The DACA Precariat

The precariat is the first class in history to be losing acquired rights – cultural, civil, social, economic and political. […] The precariat must ask for favours, for charity, to show obsequiousness, to plead with figures of authority. It is degrading and stigmatizing.

Guy Standing, Meet the precariat, the new global class fuelling the rise of populism

In the approaching days for the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) to issue a decision on the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), my anxiety levels spiked to the point where it was difficult to continue regularly working. There were many overwhelming thoughts that I needed to process; on some days, the ordeal of thought was a herculean task that I failed to cope. It was the saddening impression of futility that stole my willpower: a progressive discomfort that began with the increasing staccato of the heart, transitioning to the psychomotor retardation of the body, and finally reverberating with apprehension and mental tension in the head.

There are few situations where you are utterly subject to forces beyond your control. At the very least, in most problems encountered, there is an independent variable to alter with some determinism to achieve a desired outcome. With meticulous planning, careful and decisive actions, and a dash of grit, you can achieve your desires of upward mobility and success, while concurrently brushing away the problems that come by your way. This idea was sold to immigrants to the United States as the “American Dream”, an ideological promise for the chance to realize the future in one’s own image, regardless of class or wealth.

Unfortunately, having DACA and suffering through the anticipation of the SCOTUS decision was bucketed in those “few situations’’ where the locus of control is extremely external. I have lived with DACA for eight years, since its onset back in 2012. I am not ungrateful for the opportunities that were allowed to me in this country. But for eight long years, my existence has been rooted in precarity - will we ever achieve the promised permanent solution for those in my situation? Or, have we been forsaken in a status purgatory between permanent resident and unwanted non-citizen? Sometimes, I wish this superposition could just collapse to some status, desirable or not, so that I could have some solid basis to plan the future around.

The situation of precarity draws unnerving parallels from Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the story of a Josef K., a man arrested for an unspecified crime, and whose subsequent due process is enforced by a mysterious, absurdist bureaucratic court. In Josef’s struggle to understand the proceedings regarding his case, he seeks the advice of the court painter, Titorelli, who has accumulated deep experience with his observations of the court. Titorelli frighteningly recounts the possibilities of release for a person before the court.

Three possibilities are illuminated to Josef: actual acquittal, apparent acquittal, and protraction. The first possibility of actual acquittal, is as the name suggests. After the conclusion of the case, all associated documents are destroyed and discarded from the system. However, such a conclusion has never been observed in the court.

The other two possibilities are more plausible in Josef’s predicament. In the second possibility of apparent acquittal, all the documents are kept, and the defendant’s “certification of innocence” is noted for further reference. The case is still active, as the documents circulate between the lower and higher courts of the bureaucracy, and at any point, the case can be reopened if the defendant’s innocence is questioned. This results in a second arrest, and potentially a second acquittal. And of course, the madness does not end, for “…the second acquittal is followed by a third arrest, the third acquittal by a fourth arrest, and so on.” The arrests could come at any moment, unexpectedly.

The third possibility of protraction, keeps the trial “constantly kept at the lowest stage”, and it the vigilant responsibility of the defendant to never “let the trial out of […] sight”, to “[spin the trial] within the tight circle to which it’s artificially restricted.” While the defendant does not have to toil through unexpected arrests to reopen the trial, as in apparent acquittal, there are regular actions that have to be undergone. Interrogations, inquiries, and the like are required for protraction to be successful.

The DACA precariat suffers the latter of these possibilities, a protracted purgatorial sentence. The nature of DACA provides a two year period where Immigration and Customs Enforcement exercises prosecutorial discretion, choosing not to pursue removal of DACA recipients from the United States. Our fate is kept at this low stage of ruling, at a cost of $495 every two years, with fear of constant surveillance and paranoia to maintain good standing behavior, lest the government choose not to extend the protracted sentence during the next renewal.

The decision regarding the fate of DACA, which I remind is not new, for its rescission was declared 2017, and other emerging related immigration woes, are a grounding reminder that the “American Dream” is not guaranteed. If the foundation of the house that you have built is suspect, how can you trust the remainder of the architecture to hold? The foundation is always hidden once a facade of a structure has been brought up. It is a silent burden that immigrants carry, never revealed unless the building crumbles to the ground, exposing the fault of the inferior base. The past SCOTUS ruling on DACA was another rumbling beneath the ground, testing the security of the visually secure, yet unstable edifices built by DACA recipients on American soil. In many cases, the life they have built here on this land is all they have ever known. It pains me.

Back in 2005, acclaimed author David Foster Wallace addressed the commencement of the graduating class of Kenyon College with a multitude of his life’s philosophies. In the speech, known as “This is Water” and published afterwards in book form with a similar title, Wallace reflects on navigating the banality of post-graduate life, achieving empathy for those with different worldviews, and the true purpose of a liberal arts education. It is a fantastic oratory: I highly recommend listening to it if you are feeling contemplative. I’ve listened to it twice since I discovered it in the beginning of this year. There is a calming essence in Wallace’s elucidation of life and its trials that allows me to take a breath while I concurrently undergo its turbulence.

Unfortunately, this time around there was no peace to be found in his words. It is no surprise that David Foster Wallace referenced the head as “the terrible master.” I could not choose to think of anything but my fate in this country; this thought was prescribed by the SCOTUS proceedings. My control was completely ripped from my grasp. My thoughts and my state of being were subservient to another. The true master was the nebulous, kafkaesque bureaucracy, an entity with the whims to choose my destiny in this country. And in the eternity required for judgment to be passed, I was being completely hosed.

Before the Thursday of June 18, when the SCOTUS opinion was not yet lucid, I braced for the worst outcome: the fragile reprieve was coming to an end. In preparation, I consulted my firm’s immigration lawyer for legal advice for all my paranoia, with each sick little scenario manifesting itself from fear of all that is uncertain.

Should I submit the $495 DACA renewal application before an opinion on the case is given? After an opinion is given, will accepted renewals continue to be processed? If not, what will happen to the money to process the application? What are my options?

If my employment authorization is immediately repealed, and not allowed to expire naturally, is it still possible to legally work? Will my employment with the firm be immediately terminated? Will it still be possible to work with the firm in a different country? What will happen to my current employment-based change of status application for my green card? What are my options?

Will I be immediately deported? Can you still provide legal advice after I lose my legal status? What are my options?

And so on. In the shoddy dinghy boat that allowed me to sail through the day to day, I am imperiled to chart the routes for all my futures, so that I can act when one is finally realized. In the case that I capsize, I must know all the directions for the rough swim to any shore, accounting for the fluctuating landscape of impediments of unknown horrors from below or sweeping riptides that forcibly take you on the wrong path. If you know me personally, I do not know how to swim.

I have played the part you have modelled us to be. Yet missing papers continue to overshadow my totality. When will the ocean part and let me walk by my own to dry land, a land I can safely call home? Even after a supposedly favorable decision, I can only sigh a small breath of relief, for again the proceedings of these recent events serve as a harsh reminder that my presence in America for the past nineteen years has always been a provisional existence. And onward I sail, wondering when they decide what land I can finally call home.

Thanks as always to my friends (Reg Ledesma, Rosanne Ng, Jeffrey Zhao, Annie Ke, Cathy Li, Neel Somani, Isabel Ting, Iris Pei, and Alex Zhang) for reading drafts, providing edits, and making this essay possible with motivation and support.

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