Over 110,000 people have applied for an extension, in what the Department of Homeland Security calls an “orderly wind down” of DACA. In this interview, Left Voice speaks with DACAmented immigrants’ rights activist Jason Koh. He speaks critically of DACA and picks apart the “good immigrant, bad immigrant” myth and the immigrant, native-born binary that fractures the American working class.
My name is Jason Koh, I’m undocumented and I was a beneficiary of the DACA program. I was born in Incheon, South Korea. I was brought here at the age of three. I spent close to two-thirds of my life in New York. I’ve been in academia and more recently, immigrant rights activism.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) – the Obama-era program that shielded close to 800,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation – is being rescinded by the Trump Administration. The program lifted many like myself from the shadows. It gave folks like myself a taste of some semblance of normalcy in this country. It allowed us to live without fear and gave us a chance to start a life in many cases.
But that doesn’t mean DACA itself was without any issues. For me, as someone who’s a DACA recipient and part of the immigrant rights movement, one of the biggest issues with DACA is that it was a stop-gap measure until complete immigration reform was more politically viable. It’s an executive order that was formed as a compromise between the immigrant rights movement and the Obama administration. It is not, in any form, real policy reform or change, not to mention the stringent levels of qualifications that leaves behind large swathes of the immigrant population.
DACA was a stop-gap measure until complete immigration reform was more politically viable.
While it provided much-needed protections for close to 800,000 young undocumented immigrants, the program, much like Temporary Protected Status (TPS), also created a class of immigrants who are in limbo; immigrants that don’t have legal status, but have protections against deportations.
DACAmented immigrants can continue living in this country, work legally, attend school, and essentially build a life in this country. However, our lives here are tenuous at best. Even more so now with the program’s repeal: with Trump’s executive orders removing Obama-era distinctions on deportation priorities and orders that target sanctuary cities, everyone is under threat of deportation.
And while there were a lot of issues with DACA, with the program’s repeal, the debate now brewing in Congress is around the need to pass the DREAM Act, or to a lesser extent, making DACA into law. As much as I would benefit off that, I would say, what about my parents? What about my friends and family who many not even quality for any future programs?
Calls for any Dream Act passed must be coupled with provisions to prevent recipients from being prohibited from sponsoring their parents. Furthermore, nothing may happen in Congress. Every action taken by Congress for the DREAM act has failed since 2001.
And while there were a lot of issues with DACA, with the program’s repeal, the debate now brewing in Congress is around the need to pass the DREAM Act, or to a lesser extent, making DACA into law. As much as I would benefit off that, I would say, what about my parents?
Now, the current administration wants something to happen within five months in a congressional election year–while the majority-GOP Congress has pressed to replace the ACA, come up with a budget, and more. Immigration seems to fall on the wayside. It’s a bit naive to rely on Congress for a solution.
I think it’s really up to the power of the immigrant community to make the change. We can’t depend on our so-called “allies” to make the changes for us. Programs like DACA didn’t suddenly become a thing because immigrants sat idly by and hoped for change. It became a thing that happened through the efforts of grassroots, community-based organizing.
How do you think DACA’s repeal will affect immigrant communities–particularly the dreamers, but maybe also reflecting on immigrant communities in general, and what you think of DACA in the first place?
While our so called allies prefer to make the economic argument, the issue with the DACA repeal is humanitarian. Despite what this administration as well as other groups and institutions have to say in support of DREAMers, repealing DACA leaves DREAMers in the same position they were in under the Bush Administration: a precarious one.
Under the Obama Administration, there were limitations to the groups of immigrants that were categorized for deportation. Now, no such distinctions exist anymore. Everyone is up for deportation.
Of course, there were issues with Obama-era deportation categories, directly resulting in current narratives around the “good immigrant” and “bad” immigrant used by various conservatives and liberals.
The message that’s been put out is, ‘You’re deporting kids, you’re deporting these good kids who have absolutely no choice of coming here.’ Yes, we had no choice coming to this country! But their message is feeding into the whole good and bad immigrant mythos, those that deserve protection and those that don’t.
But with DACA, you had young adults, young people–teens willingly providing information to the government (most specifically the Department of Homeland Security) and trusting these institutions to not to deport them. Now, all of their information is still on file to be potentially used to facilitate their deportation. Despite whatever Donald Trump and the current Chief of Staff, John Kelly, has to say regarding their support of Dreamers, it doesn’t change the fact that the administration stands on a xenophobic nationalist platform.
All they’re doing is pushing people further into the shadows. People will no longer trust or be willing to speak with law enforcement officials, putting more distrust into various government institutions. Communities get torn up.That’s the effect.
How do you think Trump’s policies and this attack on immigrants affects Asian Americans and Asian immigrant youth?
Let’s get one thing clear: compared to various other ethnic groups, Asian Americans and East Asians in particular hold a privileged position. We are less likely to get pulled over by the police, less likely to be under the scrutiny of government or law enforcement officials. Of course, Southeast and South Asian communities are heavily affected by the current immigration policies. They face high risks from various law enforcement and immigration enforcement, especially Trump’s January executive orders and the Anti-Muslim ban.
How does the xenophobic attitude of the Trump Administration affect immigrant communities?
You don’t really have to look past the history books for the answer to this question. The xenophobic attitudes of the current administration is absolutely harmful to immigrant communities and effects every immigrant regardless of status: the Trump Administration and their allies’ push for the RAISE act to limit legal immigration, the Anti-muslim travel bans, ramping up deportations, and rescinding DACA; only serve to build the institutions for their nativist ideologies and control the narratives around immigration. Through their xenophobic actions, the administration is actively creating scapegoats for abstract issues such as the economy, culture, and other social problems.
And on the opposite end of that spectrum, in terms of the outpour of support that came from all spectrums of the Democratic Party, even Republicans, conservatives, whatsoever, it’s been great. However, in terms of the message they want to get across, it’s something I fundamentally disagree with.
The message that’s been put out is, “You’re deporting kids, you’re deporting these good kids who have absolutely no choice of coming here.” Yes, we had no choice coming to this country! But their message is feeding into the whole “good and bad” immigrant mythos, those that deserve protection and those that don’t.
This divides communities between those that are useful to American society and those that are useless, while building up the narrative that there are undesirables and “enemies” that need to be deported in the immigrant community.
Now with any political group or institutions that use such distinctions on groups of people, they have much leeway with regards to who fall under those “good” and “bad” categorizations.
By saying that we, DACA recipients, are “good” and there was an absence of choice for us being here, the target is solely on our parents, other family members, and peers that couldn’t qualify or apply for the DACA program for being the “bad” immigrants. You’re literally forcing us to make the choice between us and our parents by telling us they’re bad guys. Also, like I said before, it’s feeding into a binary designed to create scapegoats – this mythos that shouldn’t even exist.
Why does the mythos exist? Why is it important to perpetuate this binary?
The idea of the good immigrant-bad immigrant binary seems to me a classic case of divide-and-conquer. It not only divides the immigrant community, but it also creates a handy scapegoat to divide Americans from immigrants.
Within the immigrant community, the binaries will create divisions between those categorized to deserve protections and those that don’t. I see it first hand in the immigrant community when folks buy into this binary. The community tears itself apart between the privileged and underprivileged. Those that are DREAMers and those that aren’t. Those that are legal and illegal. Rather than seeing source the issue as this country’s broken immigration system, the community ends up attacking each other.
Furthermore, through those categorizations, this administration and its supporters can control the narratives around immigration and scapegoat those unfamiliar, foreign “others” for larger more abstract problems that current political and economic institutions and groups want to sweep under the rug. Through the creation of an “enemy” to blame for all of their economic and social ills, the Trump administration not only builds a base amongst Americans that choose to support this binary, but also create convenient distractions for various underlying issues such as growing wealth inequalities, issues regarding healthcare, and the growing disparities of the worker’s power compared to that of the bosses. Immigrants are scapegoated for these issues.
Within immigrant communities, there are divisions of, say, legal immigrants and illegal, naturalized and undocumented. You were talking about how to address this among immigrants.
You can be legal one day and illegal the next, whether it’s due to changes in immigration policies or through issues such as a marriage falling apart, your sponsor revoking their sponsorship of you, and more.
You have little control over your own fate. In a system rife with grey areas and legal technicalities, navigating the byzantine and almost Kafka-esque structure of America’s immigration system is a nightmare. If you aren’t familiar with the institutions or lack the funds to hire a qualified immigration attorney, the challenges before you can be almost insurmountable. Contrary to what this administration with regards to illegal immigration being centered around the borders, many of us are visa overstayers.
It’s clear how the repeal of the DACA program and the more general attack on immigrants is affecting immigrants and the people around the, those who employ them. But what is relationship between the rights of immigrants and American workers in general?
At this point, it’s a cliche: You know, “immigrants, lower wages,” that’s the argument used by the far right, anti-immigrant hardliners; “Immigrants steal jobs,” that’s also something used by the xenophobic as well as the racists, as well as various other anti-immigrant hardliners.
But in terms of the connection with immigrants rights and workers rights, the argument is fairly simple: we’re all workers. It’s not a zero-sum game.
Immigrant groups have actually been some of the strongest proponents for worker’s rights.
Just because you get rid of immigrants does not mean those jobs open up for native born workers. That’s not how it works. All the power is within the scope of the bosses, owners of the means of production, to decide what to do with the new vacancies. If they decide to cut costs and change the position to part-time or contract labor, ship the jobs overseas, or go with automation; is it really the fault of immigrants that there is an imbalance of power between the American worker and their bosses?
We’re all under the scope of – for the lack of better words– the capitalist structure. We’re all exploited. Decreasing immigration will not actually solve the issues at hand.
If decreasing immigration will not better the lot of American-born workers, than what is the reverse? And what about service work that can’t be moved overseas, like caring for children, cleaning homes, cooking: the lowest-waged sectors?
It all connects, doesn’t it? I mean, let’s entertain the notion that these jobs whether they be white-colored or blue-colored, service, low-wage or even salaried jobs will suddenly open up for American workers. Then let’s go through this current administration and the political right’s anti-union positions, forget about liveable wages but their views against even a general notion of a minimum wage, disregard for overtime labor, views against paid maternity leave, their attacks on the safeguards that protect workers from workplace/hiring discrimination, lack of concern with workplace safety, and a general disdain for worker’s rights.
Can it really be argued that there be increases in living quality for American workers? Will it increase the American worker’s influence in the job market when there is a power imbalance between workers and bosses? American workers have to be willing to come in terms with their own lack of power in this country. Immigrants or not, their labor isn’t worth much anymore.
Immigrant groups have actually been some of the strongest proponents for worker’s rights. For example, immigrants groups have been at the forefront of worker’s movements such as The Fight for 15. Immigrants fight for these movements because they are on the frontlines when it comes to exploitation. As a result, having little to lose and the most to gain, they’re some of the most strongest proponents to engage in actions necessary to change those conditions that benefits American workers as well.
American workers have more to lose than gain by opposing immigration movements because at the end of the day, we are all workers. United, we have the base to make the changes we want to see. Our disunity will only continue the status quo of exploitation of not just immigrant workers but American workers as well.
Why is it so important for capitalists to maintain this duality and ongoing migration of workers from poor countries, from peripheral economies or economies that are semi-colonies of the United States? What is the role of migrant workers or immigrant workers in the US economy, if not to undermine working conditions for American workers?
Look, we’re all exploited here: American workers or immigrants. We’re all set up here to be pitted against each other. Immigrant workers are exploited because some of them, let’s face it, are in no political or social position to have power. Why? Because some of them are in the most desperate conditions, often fleeing from economic and social crisis.
They’re fleeing a situation within their own home countries because of various issues that just make the area they’re living in uninhabitable–what happened during the Obama Administration, when you had the crisis of unaccompanied minors coming into the country because of the levels of violence in Central America which–by the way–is the result of American foreign policy, the war on drugs.
With the influx of people come in, for those who are already in this country it feels like a foreign horde entering, speaking another language, bringing in an unfamiliar culture. There appears to exist very little common ground and it builds on this fear in those who are already in the country.
The people who are in very desperate conditions are coming to this country are exploited by the owners of the means of production, but while they’re being exploited, they’re also being used as a scapegoat. They’re the group of people with the least amount of power to speak up for themselves.
You talked about the problems underpinning immigration policy and even liberal perspectives on immigration. What do you make of the movement–the heterogeneous, and over time, very multi-headed immigrants’ rights movements?
For these various organizations and movements in general– there’s a lot of focus on the power of immigrant communities. The victimization of immigrants and putting power solely in our privileged-status allies, I mean you can see the result of that since 2001. They’ve tried to pass the DREAM Act. None of that passed. It was because of the actions of the community that something like DACA happened. So the focus is heavily on the power of the community to make a difference, to push for reform or policy change. I feel as if there really is no recognition from mainstream political groups, mainstream media. To them, we’re still victims. We have no power. But in a sense, we do. We do have power to make the changes we want to make.
Of course, I do have disagreements with some organizations or their plan of action. But something like DACA didn’t happen through electoral politics. It was through grassroots organizing. I mean, it was an executive order, it didn’t come through Congress. DACA came to be because of actions by the community. it didn’t happen because we decided to put our heads down and let our allies do our work for us. i mean what the hell does ally really mean, anyway?
It was not the end goal. Our end goal is CIR: comprehensive immigration reform. The DREAM Act was just one part of it and DACA was just a temporary relief. It was just middle ground with the Obama Administration and us saying, Okay this is better than nothing, but this isn’t the end.
What can organized labor, unions do in the realm of immigrants’ rights?
Just because you get rid of immigrants doesn’t mean workers rights will improve, especially with the state of unions right now. If you look at the political positions of the far right or the conservative groups , they’re anti-union – unless it’s for police unions.
Many immigrants have little recourse when faced with workplace abuses or exploitation they endure on a daily basis. But in that same vein, they have little to lose and much to gain.
I think it’s a no-brainer for the potential alliance of immigrant groups and unions on a broader scale. I mean, there are already are such alliances. Immigrant rights are workers rights and vice versa. The interests of both groups are tied heavily together and for the two groups to work together means for one, those that want us to fight amongst each other will have less power to control the narratives around worker’s rights and immigration. Second, as I’ve discussed earlier regarding immigrants fighting for worker’s rights, we’ll have a much stronger committed base to push for changes that we want to see in labor, worker’s rights, and much more.
Unions fighting for immigrants’ rights would increase the potential of immigrants joining their ranks since their lives are literally tied to their working conditions.
Many immigrants have little recourse when faced with workplace abuses or exploitation they endure on a daily basis. But in that same vein, they have little to lose and much to gain.
Unions can also destroy the myth of who’s the bad immigrant, who’s the good immigrant and destroy the whole myth that immigrants are here to steal jobs. We’re all in this together as workers.
How do you see the US Left’s response?
In terms of the anti-capitalist left, I feel as if immigrant rights really isn’t something that these groups are big on. Sure, they’ll say hey, we’re for immigrant rights, but that’s really the extent to what they will do. But then again, immigrant rights is one part of larger movements in the left regarding workers’ rights. Especially with the 1986 Employers’ Sanctions law that prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers.
Of course, one of the bigger issue in incorporating the immigrant movements to the left is dispelling the notion of the “worker” only being someone who’s documented, usually a part of a white working class in the mainstream way.
Do you think the anti-capitalist left upholds this conception of worker as well?
A lot has changed. it depends on what group. Some groups still champion that idea. but other groups have moved on. This may be a cop-out, but the left is very diverse. Some groups have abandoned the idea that the working class is just this white, midwestern, blue-collar man. Some groups have moved on and ask, “What about the Black worker, undocumented worker, or non-workers left out by the capitalist superstructure?”
We’re workers, too. Undocumented, documented, we’re all workers. Some of us are what Marx would determine to lumpenproletariat. Some of us are the proletariat. But those are superficial distinctions in this day and age.
Jason Koh is an immigrants rights activist and freelance journalist living in Brooklyn, New York
Interviewed by Tre Kwon