Relief, resolve as Wisconsin DACA advocates celebrate decision and look ahead

Capitol rally to support Dreamers as the U.S. Supreme Court takes up cases against the Trump administration's push to end the DACA program. 11/12/19
Capitol rally to support Dreamers as the U.S. Supreme Court takes up cases against the Trump administration's push to end the DACA program. 11/12/19

At 8:59 Thursday morning, Daniel Gutierrez Ayala was obsessively refreshing his phone. 

A minute later, the news he was looking for popped up — the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California. As a recipient of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the content of that decision would determine Gutierrez Ayala’s legal status. 

“My heart dropped, I felt very sick,” he says. “These next few paragraphs I read are essentially my future.” 

In a 5-4 decision, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s liberal wing in finding that the Trump administration broke the law in 2017 when it rescinded the program.

Roberts wrote the majority opinion and was joined by justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Official portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts. Steve Petteway, public domain.
Official portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts. Steve Petteway, public domain.

The court held that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s decision to end the program was “arbitrary and capricious” and therefore in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

“I read those beginning lines saying the Trump administration’s decision was arbitrary and sudden and arguments were not sufficient,” says Gutierrez Ayala, a Milwaukee resident and student at Cardinal Stritch University. “It was a moment of relief. I don’t know how you can imagine, this relief off my shoulders. At the same time, that resilience as I continue for my parents and my dreams. I was ecstatic.”

Across town, Alberto Maldonado, chair of the Undocumented Student Task Force at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was on a Zoom meeting with other members of his staff when one of them stopped the conversation to say the decision had come in.

The team stopped the meeting to share what Maldonado called a “joyous” moment — especially for one of his employees who is herself a DACA recipient.  

“One of my employees is a DACA recipient, I could see it in her eyes, we all had a moment where virtually we were sharing this joyous news,” Maldonado says. “I could see her breathing deeply and feeling hopeful for her and her sister that benefit from DACA. We couldn’t wait to share with the rest of the world and our colleagues.”

Both Maldonado and Gutierrez Ayala say Thursday was a happy day, but that the work is not finished. Gutierrez Ayala says he knows DACA is only a temporary status and now the work turns toward the presidential election in November and pressuring Congress into taking action on immigration reform. 

“Today we celebrate, but tomorrow we continue to keep fighting,” Gutierrez Ayala says. “It’s a celebration, but this momentum we have, this energy and resilience we carry, we need to carry on through the next couple of years, months.”

Even as Wisconsin’s immigrant community was celebrating the decision, the political action was ongoing. Voces de la Frontera, a Milwaukee-based immigrant rights organization, was driving to Burlington for a protest against the dangerous work conditions of immigrants working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The protest included a vehicle caravan and a wreath-laying at the home of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington). 

In a recently released recording of a conversation between Vos, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Gov. Tony Evers, Vos blames the Racine area’s “immigrant culture” for an outbreak of the virus. 

Voces organizers say they believe the fight for DACA recipients and for safe working conditions are intertwined.

 

“What links DACA and the fight for worker safety is that nothing is achieved without strong organized campaigns,” Executive Director Christine Neumann Ortiz said in a statement. “It is only collective action that put enough pressure on to save DACA and it will only be collective action to put enough pressure on to save workers.”

Maldonado says the decision came as a relief for the community that has been battered by the twin crises of COVID-19 and the ensuing economic downturn. 

“This definitely comes at a great time where our community of undocumented folks are essential workers,” he says. “Here in Milwaukee a lot of members of our community have been impacted by COVID or lost their way of making a living. A sense of relief and security but folks also live in fear.”

Maldonado says most of that relief is for the undocumented students and families he works with — UW-Milwaukee estimates there are more than 300 undocumented students on campus — and now his work can start from a more comfortable position. 

For now, that work means focusing on November and helping students who are eligible to vote, “go out and exercise their civic duty.” 

Gutierrez Ayala, who has dreams of one day running for office, is dedicated to continuing the fight. 

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” he says. “Although this is a great victory, this is just a Band-aid to a greater issue. We know that DACA is a temporary protection. We know it can be taken away. We’ve been in this legal limbo, we’ve been bargaining chips with our futures at stake. Although this was a victory and it’s great for DACA recipients like myself, it’s not a solution. Our lives are still at stake, there’s still more to be done in terms of finding a solution.”