Researching DACA in Uncertain Times

When the Trump administration announced in early September intentions to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Christina Getrich knew her research plans for the coming year would change drastically.

In 2016, Getrich—an Assistant Professor in the University of Maryland Department of Anthropology—received funds through the BSOS Dean’s Research Initiative to conduct a comprehensive study on DACA recipients’ access to healthcare. Established in 2012, DACA allows undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation, to obtain valid driver’s licenses, enroll in college and legally secure jobs.

“While DACA has opened up many opportunities related to education and employment for its participants, we don’t know as much about their access to health care or how the program has affected their overall well-being,” Getrich said.

Getrich compiled a research team of graduate and undergraduate students to survey and interview DACA recipients about a variety of health-related issues. In all, the researchers studied 30 DACA recipients living in Prince George’s and Montgomery Counties, nine of whom were University of Maryland students. The study participants originated from countries throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America.

“At that time no one really talked about DACA recipients and what they were going through,” said Ana Ortez-Rivera, a senior majoring in sociocultural anthropology who joined Getrich’s research project in her junior year. “It was sort of background noise in contrast to now where it’s really at the forefront.”

While Congress still has several months to hash out an alternative to DACA, Getrich and her team are keeping a watchful eye on the scenario as it plays out and planning to follow-up with the original participants in their study to see how they’re faring during this uncertain period.

“We’ll see people lose their access to healthcare and a lot more mental health issues cropping up,” said Getrich. “We think it’s going to be important to concentrate on access to mental health services.”

For the students on Getrich’s research team, meeting local DACA recipients and hearing their stories has personalized the debate over the policy.

“They’re children that have had to navigate two cultures simultaneously without a break so they’re very smart but there’s also a point where people can’t do that much longer,” said Alaska Burdette, a senior double-majoring in anthropology and American studies. “It’s an exhausting life to be constantly pushing in this way. I would hope that the narrative can change from them being a pawn in a political game to realizing they are human. That’s really what we hope to accomplish with our research.”

Both Ortez-Rivera and Delmis Umanzor, who graduated in May with a degree in anthropology but stayed on as part of the research team, were born in the United States to immigrant parents and could identify with many of the issues DACA recipients are facing—particularly those who are UMD students.  

“I felt very connected,” said Umanzor, who now works as a CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA for UMD’s Leadership and Community Service Learning program. “They’re like any student, there’s nothing really different. They work hard. They study. I’m sure they cry about a test that’s coming up. Maybe they rub Testudo. They’re not different but they face so many more hurdles.”

“What I learned is that the narrative out there is warped,” Ortez-Rivera said. “(DACA recipients) deserve to be here. They work hard. They’re just as American as anyone else. In the end, they really exemplify what it means to be a citizen, just without the proper documentation.”

With the future of DACA and its nearly 800,000 recipients unclear, Getrich and her team are committed to chronicling whatever comes next for the participants they’ve come to know through their research.

“That’s the good thing about anthropology and our methods and our approach: We’re well-positioned to follow the story as it unfolds,” Getrich said.

UMD DACA research team at the Society for Applied Anthropology Conference in Spring 2017.