DACA: Human Rights Cannot Be Deferred

Editors’ Note: We have been asked to cross-post this important analysis, which addresses the ongoing crisis of DACA (and immigrant rights broadly) from an Indigenous perspective whose point of reference is not the settler nation state but rather an original relationship to Abya Yala, or Turtle Island. In the days to come, look for a podcast interview with Tupac Enrique Acosta of Tonatierra, which will explore these ideas in greater depth. 


DACA: Human Rights Cannot Be Deferred

By Betty Lyons

March 3, 2018

For those who know the Americas as the Great Turtle Island – Abya Yala, DACA is not an immigration crisis – it is a matter of simple human rights


As we approach [now pass] the March 5th date for expiration of the legal immigration status of so-called DREAMERS – those who came to the US as children and now fall under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, or DACA – we as citizens of the original Indigenous Nations of this continent have been watching closely.

We have dealt with these issues ever since the first Europeans crossed the Atlantic and claimed the right of “discovery” over lands to be called the Americas, a continent known to us for millennia as the Great Turtle Island – Abya Yala. Since the founding of the United States on our lands in 1776, these policies and practices have had a devastating impact on the territories and Human Rights of ourOriginal Nations and our relatives from both north and the south of the US borders.

For us, DACA is not an immigration crisis. It is a human rights crisis. And human rights cannot be deferred. Every day approximately 122 people lose DACA protection. This cruel policy immorally punishes and traumatizes innocent young people and their families.

As Indigenous Peoples, we know our history and we know our relatives.  Many so-called “undocumented” people are in fact Indigenous Peoples, children of Original Nations with a millennial history of travel across the continent to trade and engage in cultural and ceremonial obligations at sacred sites of their traditional territories long before the US (and its international borders) even existed.

The US-Mexico border is not an indigenous border. Similarly, to citizens of the Onondaga Nation – part of the Six Nation Haudenosaunee Confederacy, whom the European Americans call the Iroquois – the US-Canadian border runs through our traditional lands that we view as one inseparable nation.

Dividing families is something we cannot imagine doing to others, because we have been through this pain many times at the hands of the same government. That is why we as Indigenous Peoples support immediate passage of a “clean” Dream Act, and it should definitely not be linked to funding a wall along the US-Mexico border that Indigenous Nations never consented to in the first place. A border wall will exacerbate human rights violations and bring horrendous environmental destruction to the land.

There is a twisted irony at play here. As original Nations our ties to the land emerge from time immemorial. Today however we are forced to call for justice from the international arena in order to restore our rightful stewardship over our territories.

In 2014 the Onondaga Nation filed a land rights action against the US government with the Organization of American States (OAS) for the illegal taking of our lands. We had taken our case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear our case in part because “it would be too disruptive to the full use and enjoyment of the non-Native people who now live on our lands.”

While the US constitution says that treaties – such as the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua with the Haudenosaunee, signed byGeorge Washington for the United States – are the supreme law of the land, the United States has failed to enforce the promised recognition and protection of our lands from illegal invasion by settlers. As we have sought justice in the US courts for this illegal theft of our land, the courts refused to hear the case, citing the Doctrine of Discovery and claiming “it would be too disruptive” to the “justified expectations” of non-native people now living on our lands.

To be clear, the Onondaga Nation explicitly stated we do not want to “deport” people from our lands, the way we have been displaced historically. Yet while the US claimed it feared disrupting our non-native neighbors, they would hypocritically deport young Dreamers who have grown up in the US, with no regard for disrupting their lives and families.

We have had to face the fact that our legal case has no further recourse in the U.S. court system.  The “American Dream” of justice for all is simply not true, and for the Indigenous Peoples, it never has been.

If we are to truly discuss US immigration, we should start in 1493 with the “Doctrine of Discovery”, a series of Papal Bulls declaring lands not occupied by Christians could be claimed in the name of the explorers’ European sovereigns. Far from ancient history, the doctrine to this day underlies the law and policy related to Indigenous land rights and human rights in US courts and across the continent. The lingering racism underpinned by the doctrine is the real “constitutional crisis” unfolding before us daily, a symptom of the underlying crisis of self-definition of the US body politic that lies at the root of the tree of the American “experiment” in democracy.

If the US congress is incapable or incompetent to protect the Human Rights of the DREAMERS and their families, where shall we turn for justice? The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2007, proclaims in Article 36:

Indigenous peoples, in particular those divided by international borders, have the right to maintain and develop contacts, relations and cooperation, including activities for spiritual, cultural, political, economic and social purposes, with their own members as well as other peoples across borders.”

In the spirit of responsibility for caretaking the land for future generations, we call upon leadership from all sectors of society to live up to the ideals of democracy and decency, of human rights and justice and act immediately to protect the DREAMERS and their families, and to recognize, respect and guarantee the basic dignity and inherent human rights of all peoples, including Indigenous Peoples’ equal right of self-determination.

The time has come for our brothers and sisters of the United States to finally and for the first time discover the basic law of respect for our shared and common humanity which binds us all together as equal relatives of the Human Family.  The time has come to supersede the racism of the Doctrine of Discovery.

No one is illegal. Human rights cannot be deferred. 

Betty Lyons, a citizen of the Onondaga Nation, is president of the American Indian Law Alliance