Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program is an Obama Administration initiative implemented to extend rights and benefits to the growing number of undocumented youths and young adults living in the United States. The program allows youths and young adults meeting certain requirements to temporarily defer deportation and receive both eligibility for renewable two-year work permits and temporary Social Security numbers that allow them access to health care and higher education. The program does not provide a path to legalization for these youths, but rather it simply offers them a means to participate constructively in the mainstream American economy, breaking down the barriers to higher education and employment faced by undocumented youths. As of March 2014, 553,197 young people have been approved for the program, although hundreds of thousands of others have not yet chosen to apply. The Washington-based Migration Policy Institute estimates a total of 1.1 million people are eligible for DACA.
To be eligible for DACA, a young person must have arrived in the United States prior to age 16; have resided continuously in the United States without legal status since June 15, 2007; be less than age 31 as of June 15, 2012; and at least age 15 at the time of the application submission (unauthorized immigrants under 15 but in removal proceedings are also eligible to apply). Additionally, eligible applicants must currently be enrolled in school; have graduated high school or obtained a general development certificate (GED); or be an honorably discharged veteran. Finally, applicants are inadmissible who have been convicted of a felony, have multiple or serious misdemeanors, or who pose a threat to national security or public safety.
Prior to DACA, these young people had no alternative but to work illegally in low paying positions with little or no chance for advancement, creating a waste of talent and skill that could be used to improve both their lives and the United States economy. Most live in low-income households with family members, many of whom are undocumented themselves. As with adult immigration trends in recent years, most applicants have relocated from violence and gang-torn regions of Latin America, and they come to the United States in search of safety, and, hopefully, the chance to earn a steady wage.
Since the implementation of DACA on June 15, 2012, almost 700,000 youths have applied to the program, and approximately 72% of them have been approved. Nearly three-fourths of these come from low-income households, and they have a median age of 22.7 years. The vast majority of applicants (74.9%) originally hail from Mexico – there are over twenty times as many applicants from Mexico as there are from El Salvador, the second leading nation of origin. Rounding out the leading nations of origin are numerous Latin American nations and a sprinkling of applicants from other parts of the world.
Despite its successes, the program still faces considerable challenges from interest groups within the government, from misinformation about the program, and even from inconsistency in application of the program by officials. Older applicants, especially those living independently from parents, and those not enrolled in school, may have a harder time documenting that they have been living in the United States continuously since 2007. In addition, the more time that has elapsed since their entry, the longer time period they must document residence in the United States. Other potential applicants are discouraged by issues such as whether they qualify under the criteria, lack of funds for the $465 application fee, or lack of educational enrollment. Some potentially eligible individuals may not be aware of their undocumented status, especially younger people. Still others lack correct information about the program. Despite outreach by nonprofits, many lack access to support in filing applications. Further complicating the matter, US Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) persistently encourages eligible youths to come forward, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) continues to deport the friends and family of eligible youths – in some cases, it even continues to deport youths who turn out not to be eligible.
For those who do qualify, the outcome of involvement with DACA seems to be mostly positive. Almost 60% of DACA beneficiaries have obtained new jobs since approval, and have been able to increase their income. Because the new earnings translate into a greater tax base, beneficiaries provide an important boost to the recovering economy. Intriguingly, 21% of DACA beneficiaries have accepted internships, highlighting the valuable career training that DACA provides to youths. 57% of these youths have obtained drivers licenses, increasingly their mobility while decreasing the number of unlicensed drivers – thus creating safer roads for everyone. 49% have opened their first bank account, and 33% have obtained their first credit card. Also importantly for our crippled health care system, 21% have obtained health insurance at the state level (DACA beneficiaries remain ineligible for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act at the national level). The greatest benefits of DACA seem to be for those who have already received a bachelor’s degree from a four-year college. These respondents are far more likely than non-DACA peers to obtain jobs following their approval.
In whole, DACA has been a marked success, enriching not only beneficiaries, but also their families, friends, and communities. Community-based organizations, non-profits, legal clinics, religious organizations, and schools have diligently reached out to provide information and assistance to young persons wishing to file DACA applications. The program provides beneficiaries with not only economic opportunities, but also social and civil opportunities previously beyond their reach. Despite this, the program remains a partial solution because it offers no path to citizenship for even the most exemplary candidates. With 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country, providing an efficient and equitable solution to immigration reform remains a crucial challenge.