When I was working in youth ministry in Schuyler, I frequently encountered teenagers who went from living without a care in the world to carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. At first glance, the reason for this emotional and behavioral shift was rarely evident to me.
Usually with some conversation, the reason became discernible. There was the teenage romance gone awry. Or the classic feud among friends. And, of course, the all-too-typical domestic dispute with mom and dad. These were the usual suspects.
As I continued working in youth ministry, another reason emerged for some of the teenagers—one that took more time to discern.
This particular emotional and behavioral shift often occurred during the teenager’s senior year. I first assumed the underlying reason was the routine concern and anxiety of nearly every high school senior: college. After all, questions like “Will I go to college? If so, where? What will I study? And will I succeed?” are nothing to sneeze at. For a teenager, they are complex questions that often strike at the core of one’s identity and mission in life.
After extensive conversations with these teenagers and more discernment, it became clear that college wasn’t the only reason for the shift. In fact, it was among the least of their concerns. There was a deeper life crisis confronting their hearts.
This crisis dealt with fundamental questions about the future: What can I make of life after high school? Whether I pursue college or not, how will I live? Will I be able to work? And if I can’t work, how will I provide for basic needs like a roof over my head and food? Will I have financial stability, let alone security? Where will I call home, and will I continue to find one in this community? Does the future have any guarantees?
These questions—questions I don’t believe any 17- or 18-year old should have to confront, let alone be unable to answer—belonged to numerous teenagers. They were questions, concerns, and anxieties that had no end in sight, and which trapped them day and night with seemingly no escape.
And the reason for these burdensome questions: through no fault of their own, as children they were brought into the United States as undocumented immigrants.
Ever since that entry, they have been in a legal quandary, without relief.
As many of them came of age—began to graduate high school, attend college, and had ambitions to enter the workforce to assist their families and contribute to society—some light appeared on the horizon.
In 2012, President Obama created a program that allowed certain qualified undocumented youth to apply for deferred action. This “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (“DACA”) program meant that the U.S. government would not undertake deportation proceedings against DACA youth for a renewable two-year period. Upon entry into the program, the Department of Homeland Security would grant “lawful presence” and employment authorization to the DACA youth. In short, DACA youth were granted some stability about their future, access to work and, with that, the income to meet basic human needs.
From the moment of its implementation, the DACA program was recognized as a temporary fix—a band-aid of sorts—to a larger political problem. The program was also immediately under legal scrutiny as an overreach of executive authority.
In September 2017, President Trump announced he would terminate the DACA program. This generated several lawsuits, which led one federal court to issue a nationwide preliminary injunction against the President’s decision, keeping the program in tact until a final ruling could be reached.
Several of these lawsuits, which have been consolidated, were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court heard oral arguments on the cases about a month ago (Nov. 12).
Most court watchers predict the Supreme Court will rule in favor of President Trump’s decision to terminate the program, concluding it was a valid exercise of his executive authority.
As this likely outcome approaches, DACA youth—many of whom are now in their 20s and 30s, earning degrees and income through good, honest work—will return to those same old questions they faced in high school, questions they likely never escaped. The daunting feeling of uncertainty will return with greater intensity. And it will return after already having experienced a foretaste of the peace, stability, and justice DACA youth deserve.
The political question for DACA youth is whether Congress will have the courage to permanently address their tragic situation by passing something like the DREAM Act, which the U.S Bishops have supported, or whether they will continue to be treated as a political football by a dysfunctional Congress unable to achieve even the slightest degree of immigration reform.
As we await the outcome, Catholics have the opportunity to be resolved in our solidarity with Nebraska’s DREAMers, the 6,500 young women and men who have been and will continue to be important members of our local communities, neighbors and friends we walk alongside, worship with, and work beside. Let us resolve to seek justice on their behalf.
May Our Lady of Guadalupe, whose feast we recently celebrated, come to their aid and unite us as Americans.