With Labor Shortages, Why Are We Ignoring DREAMers, Other Immigrants Here Now? (OPINION)

Aug 19, 2022
1:17 PM

Migrant workers pick romaine lettuce in a field near Yuma, Arizona. (Peter Haden/CC BY-NC 2.0)

Last week, two columnists from the Washington Post called for high-skilled worker immigration reform as a solution to current labor shortages. It missed the mark. They failed to mention a New York federal court’s decision to cut off all new applications under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program issued—just three days before the Washington Post column. 

On August 3, in Batalla v. Mayorkas, U.S. District Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis declined to provide relief to more than 80,000 first-time DACA applicants. This unacceptable decision and the fate of DREAMers must at least be considered in the conversation around immigration reform.

We need a permanent solution for DACA holders and DACA-eligible immigrants and their families.

Without even acknowledging Batalla, the Post op-ed invited us to consider how immigration fits into “rebuilding the industrial heartland.” It suggested immigration reform for high-skilled workers as a solution to address labor demands in the economy, focusing on the U.S. manufacturing industry’s high-skilled STEM worker shortage in the semiconductor computer chips industry. 

Millions of immigrants here now, including DACA holders and now foreclosed DACA applicants, have been denied the right to permanently live and work in the United States. Many of these individuals have had to survive and fight through a decade of political battles and wavering court decisions, causing constant insecurity in the DACA program and their lives. 

Issued by the Obama administration in 2012 in response to the DREAMers movement, DACA has been one of the only federal programs to have expanded access to work permits for undocumented immigrants. Most of these people were brought to the U.S. as children and have met certain educational and other requirements.

Calls for short-term labor-based immigration distract from the actual work that must be done to find a permanent solution for millions of immigrants who are here now, who are already making significant, consistent contributions, and who are worthy of recognition irrespective of the latest economic trends. 

As advocates like my colleagues at the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition know, framing immigration reform as an economic solution is a trap. It is also a primary reason we have an unjust system and have not been able to enact immigration reform for over 35 years.

From the Chinese laborers building railroads in the 1800s to the Bracero program of the 1940s and ’50s, history shows that reforming immigration for labor demands both tokenizes and dehumanizes immigrants. Moreover, these economic calls for immigration reform are rooted in racism. Appeals for reform to invite high-skilled immigrant workers perpetuate this trap. While tech workers today may be working on computer chips instead of railroads, the same flawed reasoning applies.  

Putting high-skilled immigrant workers on a pedestal also keeps us stuck in good-versus-bad, worthy-versus-unworthy immigrant narratives. Such distinctions hurt all immigrants.  

The participation of America’s immigrant community should not depend on shifting labor cycles. DACA holders are a prime example. The contributions led by DACA holders are not tied to short-term labor trends.

Immigrants are the backbone of the U.S. economy, and they deserve, at minimum, recognition for their fundamental human right to work. 

Let’s stop shoehorning immigration debates into economic trends. In a country built largely by and very much running off the hard work of immigrants, there is no need to justify their role in the economy. Their contributions are inherent and deeply woven into the fabric and foundation of our country.


Adina Appelbaum is director of the Immigration Impact Lab at Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. Twitter: @abappelbaum