The One-Year Anniversary of DACA: Unpacking the Phrase “Through No Fault of Their Own"

Monika Batra Kashyap, NWIRP Board of Directors

By Monika Batra Kashyap, NWIRP Board Member1

One year ago today, on June 15, 2012, President Obama announced the creation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy directive by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) designed to temporarily suspend the deportation of certain undocumented immigrant youth living in the United States.2 President Obama’s DACA announcement was the result of a decade long, immigrant youth-led collective movement which included community organizing, legislative advocacy, coalition-building, public testimony, media campaigns, and civil disobedience – a movement in which immigrant youth showed that they are active participants in the political system that controls so many aspects of their lives.3 

The creation of DACA is indeed a victory to be credited to its real champions: immigrant youth.  However, DACA, by design, has serious limitations: it has strict eligibility requirements which exclude many; it divides immigrant families by providing no relief for parents; and it creates a new and shocking ground for disqualification (one DUI offense) – a ground that could spread to other areas of immigration law.4

As the current debate about comprehensive immigration reform makes clear, DACA represents a pattern in U.S. immigration policy in which any allowances/permissions in a piece of immigration legislation are accompanied by an onslaught of restrictions and increasingly militarized immigration enforcement.5 The ubiquitous phrases used to explain (or apologize for) the presence of immigrant youth in the U.S. such as “through no fault of their own” or “through no control of their own” reflect such a pattern by “forgiving” while simultaneously “blaming.”  These phrases, that were perhaps initially used to illicit compassion and thus deemed strategically worthwhile, are now revealing themselves to be just as pernicious and toxic as the term "illegal immigrant," though in a more subtle way.

While the phrases “through no fault of their own” and “through no control of their own” may aim to absolve immigrant youth of any blame for their presence in the U.S., folded into the phrase is imputed blame somewhere else.  The implication is: there is fault to be doled out, it just shouldn’t be assigned to the children – instead it should be assigned to the parents/aunts/uncles/family friends who accompanied immigrant youth across the border. The phrases may seek to define immigrant youth by an absence of blame, but they do so by dividing immigrant families while reaffirming an identity of immigrants grounded in fault, criminality and illegality.

By placing blame on migrating adults, many of whom are escaping conditions that U.S. foreign and economic policies helped create in their home countries, these phrases vilify immigrants, erasing any possibility for an honest dialogue about the root causes of migration to the U.S.6  Further, by placing blame on migrating adults, these phrases reflect a failure to recognize the role that the U.S. has played in colonizing, enslaving, recruiting, and exploiting immigrants for the agricultural, industrial and economic growth of this nation.7

Immigrant youth activists have unpacked and decoded phrases like “through no fault of their own” and “through no control of their own,” recognizing that such phrases not only criminalize immigrants and divide immigrant families, but they also seriously harm immigrant communities in ways that could have lasting repercussions:

Continuing to use the phrase “through no fault of their own” may gain DREAMers8 support, but in the end, it continues to divide our families and diminish the contributions they have given to this country, namely their children. It is without a doubt that our families’ work ethic, resilience, strong moral character, family values, and dreams are what push us, inspire us, motivate us, and ultimately drive us to challenge ourselves and continue persevering.  Our families are not at fault.

--C. Belsai, Immigrant Youth Activist, Los Angeles, CA 

This is a term that was designated by the advocates as talking points in 2004. Once I realized how harmful it was I stopped using it and DREAMers started encouraging each other not to use it anymore. It's a horrible term and it creates a victim mentality. It also creates tension and the possibility to create bad legislation that hurts or punishes our parents for doing something that I believe took extreme courage and love.  I first realized how horrible it was when I was asked if I resented my parents for bringing me here and damaging my life, this was a producer of a TV show that was trying to get DREAMers to sue their parents. I usually say I came with my parents or just when I moved to the U.S.

--Gaby Pacheco, Immigrant Youth Activist, Washington, DC

In my experience, I chose to never use the phrase "through no fault of my (our) own" to describe myself or others as undocumented youth. Border crossing is a key life moment, not a perverse act. Everything that comes after is a normal way of trying to make a living, except with some crucial limitations and access to opportunities.  The "no fault of their own" pitch makes it apparent that it is the parents who are at fault and have to take the blame.

-- Immigrant Youth Activist

The narrative surrounding the phrase “through no fault of their own” was developed by certain organizations and politicians. It was them who have framed this criminalizing message and it was imposed on the youth.  This narrative has been dropped by immigrant youth, and instead adopted an empowering tone thanking the parents for taking such a courageous act.

-- Carlos Amador, Immigrant Youth Activist, UCLA Labor Center's Dream Resource Center

The language we use matters.  Immigrant rights activists, including immigrant youth, have long been struggling to shape and reclaim the dominant immigrant discourse in the U.S.  On April 23, 2013, protesters, including immigrant youth activists, came from across the nation and held signs outside The New York Times building insisting that The Times stop using the term “illegal immigrant.”9  In response to these and other organizing efforts, The Timesupdated its policies and stylebook to no longer embrace the term “illegal immigrant” and to instead encourage reporters and editors to “consider alternatives when appropriate.”10 A few weeks earlier, on April 2, 2013, the Associated Press had finally recognized the problematic nature of the term “illegal immigrant” and decided to completely banish its use.11

I urge immigrant rights advocates to resist using phrases like “through no fault/control of their own” when describing the presence, or method of entry, of immigrant youth in the U.S.  Let us always be aware of how our words, and the way we frame our arguments, can either support or resist dominant narratives that ultimately serve to divide and destroy immigrant communities.  In our push for immigration reform, let us take our lead from immigrant youth themselves, and use language that supports all members of immigrant families.



  1. I would like to thank and acknowledge those who provided input, guidance, insight and inspiration for this piece including: Carlos Amador, C. Belsai, Angélica Chárazo, Malou Chavez, Hilary Han, and Gaby Pacheco.
  2. See Memorandum from Janet Napolitano, Sec'y, DHS, to David V. Aguilar, Acting Comm'r, CBP, Alejandro Mayorkas, Dir., USCIS, and John Morton, Dir., ICE, on Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion with Respect to Individuals Who Came to the United States as Children (June 15, 2012).
  3. See Malou Chavez, President Barack Obama's Re-election Allows DACA to Remain Policy, Latina/o Bar Association of Washington (LBAW) Newsletter (Dec. 2012).
  4. DACA is possibly the first and only immigration benefit which excludes applicants due to a single DUI offense.  See USCIS – Frequently Asked Questions – Consideration of DACA Process (Jan. 2013). (Explaining new disqualifying category of “significant misdemeanor” which includes one DUI offense).
  5. See Tania A. Unzueta, How I stopped believing in CIR and learned to love ‘piecemeal’ legislation. IMMIGRANT YOUTH JUSTICE LEAGUE. (Dec. 2012). (Discussing how the term ‘comprehensive’ used by legislators and advocates is intentional and means both a path to legalization and  harsher penalties for future undocumented immigrants, including more stringent). enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border, and more robust employment verification programs.)
  6. See David Bacon, Migration: A Product of Free Market Reforms, Americas Program (Dec. 2012); See also Chacon and Davis, NO ONE IS ILLEGAL: FIGHTING RACISM AND STATE VIOLENCE ON THE U.S.-MEXICO BORDER, Haymarket Books, (2006); See also, Gerald Lopez, Don’t We Like Them Illegal?, 45 UC Davis L. Rev. 1711 (2012).
  7. See e.g., Monika Batra Kashyap, “Illegal” vs. “Undocumented”: A NWIRP Board Member’s Perspective (condemning the term “illegal immigrant,” and urging that language be viewed through a lens grounded in historical context.) Available below and here.
  8. Immigrant-youth led community organizing efforts first emerged in support of the 2001 Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Young people who are likely eligible for DACA, would also be eligible for the DREAM Act if it were to pass, and thus are referred to as “DREAMers.”
  9. The Times Shifts on ‘Illegal Immigrant,’ but Doesn’t Ban The Use. (April 23, 2013).
  10. Id.
  11. Associated Press Drops ‘Illegal Immigrant’ From Stylebook. (April 2, 2013).

“Illegal” vs. “Undocumented”: A NWIRP Board Member’s Perspective
Monika Batra Kashyap, NWIRP Board of DirectorsBy Monika Batra Kashyap

We are currently stuck in an “immigrant nomenclature debate” which includes, on one end, those who insist on using the term “illegal immigrant” such as some politicians and the media – including the New York Times and the Associated Press.  On the other end are those, such as many immigrant rights and advocacy groups, who eschew the term “illegal immigrant” in favor of descriptors such as “undocumented,” “unauthorized,” “non-citizens,” “without status,” or “unlawfully present.” 

Proponents of the term “illegal immigrant” claim that it is both precise and concise; they also claim that the term is better than other derogatory terms in circulation.  For example, the New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan maintains that while the Times correctly refrains from using the expressions “illegals” and “illegal aliens,” the term “illegal immigrant” should be used because it is clear, brief, accurate and descriptive, and it “gets its job done in two words that are easily understood.”1 

Proponents of the term “illegal immigrant” also reject the alternative term “undocumented” on the grounds that it obscures the “legal reality” of the situation, and that it is inaccurate.  For example, in its memo defending its use of the term “illegal immigrant,” the Associated Press maintains that terms like “undocumented” and other terms like it, “minimize the gravity of someone’s illegal presence in the country, making it seem like a matter of minor paperwork.”2   Furthermore the Associate Press claims the term “undocumented” is inaccurate, noting that: “Many illegal immigrants aren’t ‘undocumented’ at all; they may have a birth certificate and passport from their home country, plus a U.S. driver’s license, Social Security card or school ID.  What they lack is the fundamental right to be in the United States.”3 

On the other end, opponents of the term “illegal immigrant” offer a robust attack of the term.  Indeed a powerful public education campaign entitled “Drop the I-Word” was launched in 2010 by the Applied Research Center and which encapsulates many of the prevalent arguments against the term “illegal immigrant.”4   In short, the argument against the term is based on both legal and moral grounds.5 


The legal grounds include:


  • it is legally misleading because it connotes criminality, while presence in the U.S. without proper documents is a civil offense, not a criminal one; 
  • it is legally inaccurate because it is akin to calling a criminal defendant “guilty” before a verdict is rendered; 
  • it is legally imprecise because it implies finality even though immigration status is fluid and, depending on individual circumstances, can be adjusted;
  • it is technically inaccurate because it labels the individual as opposed to the actions the person has taken.


The moral grounds include:


  • the term scapegoats individual immigrants for problems that are largely systemic; 
  • the term divides and dehumanizes communities and is used to discriminate against people of color; 
  • the term creates an environment of hate by exploiting racial fear; 
  • the term affects attitudes toward immigrants and non-immigrants alike, most often toward people of African, Asian, Central American and Mexican descent; 
  • the term impacts the way young people feel about themselves and their place in the world; 
  • the term increases the American public’s tolerance for daily violations of human rights; 
  • the term is a code word for racial and ethnic hatred; 
  • the term is outdated, offensive, and implicitly carries with it negative connotations.  


In addition to the legal and moral grounds set forth above, I would like to offer an additional ground as a basis to reject the term “illegal immigrant” – history.  It is critical to view the words we use through a lens grounded in historical context – for doing so can promote a powerful shift in the discourse about immigrants in the U.S..  Indeed, recognizing that this land was colonized by European immigrants; that slavery was in fact forced immigration from Africa that this nation depended upon for its success for three centuries; that many immigrants were made “immigrants” through conquest and/or targeted recruitment by the U.S.; that immigrants play a critical role in the agricultural, industrial and economic growth of this country - reveals the hypocrisy, historical amnesia and racism that undergird the term “illegal immigrant” and also makes apparent the negating attributes of terms like “undocumented.”

Some historical context:


  1. All of the land within the United States' claimed territorial boundaries was occupied by indigenous peoples at the point of initial European colonial contact.6  Indeed, today, it can be - and has been - argued that imposition of the U.S. border on more than 400 indigenous nations whose lands have been forcibly incorporated into the U.S. is not only unlawful, but also results in irreparable harm.7 

    Furthermore, it can be – and has been - argued that the first “grant of asylum” on this land occurred in 1621 when Chief Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe, entered into the first treaty between the indigenous people of this land and the colonists (“pilgrims”) who fleeing England, came to this land and then colonized it.8

  2. Almost all of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah as well as portions of Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma, were part of Mexico until the mid-1800’s when the U.S. invaded, occupied and then annexed half of Mexico’s territory.9  Contrast the history of the invasion and occupation of Mexico by the U.S. with the following statements made by sponsors of Arizona Senate Bill 1070:

    “… I will not back off till we resolve the problem of this illegal invasion. Invaders, that's what they are.  Invaders on the American sovereignty and it can't be tolerated.”10 

    “We are being invaded. Twenty to thirty million people, illegal immigrants coming into our country is an invasion…. We need to take action to stop it...”11 

  3. The U.S. has played a proactive role in recruiting cheap labor from outside its borders – first through the forced migration of African immigrants in the slave trade, and then continuing with targeted recruitment from the mid-1800s until recently - from China, Japan, and Mexico.  In many cases, the U.S. later excluded and/or deported its initial recruits.12  

    A poignant example is the Bracero Program followed by Operation Wetback.  When America entered World War II in 1942, Congress enacted the Bracero Program which imported close to 5 million Mexicans to work in agricultural and railroad industries.13  However, by 1954, America's recession led to new efforts to remove Mexicans in what was officially named Operation Wetback where over one million Mexicans were deported or repatriated.14   
Such terms are dehumanizing

Therefore, while I firmly advocate for the wholesale jettison of the term “illegal immigrant” based on the legal, moral, and historical grounds above, I am also dissatisfied with terms like “undocumented,” “unauthorized,” “non-citizens,” “without status,” and “unlawfully present.” These terms are framed solely in the negative, and thereby reduce a person to a deficiency.  Such negating terms are dehumanizing; they connote finality, defeat, shame, and blame.

That said, because of the immigrant youth-led “undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic” movement which has reclaimed and reframed the term “undocumented,” such a term should indeed be deemed better than terms like “illegal immigrant.” Regardless, let us continue to interrogate the words we use - however imperfect the words may be.




  1. Margaret Sullivan, Readers Won’t Benefit if Times Bans the Term ‘Illegal Immigrant’. October 2, 2012.
  2. Reviewing the Use of ‘Illegal Immigrant’ October 19, 2012.
  3. Id. 
  4. See generally, Drop the I-Word,,
  5. See Jose Antonio Vargas, Immigration Debate: The Problem With the Word ‘Illegal’., September 21, 2012.; see also Rinku Sen, Why I Don’t Use the ‘i word’ - In Any Form, Huffington Post, October 14, 2010.; see also, Lawrence Downes, What Part of ‘Illegal’ Don’t You Understand? New York Times, Editorial Observer, October 28, 2007.
  6. See generally, THE STATE OF NATIVE AMERICA: GENOCIDE, COLONIZATION, AND RESISTANCE 2 (1992) (M. Annette Jaimes, ed.).
  7. See Natsu Taylor Saito, Crossing the Line? Examining Current U.S. Immigration & Border Policy: Border Constructions: Immigration Enforcement and Territorial Presumptions, 10 J. GENDER RACE & JUST. 193, 214, n.89 (2007).
  8. Gyasi Ross, A Native Lens: hypocrisy, historical amnesia muddy immigration debate. Colors NW Magazine, July 2006.
  9. See William Arrocha, From Arizona's S.B. 1070 to Georgia's H.B. 87 and Alabama's H.B. 56: Exacerbating the Other and Generating New Discourses and Practices of Segregation, 48 Cal. W. L. Rev. 245, 253 (2012).
  10. Arizona Senator Russell Pearce, sponsor of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 speaking in 2008. Ted Robbins, The Man Behind Arizona's Toughest Immigration Laws, Nat'l Pub. Radio (Mar. 12, 2008),
  11. Statement made by Rob Haney, the Maricopa County Republican Party Chairman, when S.B. 1070 was introduced to the Public Safety and Human Services Committee of the Arizona State Senate on January 20, 2010.  See Public Safety & Human Services, Ariz. State Legislature, (last visited Feb. 14, 2012) (follow Jan. 20, 2010 video hyperlink under “Committee Agenda”).
  12. See generally, Gerald Lopez, Don’t We Like Them Illegal?, 45 UC Davis L. Rev. 1711 (2012); see also, Rhonda V. Magee, Slavery as Immigration?, 44 U.S.F. L. Rev. 273 (2009).
  13. See Benny Agosto, Jr., Lupe Salinas & Eloisa Morales Arteaga, But Your Honor, He’s an Illegal! Can the Undocumented Worker's Alien Status Be Introduced at Trial?, 74 Tex. Bar J. 286, 287-92 (2011).
  14. Id., See also, Lilian Jiménez, America's Legacy of Xenophobia: The Curious Origins of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, 48 Cal. W. L. Rev. 279 (2012).