect DACA recipients framed strategically instead of humanistically is the most viable policy option in a polarized Congress this December.

* Photo by Steve Ahlquist, “Dreamers Speak Out at Defend DACA Rally,” RI Future.

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