The one immigration policy that isn’t politically or ideologically divisive, the one that elicits vast support from Americans in nearly every survey, is DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
DACA allows certain unauthorized immigrants who came to the United States as children to obtain temporary relief from deportation (i.e., deferred action) and work permits. Poll after poll after poll consistently shows that roughly three-quarters of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, would like Dreamers, as the population of young immigrants eligible for DACA is commonly known, to get permanent protections.
And yet a decade after the DACA program was launched by then-President Barack Obama, its holders remain in limbo. Since 2012, more than 800,000 Dreamers have benefited from DACA. But Republicans, including former president Donald Trump and a group of state attorneys general, have been trying to kill the policy since its inception via countless challenges. Those ongoing legal court cases are one of the reasons why the program is not open to new applicants.
This week, the Biden administration published a federal rule aimed at codifying DACA. But it’s a narrow rule that preserves the status quo by benefiting only the roughly 600,000 active DACA recipients — it doesn’t expand eligibility, reopen the program for new applicants, or immediately shield it from legal challenges. Nor is the rule a permanent solution. Expected to take effect on Oct. 31, the regulation is no substitute for action that only Congress can take but has refused to do.
Here’s why that’s baffling: Not only do Americans overwhelmingly support DACA, researchers have called it the most successful immigration program in recent decades. Data from a longitudinal, national study launched a year after DACA was enacted show that its recipients, by and large, had harnessed the program as a vehicle for upward social and economic mobility.
“DACA facilitated the completion of vocational programs, associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and even graduate and professional degrees from master’s programs to law and medical school,” wrote the authors of the 2019 study from the Immigration Initiative at Harvard University and the National UnDACAmented Research Project.
A separate 2019 survey prepared by the US Immigration Policy Center at the University of California San Diego, the Center for American Progress, and other organizations found that the hourly wages of DACA recipients increased by 86 percent since they got the status, going from $10.46 per hour to $19.45 per hour. Yet another study of Latino and Latina DACA recipients in California published last year found more evidence that getting DACA status is associated with earning higher wages when compared with immigrants who are nonrecipients.
The economic contributions of Dreamers are undeniable. A policy brief from New American Economy found that the DACA-eligible population made $23.4 billion in earnings in 2017, up from roughly $19.9 billion in 2015.
The failure of Congress to pass federal legislation that would legalize the immigration status of hundreds of thousands of Dreamers is another reminder that polling data and statistics take a back seat when it comes to immigration policy. Politicians and elected officials would much rather pander to the most extreme and fringe elements of their political base.
In the meantime, the country is missing a huge opportunity to galvanize the economic potential of Dreamers. For the first time in a decade, a majority of graduating high schoolers who are undocumented immigrants have none of the DACA protections. (The original program required DACA applicants to have lived in the country since 2007.)
Still, despite the fact that their 10-year dream has proven to be quite elusive, Dreamers keep pushing and fighting. During the past decade, DACA holders have graduated college, obtained driver’s licenses, found new and better-paying jobs, married, opened credit cards and built credit, bought cars and homes, and had children. Every year that Congress doesn’t pass legislation to protect them for good, it risks squandering the social and economic progress DACA participants have achieved.
Dreamers don’t need another temporary policy workaround; they need legal permanent status. How long must they keep dreaming of it?