Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #12: Joel Sati

UC Berkeley doctoral student Joel Sati.

The downside of DACA and the hard fight ahead

By Oliver Riskin-Kutz

UC Berkeley’s Joel Sati is a doctoral student in Jurisprudence and Social Policy who is studying undocumented immigrants, a subject that’s close to home. He arrived from Kenya as a young child and much later benefited from DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—a program enabled by former President Obama to offer modest hope to young undocumented immigrants seeking education and security in the United States. Prompted by the DREAMers movement, DACA has helped approximately 665,000 undocumented children to be protected—at least temporarily. Sati and I spoke in December about the treatment of certain immigrant groups and how this has, in turn, provoked the marginalization of others—from criminalization to the intersections of immigrant status and race.  As President Donald Trump announces plans for massive deportations and sparks widespread fear in immigrant communities nationwide, Sati’s perspectives are especially critical.

O-RK: What is the DACA program?

J-S: DACA was an executive order that President Obama released after pressure from a lot of immigrant groups, and it applies to undocumented immigrants who came here as children, don’t have a criminal record, and have graduated from high school. They are able to get prosecutorial suppression for two years, which means they become a really low priority for deportation. In those two years, undocumented immigrants can get work permits and apply for Social Security for work purposes; they may also obtain drivers’ licenses in certain states.

O-RK: Does it apply to any undocumented immigrant who came here as a child?

J-S: There were restrictions that made DACA inaccessible to a majority of people: for example, being younger than 30, and having arrived in the United States before December 15, 2007. In all, I believe it benefited less than 10 percent of the total number of undocumented immigrants.

President Obama also pushed for more deportations as a sort of ‘down-payment on immigration reform’ to try to get agreement from the other side of the aisle; he showed the immigrants’ rights movement that the political establishment can’t be trusted.

O-RK: You are currently benefitting from the DACA program. How did you feel about sending all your information to Washington to apply?

J-S: DACA came out during the 2012 general election and a lot of people decided not to apply to the program because they were worried that if [Mitt] Romney was elected, their information would be compromised. There was a bit of a lull until Obama won the election and people felt safe applying. I applied about a month after the program went live and wasn’t too worried, but then again I was a different person than I am now.

O-RK: How did you become active in the politics around the DACA program?

J-S: I was enrolled in school in Maryland at that time, and spent the summer and fall of 2012 lobbying for the Maryland DREAM Act. This referendum allowed undocumented students who had graduated from high school and spent two years at a Maryland community college to receive in-state tuition at Maryland institutions of higher education. The victory led me to make the move towards working for comprehensive immigration reform.

O-RK: Can you tell me about the bipartisan act currently in Congress to protect DACA?

J-S: On the Senate floor, Senator Dick Durbin and Lindsay Graham released the BRIDGE Act, which will allow the people who have received deferred status to be protected under a similar model. While it doesn’t grant a path towards legal status and is not renewable, it does protect immigrant students from deportation.

O-RK: You have some reservations about DACA?

J-S: I’ve always been ambivalent about policies like DACA, and now the BRIDGE Act, because I think these policies exceptionalize a certain subgroup of undocumented immigrants while further marginalizing others. Once DACA became policy, it pacified the people who were called DREAMers and let them present themselves as exceptional, making it difficult to push for further reform. President Obama also pushed for more deportations as a sort of ‘down-payment on immigration reform’ to try to get agreement from the other side of the aisle; he showed the immigrants’ rights movement that the political establishment can’t be trusted. Now, we’re trying to look at what our options are, how we develop narratives, and the institutions that we need to call into question. I’m trying to organize in the best way I can—writing and blogging, trying to start conversations at Berkeley through lectures, panels, and symposiums. I also do work in philosophy, political theory, and epistemology, and I’ve been working on papers that look at the deliberative environment in which undocumented immigrants make claims for basic services, residency, and citizenship. By investigating in through this lens, I hope to call out certain assumptions and try to change the debate in a meaningful way.

O-RK: Is there a big community of DACA students at Berkeley, or students organized around the politics of DACA?

J-S: I think there are a few undocumented doctoral students—I only know a handful of them, but I’ll probably get to know more as time goes on. I really want to give a shout-out to an organization called RISE, the immigrants’ rights organizing group here at Berkeley. It’s led by really great undergrads and also by Meng So, the director of the Undocumented Students Center at Cal; there are some people who are organizing around undocumented immigration here at Berkeley, making cross-UC connections, putting pressure on UC President Napolitano. It’s empowering to see because Berkeley as an institution is in a unique position to make waves in terms of undocumented immigrants and immigrants’ rights.

What’s more pernicious is the fact that the idea of “the criminal” is left undefined by President Trump.

O-RK: You mentioned putting pressure on UC President Janet Napolitano; how have you been interacting with the UC administration?

J-S: I haven’t been personally interacting with the UC administration, but the people at RISE have been. It’s interesting to see some of the policies that Napolitano puts out; she published an op-ed in the New York Times which caught a lot of flak from the immigrants’ rights movement because it continued to exceptionalize undocumented students and really didn’t look at workers or at mixed-status families.

O-RK: Are there any other policy proposals out there now that help all undocumented immigrants, not just the DREAMers?

J-S: There’s some promising policy work coming up but a lot of it is still in its infancy since no one really knows what the administration is planning. I think right now it’s just a matter of protecting all undocumented immigrants and trying to marshal the institutions and people of influence to act as a bulwark.

O-RK: And what specifically are you expecting from this new administration?

J-S: Someone who’s been advising the new administration is Kris Kobach, the current Kansas Secretary of State. He’s a noted anti-immigrant attorney and helped draft Arizona’s SB1070, which is known as the “show-your-papers law,” as well as Alabama’s bill in that same vein. I think that new efforts are going towards criminalizing all undocumented immigrants. In an interview, [Trump] said that he’s looking to deport two to three million criminal immigrants. I’ve always thought of that number as a red herring, since two to three million seems logistically unfeasible. What’s more pernicious is the fact that the idea of “the criminal” is left undefined by President Trump. It’s not just people with criminal records who fall under that umbrella, it’s every undocumented immigrant. So what the political situation and the expansion of criminality will mean for undocumented immigrants is something that gives me great worry.

I’m a Black undocumented immigrant, and so for me and for other Black immigrants, I see the issue of criminality as attached to the status of Blackness and the politics of anti-Blackness.

O-RK: How would you characterize UC Berkeley’s response or the UC’s response to this so far? Is it satisfactory?

J-S: It’s very student-focused, which is predictable, given that this is an institution of higher education. But since they are a premier institution of higher education, it is incumbent that they do more. I’m looking at the idea of expanding the Undocumented Immigrant Center, expanding undocumented student programs, and prompting the UC system to take the lead in protecting all immigrants.

O-RK: The category of “immigrants” is a large one. Can you talk about the intersection of race, immigration, and criminality that complicates this discussion?

J-S: Absolutely. I’m a Black undocumented immigrant, and so for me and for other Black immigrants, I see the issue of criminality as attached to the status of Blackness and the politics of anti-Blackness. The immigrants’ rights movement has received a lot of criticism for the slogan, “Families, not Felonies,” meaning that the undocumented should be seen as persons and not as criminals. But such a claim suggests that anyone with a criminal record isn’t a member of family, and makes no claim to residency and citizenship. Thus, such a slogan can reflect negatively on African-Americans as well as Black immigrants, because of the way they are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, and so it undermines their claims. We talked earlier about Trump’s expanded notion of criminality. Questioning the system that makes people not only undocumented but also ‘illegal,’ and redefines their status as ‘aliens’—which is somehow foreign or inhuman—necessitates an analysis about race, gender, immigration status, queerness, and to other things of that nature.

O-RK: Have you noticed any changes in the attitude of the student body towards the DACA program or towards DACA beneficiaries since the election?

J-S: Yes. Echoing what I said earlier, the idea was that DACA will most likely go in January. So DACA beneficiaries were faced with a choice: do we push to maintain DACA, or do we accept that it’s gone and go back to pushing for everyone? I want to be optimistic and say that it’s the latter position, where DACA is going to go away, creating a golden opportunity to push for comprehensive immigration reform. I think that would be the better choice.

O-RK: Thanks! Any final thoughts?

J-S: It’s important to change narratives on immigration, and it is imperative that we get as many people on our side as possible to make this happen.