A Clean DACA Solution is Morally Just and a STEM Responsibility

By Jewel Lipps and Wanda Lipps

Photo by Courtney Hedger on Unsplash

We are sisters, the daughters of a Mexican immigrant and Anglo Texan. We were born in Brownsville, Texas, which is directly across the river from Matamoros, Mexico. Matamoros, the hometown of our mother, is a city that has been severely affected by drug cartel violence (source). Our mother received authorization to live and work in the U.S. when she was 15 years old. She overcame many barriers to earn a degree in chemical engineering, work as a chemist, and become a U.S. citizen at the age of 40. She inspired us to study science and engineering; now, one of us is a Biology PhD student and the other recently completed a bachelors in Mechanical Engineering.

Our STEM success story and that of countless other scientists and engineers in this country would not have been possible in a world with restrictive and exclusionary immigration policies. As advocates for inclusivity and diversity in STEM, we must also be advocates for immigrants and their opportunity to study and work in the U.S.- especially for those who cannot find those opportunities in their place of birth.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an executive action put in place by the previous Administration in 2012, was life changing for undocumented immigrant youth. The current Administration rescinded DACA in September 2017 based on a series of largely unfounded claims. We urge you to join us in advocating for a legislative solution for DACA recipients that does not include stipulations for insensible, divisive approaches to border security. Here we explain why STEM fields are impacted by this debate and what actions 500 Women Scientists and allies need to take.

DACA, Diversity, and Inclusion in STEM

Initiated in 2012, the DACA program allows hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrant youth receive a two-year reprieve from deportation and temporary work permits. To become a DACA recipient, individuals must meet several requirements with regard to age and immigration, and must pass a background check. Nearly 1.2 million undocumented youth were immediately eligible for DACA as of 2013, and nearly 800,000 applications for DACA were accepted as of 2017. (source)

The DACA program was an important step to open up opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) for nearly a million young people raised and educated in the U.S. One survey of DACA recipients showed that 30% of respondents began postsecondary education after receiving DACA and the largest percent of survey respondents envisioned a STEM career (source). A separate survey of undocumented undergraduates showed that more than 28% are currently pursuing a STEM degree (source). The Washington Post shared anecdotes of several DACA recipients with STEM aspirations: the 19-year-old community college student from Bolivia who wants to be an aerospace engineer, the 18-year-old student from South Korea who wants to be a computer scientist, and the 26-year-old student from El Salvador who works at a technology company while attending college. Ending their ability to get an education and work in this country as productive members of the community is not only unjust but self-defeating.

Notably, of DACA recipients surveyed in 2015, over 90% identified as Hispanic/Latino, with origins from 19 countries. People from Latino and Hispanic backgrounds are severely underrepresented in STEM fields in the U.S. (source). People from Hispanic backgrounds are 16% of the US population, but earn less than 10% of bachelor’s degrees in computer sciences, biological sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics (source). These statistics are even worse for Hispanic women, who in 2014 earned less than 1.79% of bachelor’s degrees in computer science, 2.08% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, and 3.33% in the physical sciences (source). We need to recognize that those enrolled or eligible for DACA are youth who may be interested in becoming scientists, but face a tremendous barrier. To uphold our commitment to diversity and inclusivity in the sciences, we must advocate on behalf of these young undocumented immigrants.

Science and Technology as a Real Solution for the Border Security Debate

In today’s political climate, advocacy for a legislative solution for DACA recipients is intertwined with debate about security measures for the U.S. border with Mexico — including the construction of a wasteful and unnecessary ‘wall’. And although the President’s campaign promises stated that “Mexico would pay for the wall”, the current budget negotiations are aimed at passing the burden on to US taxpayers.

The current administration and many in Congress insist that a physical wall must be constructed along the southwest border. However, the Department of Homeland Security September 2017 report on southwest border security efforts states: “With respect to border enforcement outcomes, available data also indicate the lowest number of illegal entries at least since 2000, and likely since the early 1970s.” They estimate 170,000 successful undocumented entries to the U.S. in the southwest, a 91% decline since 2000 (source).

This low number of unauthorized immigration certainly does not warrant the multibillion dollar estimates to construct the physical border wall demanded by President Trump. Moreover, the actual threat on the southwest border comes from drug cartels (source). These drug cartels now use drones for their operations, to which the president of the National Border Control Council said “we flat-out just don’t have the technology to detect these” (source, source). It would also be prudent for the federal government to seriously consider and prioritize proposed policies and solutions from Congressional representatives of border districts. For instance, Representative William Hurd opposes the border wall proposition on the basis that technology is cheaper and more effective than a physical wall against the activity of drug cartels, and calls for high-tech solutions to border security (source). As scientists and engineers, we must speak up for innovative technology as a true solution for securing the border.

Finally, we must insist that intensifying deportations, cracking down on “sanctuary cities,” and restrictive immigration policies do not address the true problem of drug cartel violence and smuggling on the southwest border. Our own personal story is evidence that immigration offers a path away from violence towards productive lives and careers.

What We Must Do

500 Women Scientists members and allies live across the nation and are in position to pressure their representatives in Congress to unequivocally reject the border wall and deportation policies during the discussion of legislative solutions to DACA. As geologists, ecologists, engineers, and experts of other relevant disciplines, we must communicate to our representatives the impracticality of border wall construction (see Smithsonian’s “What Geology Has to Say about Building a Border Wall”). We must convey the necessity of high-tech security approaches to drug cartel threats in the southwest. We must echo the voices of those who live in border districts and present scientifically-informed, technology-empowered options.

Our most important message to our representatives must be that we emphatically and wholeheartedly support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant youth. Such legislation will open the doors for hundreds of thousands of young people to pursue higher education and careers in STEM, largely from populations that are presently underrepresented in STEM. We support these immigrants, and we want to welcome them into STEM with no barriers to their dreams.

3 Ways to Take Action

  1. Call your representatives to demand they support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant youth and reject the divisive border wall. Ask them to demand for a clean DACA bill in the ongoing budget negotiations. Use the 5calls.org script or the United We Dream script as a starting point for your message, and elaborate using the points discussed in this blog post.
  2. Find out how your university or alma mater supports undocumented students and tell us in the comments. If your institution does nothing or does not do enough, urge them to do more. To be an advocate for undocumented youth, refer to these toolkits and resources about higher education.
  3. Most importantly, vote! 2018 is an election year, with primaries in spring and the elections in November. Make it clear at the ballot box that we want representatives in Congress who support a path to citizenship for undocumented youth and humane immigration policy. Update your voter registration if you need to, and make sure everyone you know who can vote is also registered and votes.