Leveraging our Role as Community Psychologists through Op-Eds and Letters to the Editors to Advocate for Immigrant Justice

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by Sara Buckingham, Kevin Ferreira van Leer

As Community Psychologists, we aim to address social inequities by working with people who are being oppressed. To align our interest group’s work more closely with the concerns of migrant communities, we invited a member of United We Dream, the largest youth-led immigrant rights organization in the U.S., to help us identify how we can support their work. Their campaign centers on protecting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. In the face of increasing xenophobic rhetoric, United We Dream seeks to change the narrative in communities regarding immigrants. They asked us, in the face of the Supreme Court case on DACA and the Dream and Promise Act in Congress, to share our expertise and support immigration policies that further justice and challenge unjust policies. Specifically, they invited us to engage the public through op-eds, as op-eds can support narrative shift and call people to action. In this column, we highlight DACA and provide tips on writing media so that you can follow United We Dream’s call to action. We hope community psychologists around the country will join us in writing op-eds and letters to the editor to their local news outlets to inform the public on DACA, its benefits, and the injustice that will be created should DACA be rescinded.

What is DACA and Why is DACA in the News?
DACA provides qualifying undocumented young people work authorization and temporary relief from deportation. DACA was announced by the Obama administration in June 2012. The Trump administration announced its termination in September 2017. Multiple states challenged the decision, and in June 2019, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. In November 2019, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether the termination of DACA is unlawful, and they are expected to make their ruling by Summer 2020. To qualify for DACA, undocumented young people must have been under age 31 when the program was announced, have entered the U.S. as children and resided for at least 5 years, meet educational criteria, have not been convicted of a felony offense or significant misdemeanor, and have not posed a threat to national security. DACA recipients are granted temporary relief from deportation and entitled to work in the U.S. for two years, but they cannot travel outside of the U.S. without advance parole. DACA is not a path to lawful permanent residence or citizenship in the U.S.

What Do We Know About the Impact of DACA?
In 2016, it was estimated that there were 1.3 million undocumented youth eligible for DACA (Caps et al., 2017). Approximately 800,000 youths are DACA recipients (USCIS, 2017). Surveys of eligible youth have found that most DACA recipients have found new jobs, and often jobs that better match their education and training (Wong et al., 2019; Gonzales et al., 2014). A longitudinal, national study found that DACA provided greater educational and economic opportunities for these young people, resulting in access to higher wages and more meaningful employment (Gonzales et al., 2019). Access to temporary protection and work authorization has been associated with a greater sense of safety and security as well as positive future orientation (Gonzales et al., 2019). Depending on their state residence, DACA recipients have greater access to driver’s licenses, financial institutions, in-state tuition and state financial aid for postsecondary education, and occupational licenses. Research has shown that DACA is a vehicle for upward social mobility. These benefits have cascaded past individual DACA recipients to greater support for the families of DACA beneficiaries and their community (Gonzales et al., 2019).

The termination of DACA has increased anxiety for many recipients regarding their future. A national survey of DACA recipients found that over three-fourths of respondents were concerned with their safety, quality of healthcare, and education if deported to their country of their birth (Wong et al., 2019). Over half of those surveyed reported thinking of being detained or deported once a day. Nonetheless, DACA recipients continue to build community and become politically active to both defend the DACA program and advocate for immigrant justice.

We recognize that undocumented youth have long asked for the narrative regarding “dreamers” to shift to messages that lift up all immigrant youth and their parents. While DACA is important, it has limitations (Gonzale et al., 2019). The court cases exemplify its temporary nature and illuminate the need for greater legislative change. Please see a recent policy statement by SCRA (2018) on the effects of deportation and forced separation for a review of the empirical research on the consequences of deportation and detention, and related policy recommendations.

Why Should You Write an Op-Ed or Letter to the Editor? How Do You Write Them?
Op-eds and letters to the editor (LTEs) are powerful ways of communicating with the public and people in positions of power. We can share what we know and believe via media to draw attention, educate, and influence. Op-eds are typically 500 to 800 words and LTEs are typically less than 200 words. They are most likely to be published if they are about current issues, they are comprehensible and engaging, opinions offered are backed up by evidence, and the author has authority on the topic – from study or first-hand experience. Here are some tips:

Step 1: Choose the issue and the ask.

First, choose an issue you care about, like DACA. Ask yourself, “What do I want the reader to do after they read this?” That’s the basis of your opinion, and what your op-ed or LTE should be about. Don’t lose focus. Keep on message.

Step 2: Choose an outlet.

Op-eds should be treated like manuscripts submissions; that is, they should only be submitted to one newspaper at a time and not submitted to another unless they are rejected. LTEs, on the other hand, (usually) don’t require this exclusivity; you could submit virtually the same LTE to multiple newspapers. You should check newspapers’ guidelines for their expectations. National papers like The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post draw large audiences and allow for a large reach; local newspapers draw smaller audiences but allow you to more readily connect with your community (and they are more likely to publish your piece). When writing for a national paper, be sure to keep your focus national; if writing for a local paper, hone in on how the issue impacts the local community.

Step 3: Construct your piece.

We are drawn to the “EPIC” format of writing these opinion pieces:
First, Engage the reader – use a hook. In the words of Margot Friedman, “Activate the heart before you activate the head.” Your op-ed hook can be your personal story, local information, or catchy statistics. Your LTE hook can be the newspaper article you are responding to. Then, state the Problem and Inform on a solution to alleviate the issue. You should cite literature, but don’t confuse evidence with academic jargon. Your writing should be in active-voice, succinct, and clear. Anticipate objections and respond to them in your piece. Bret Stephens at The New York Times advocates for 80% information, 20% opinion. Finally, make a Call to action – tell the reader what you want them to do. Be direct, and feel free to respectfully name people who have the power to act (e.g., “I call on Senator XX to pass XX”). For an LTE, each piece might be one sentence; for an op-ed, each piece could be a paragraph.

Step 4: Edit, edit, edit.

Make sure you have non-academics read your work. Is it easy to follow? Is it interesting? Is it to the point? Are all of your sources cited accurately?

Step 5: Submit.

Most newspapers allow you to submit your op-ed and LTE via an online form; others prefer email. Read instructions and follow them carefully. Include your name, location, contact information, and your relationship to the issue you wrote about. Read your newspaper; many will publish LTEs without letting you know they have accepted them. Be responsive via phone; many will call you to confirm who you are and request a picture before publishing an op-ed. Haven’t heard back for 72 hours? Consider following up via phone.

Step 6: Multiply your effort!

Did you publish an op-ed? Reach out to people who can write LTEs in response! Did you ask a policymaker to take action? Send the piece to their office.

Want to Learn More?
● The Op-Ed Project: https://www.theopedproject.org/
● The Community Toolbox: Writing Letters to the Editor: https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/advocacy/direct-action/letters-to-editor/main
● Duke’s Communicator Toolkit: https://commskit.duke.edu/writing-media/writing-effective-op-eds/

Capps, R., Fix, M., Zong, J. (2017). The education and work profiles of the DACA population. Migration Policy Institute. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/education-and-work-profiles-daca-population

Gonzales, R.G., Camacho, S., Brant, K., Aguilar, C. (2019). The long-term impact of DACA: Forging futures despite DACA’s uncertainty. Migration Policy Institute. https://immigrationinitiative.harvard.edu/files/hii/files/final_daca_report.pdf

Gonzales, R.G., & Rendon-Garcia, S.A. (2016). Understanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) impact on young adults’ well-being: Findings from the national UnDACAmented Research Project. CYF News. https://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/newsletter/2016/11/deferred-action

Gonzales, R. G., Terriquez, V., & Ruszczyk, S.P. (2014). Becoming DACAmented: Assessing the short-term benefits of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). American Behavioral Scientist, 58(14), 1852-1872. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0002764214550288

Society for Community Research and Action (2018). Statement on the effects of deportation and forced separation on immigrants, their families and communities. American Journal of Community Psychology, 63(3), 3-12. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12256

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (2017). Number of form I-821D, consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, by fiscal year, quarter, intake, biometrics and case status fiscal year 2012-2017. Retrieved from: https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Resources/Reports%20and%20Studies/Immigration%20Forms%20Data/All%20Form%20Types/DACA/daca_performancedata_fy2017_qtr2.pdf

Wong, T.K., Abrar, S., Flores, C., Jawetz, T., Rodriquez Kmec, I., Martinez Rosas, G., Straut-Eppsteiner, H., & Wolgin, P.E. (2019). DACA recipients’ livelihoods, families, and sense of security are at state this November. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/news/2019/09/19/474636/daca-recipients-livelihoods-families-sense-security-stake-november/ .

Please contact Sara at sbuckingham@alaska.edu or Kevin at k.ferreiravanleer@csus.edu for more information.

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