Scientists Fear DACA Cancellation

Some researchers are at risk of job loss and even deportation if Trump decides to end a program that allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children to obtain work permits. 

By Jef Akst and Shawna Williams | September 4, 2017


Update (January 10, 2018): US District Judge William Alsup yesterday issued an order to block the Trump administration’s plans to end the DACA program, ruling that hundreds of thousands of Dreamers can still renew their DACA status while a lawsuit challenging the program’s cancellation is pending, The Washington Post and others report.

Update (December 14): Yesterday, five dozen medical societies wrote a letter to Congressional leaders imploring them to take action to protect recipients of the now-canceled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The groups noted that, while current Dreamers won’t officially lose their legal status until next March, many are already affected as they plan for the next steps in their educations and careers. “By providing a legal pathway to permanent residency for undocumented Americans brought to the U.S. as children, Congress can help our country produce a diverse and culturally responsive health care workforce to meet the needs of underserved populations, promote health equity, and avoid unnecessary disruption in our education and training systems,” they wrote.

Update (September 5): As expected, President Trump made his decision to end the DACA program official. “The program known as DACA that was effectuated under the Obama administration is being rescinded,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions told reporters this morning. Effective immediately, new applications will no longer be accepted, The New York Times reports.

President Donald Trump will cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, also known as the “Dreamers” program and launched by former President Barack Obama in 2012, with a six-month delay in enforcement, Politico reported over the weekend. While official word of Trump’s decision is not expected until tomorrow (September 5), if the cancellation goes through, some researchers in the U.S. face an uncertain future, with risks of losing their legal ability to work, and of eventual deportation. (There are approximately 790,000 total DACA beneficiaries, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.)

“I’m definitely a little worried,” says Karina, a recruiter and project manager for a California-based biotech company who asked that The Scientist only identify her by her first name. Karina came to the U.S. from Mexico at age three and is undocumented. “The DACA’s an opportunity that I’ve cherished so much these past five years, and just knowing that that can be gone in a few months is really terrifying. . . . I have this reality right now where every job is basically open to me; if I apply myself and work hard I have all the opportunities at my hand.” Without DACA, she anticipates that her employment opportunities might be limited to housekeeping or babysitting, jobs she expected she might go into prior to the launch of the program, which came right after she’d graduated high school. DACA has truly been “life changing,” she adds.

No data are available on how many DACA recipients are, like Karina, working in science- or medicine-related fields, but a relatively high proportion of them pursue higher education, says Tom Wong, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. For the past four years, Wong has helped conduct surveys of DACA recipients. These surveys have found, among other things, that one-third of recipients at least 25 years old reported having a bachelor’s degree. “DACA recipients 25 and older are outpacing not only the native-born population when it comes to educational attainment, but also the foreign-born naturalized citizen population, which tends to have the highest levels of educational attainment,” he says. The work authorization afforded by DACA encourages that attainment by providing opportunities to put their education to use down the road, he says.

“The reality before DACA is, you’re going to work really, really hard—you can be the best student and you can graduate from college—but your options are very limited and there’s not much you’re going to be able to do with your degree,” says Karina. “Then people would go back to do the labor-intensive work that’s stereotypical of immigrants.” 

Dealing with uncertainty

Christopher Ponce, a senior premed math major at Texas Tech University who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was four, has similarly enjoyed the benefits of DACA. After receiving employment authorization through DACA his freshmen year, he was able to secure a research position in the lab of Shaikh Rahman, where he’s studied the role of cholesterol regulation in a breast cancer cell line. Thanks to his DACA status, he’s received scholarships and research funding from the university’s Center for Integration of STEM Education and Research (CISER) that he would not otherwise qualify for. In addition, the DACA program has allowed him to travel outside the country on medical mission trips with doctors from the university, including a trip to Haiti to run an ophthalmology clinic.

“The DACA’s an opportunity that I’ve cherished so much these past five years, and just knowing that that can be gone in a few months is really terrifying.” 

biotech recruiter

Now, those trips and his future medical career are in question. “I was invited this January and then next summer to go to Guatemala, but obviously that’s not going to happen anymore,” Ponce says. “Knowing now that DACA is no longer around, I won’t be able to apply to medical school next May like I was hoping. I don’t know what I’m going to do now.” While some medical schools enacted policies to treat DACA beneficiaries as domestic students, Ponce anticipates that the termination of the program will mean he and other undocumented immigrants will be treated like international students, for whom it “is extremely, extremely difficult to get into medical school,” he says.

Saba Nafees, a graduate student at Texas Tech, is another DACA recipient. Nafees came to the U.S. from Pakistan at age 12 with her parents and two older sisters, with visas sponsored by their grandparents, who were US citizens, she says. But her grandparents passed away before the family could complete the process of obtaining green cards, leaving them undocumented once their visas expired. “When I graduated from high school in 2011 it was very, very difficult, because I didn’t know if I could even pursue higher education,” Nafees says.

Fortunately, she was admitted to the Honors College at Texas Tech University, where she paid in-state tuition thanks to the Texas Dream Act. There, she began doing research with evolutionary biologist Sean Rice. She later applied for and received approval through DACA. As a result, when her family was reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Nafees’s case was closed. Her parents, however, are under deportation proceedings, and could be forced to return to Pakistan at any time, she says. One of her sisters is on the verge of obtaining US citizenship through her marriage to a citizen, and plans to sponsor her parents for permanent residency. And now, with DACA possibly on its way out, Nafees’s own status is in question again.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree, she stayed on in Rice’s lab for her PhD work, which involves developing mathematical tools to identify patterns in the sequences of DNA and other biological molecules. Nafees is also interested in using those tools on datasets of cancer drugs to identify, for example, combinations of drugs that might be more effective against disease than either drug alone. She worries that because, unlike most DACA recipients, she has a record with ICE, she might be one of the first to be affected if the agency begins deporting former Dreamers.

Going forward

Proponents of the DACA cancellation have argued that the program is unconstitutional because Congress was not involved in its launch, Politico reports; rather, President Obama issued an executive order. Thus, many think the burden now falls to Congress to protect those who would be affected by the program’s termination. “My hope is that as part of this process we can work on a way to deal with this issue and solve it through legislation, which is the right way to do it and the constitutional way to do it,” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) told CNN in June.

“DACA was just a Band-Aid to our problem initially, and it was great—it was a wonderful solution for a short amount of time. But I really think it’s time now to have some sort of a permanent solution.”

—Saba Nafees,
Texas Tech

Karina is hopeful. The expectation of a six-month delay before DACA’s cancellation is enforced is “really comforting,” she says. “And knowing that there’ve already been so many proposals in the air,” including some with bipartisan support, “I’m very optimistic and have faith in Congress” that necessary legislation will be put in place to protect Dreamers such as herself. The students she’s interacted with through her job are also optimistic, she adds.

Nafees takes a similar view; the threat to DACA, she says, has drawn attention to the plight of people like herself. “DACA was just a Band-Aid to our problem initially, and it was great—it was a wonderful solution for a short amount of time,” she says. “But I really think it’s time now to have some sort of a permanent solution.”

Ponce, whose DACA status is set to expire in March, is less positive, however. “To be blunt, I doubt anything will happen in the next six months. We’ve seen the immigration conversation happen before; it just feels like the same thing over and over.”

Part of his pessimism stems from the lack of support he’s felt from his university. As president of Texas Tech’s chapter of the Define American program, which helps undocumented students secure financial aid, internships, and other opportunities, Ponce has been advocating for the university to promise to protect the identities of their students who are DACA recipients, but “so far, we’ve not had any luck,” he says. “It’s very conservative [in] Texas.”

How Congress will respond to the president’s expected decision remains to be seen, but the proposed cancellation faces opponents on both sides of the aisle. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) turned to Twitter to voice her opinion. “After teasing #Dreamers for months with talk of his ‘great heart,’ @POTUS slams door on them. Some ‘heart’...” she tweeted.

Reporting contributed by Kerry Grens

Correction (September 4): Christopher Ponce’s advisor at Texas Tech is Shaikh Rahman, not Rakhshanda Rahman. The Scientist regrets the error.

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Avatar of: Salticidologist


Posts: 58

September 5, 2017

There is always a human interest story to play on any side of the political stage.  But I'd rather see a focus on science and not on the politics played by scientists.  Scientists have personal political interests that are not necessarily aligned with the interests of the public at large, and as we have seen in recent years science is not served well by its involvement in politics, although scientists may find this personally useful particularly as they usually depend on government subsidies for their activities.

Avatar of: Howard A. Doughty

Howard A. Doughty

Posts: 10

September 5, 2017

If President Trump goes through with his apparent plan to cancel DACA (and nothing is certain in terms presidential predictability or consistency these days), it will not be the first time that people have been expelled from the USA on any number of pretexts (race, religion and political ideology among them).

It will, however, be the largest mass deportation of people who have grown up and lived in the United States in the history of the republic.

No doubt there are legal (and constitutional) issues about which I - not being an American: never was, never will be - am insufficiently well informed to comment. There are also serious issues of an ethical and moral nature which are fraught. There is, however, a cold-bloodedly practical matter which might be of interest to people who are moved neither by the technicalities of the law nor the passions of a sense of fairness and justice.

The fact is that upwards of a million young people who have grown up, been kept healthy and been educated at some expense are now at risk of being jettisoned and denied the opportunity to "give back" to the country that nurtured, raised and prepared them for productive citizenship. Many of them are now ready to or are already contributing to American society as skilled workers, teachers, health care professionals, entrepreneurs, social service workers, researchers and scientists. To extinguish them as contributing members of the community may be illegal, immoral and unethical (which, I acknowledge, are not arguments that would engage the skeptic), but would also be "a very bad deal."

Instead of active taxpayers, consumers, employees and proud citizens-to-be, Mr. Trump seems intent on creating a mass forced exodus of upwards of a million people with tremendous potential who will be transformed into foreigners with a life-long sense of resentment about their treatment by a government driven by motives that are questionable, if not wholly wrong-headed and destructive of all concerned - the USA included.

I can recall only one parallel - the exit of Jews and others from central Europe in the 1930s. That time, the USA was on the receiving end of a generation of wonderfully constructive people who, come to think of it, contributed as well to the end of the hostile and authoritarian reglimes that chose to exclude them.

Easy analogies to events in the 1930s are historically sloppy and logically false. Mr. Trump is not Adolf Hitler and the United States in not Nazi Germany. Still, a vigilant public and a firm reassertion of democratic and human rights is never out of place and may well be needed over the next six months and more.


Avatar of: Mandel


Posts: 1

September 5, 2017

Simple, apply for citizenship.  Dare not enter my house and eat my food in the absence of an invitation.

Avatar of: JRomo


Posts: 1

September 5, 2017

The original program set up by Obama appears to have been unconstitutional as the role of the president is not to legislate but to execute. Look it up, it is currently in court. Trump simply wants to remove this program because it was established  unconstitutionally and then allow congress to reinstate a similar and permanent program through legislation. Did you all not hear Trump say "congress you better get ready for this". They will then have 6 months to establish a permanent program. That is the legal way to establish such program. Not many people know that this program was originated by the republicans in congress before Obama took it as his own. By the way, Obama had an opportunity to make this a permanent program when his party had control of the House and Senate. Ask yourself this question…Why did Obama not push it through legislation then and why is Trump desiring to do that now?  So people like Saba, Karina, Christopher and myself should not be so worried if the republicans prefer to legislate a more permanent solution. We should be worried more about a program that can be overturned in the courts or a program that can simply be removed by any incoming President.

Avatar of: Soare


Posts: 1

Replied to a comment from Mandel made on September 5, 2017

September 9, 2017

Quote Mandel

Simple, apply for citizenship.  Dare not enter my house and eat my food in the absence of an invitation.

It's not "your" house, it's "our" house. If you don't like our guests, you can stay in your bedroom while we enjoy their company.

Avatar of: dmarciani


Posts: 68

Replied to a comment from Soare made on September 9, 2017

October 18, 2017

I am not so sure that people will normally accept uninvited guests. Usually, when somebody wants to get into somebody's house uninvited, people call the police; unless you live in a country where anarchy is the law.

Avatar of: dmarciani


Posts: 68

October 18, 2017

Considering the new focus of the Scientists on political issues, maybe it should change its name to "The Political Scientist" as it would be more honest. The US has laws for aliens desiring to come to our country, and the legal applicants pay high fees, go through an exhaustive scrutiny of their lives, and despite that mostly are educated and/or have family if the US, they need to wait for years. Thus, we are being unfair to those that follow our laws. Also, the US until recently has been rational and accepted talented foreigners because of their contributions to the advance of our country. Yet, The Scientists message is garble, from one side they tell us that there are no jobs for scientists in the US because of our government policies, from other side they tell us that if we do not accept foreign scientist with a dubious legal status, America’s future is practically doom because we need more scientists. I think that The Scientists is having a problem with its own arguments.

Finally, the fate of these young people should be addressed by Congress in a fair and humane fashion, rather than to avoid it and look to other direction. Those that have shown to be responsible hard workers should be allowed to state and become citizens. Those that are good for nothing, should be expelled from the country ASAP, since we do not need to add insult to injury with the current US level of delinquency. Yet, I expect The Scientist to find out some argument for what those that do not follow the laws and contribute to delinquency are good for science.  

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