On June 15, 2012, President Obama changed many lives for the better with his historic announcement of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative. This critical and necessary action by the President went into effect on August 15, 2012 when young people were able to take the piles of paper they had compiled to prove they were eligible and apply for DACA.
Today marks the 4th anniversary of those first applications, and is cause to celebrate, but also to push for further expansion of this program. In the face of inaction by Congress, the executive branch has been able to help thousands of young immigrants and their families. Government figures show that to date, more than 728,000 individuals have applied for DACA out of an estimated 1.16 million who are eligible. It is a good start, but much more needs to be done.
Some were critical of President Obama for this initiative, but, he used his legal authority to help young people in a system where reform is long overdue. Children, brought to America, some as young as a few months old, were growing up only to find out that the only country they have ever known is a place where they have diminished rights and are at risk of deportation. Some of the clients I have worked with didn’t figure out they weren’t U.S. citizens until they were trying to get a driver’s license or applying to college. Most of these kids didn’t have a choice to come here and never chose to violate any immigration law. President Obama recognized that they should not be punished.
DACA offers a work permit and two years of “deferred action” for those who qualify. Deferred action is a fancy way of saying that you will be safe from deportation for now. With DACA in hand, most recipients are eligible to apply for a social security number and, in most states, an ID or driver’s license. While DACA is not a permanent solution, a grant of legal status, or a pathway to citizenship, it has provided much needed temporary relief to young adults. Sadly, I was hoping that by today, DACA renewals would no longer be necessary and we would see immigration reform passed by Congress and signed into law. While the failure of meaningful progress on immigration reform is frustrating, I believe our country is definitely better off now than it was four years ago. How are we better off?
DACA has facilitated a strong economic impact for young immigrants. The National Immigration Law Center (NILC) and the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that post-DACA, more than two-thirds of recipients were able to secure employment with higher pay and wages rose by an average of forty-five percent. Not only is this good news for DACA recipients, it is good for the country as it translates into higher tax revenues and stimulates overall economic growth.
DACA has helped recipients with eased access to higher education. Many states and/or schools now extend in-state tuition to DACA recipients, and scholarships, such as the “Opportunity Scholarship for TheDream.US” give individuals the potential to attend school at reduced rates. Not only is DACA providing financial relief for higher education, but it has opened overall access as well. Some higher education institutions did not even allow undocumented students to enroll (regardless of their academic achievements or ability to pay tuition). DACA has opened the doors to enrollment at universities that would have been otherwise unavailable. Allowing DACA applicants to come out of the shadows and pursue their education enhances our national aptitude and continues to improve the economy.
Despite the success of DACA, there is significant work left. In November 2014, President Obama pledged to expand DACA and introduce Deferred Action to parents of United States citizens and lawful permanent residents (DAPA). This exciting announcement would have expanded DACA to eligible individuals over the age of thirty-one (removing the age requirement from the initial qualifications) and allowed for qualifying parents to apply. Unfortunately, with the recent 4-4 SCOTUS decision, plans for this expansion are on hold. If these programs are able to move forward, NILC and CAP estimate that it would have significant economic benefits, including $230 billion added to the nation’s gross domestic product over a decade, and the potential for an additional $805 million in state and local tax revenue annually.
With all of the benefits and hope DACA has given us, it remains a temporary relief. True immigration reform is still needed to place immigrants on a meaningful trajectory towards future residency and/or citizenship. NILC and CAP estimate that providing a more permanent path to these individuals would add $1.2 trillion to the United States’ cumulative GDP over a decade, raise wages for all Americans, create an average of 145,000 new jobs annually and raise an additional $2.1 billion in state and local taxes each year.
The past four years have illustrated the overwhelming benefits of providing young immigrants a chance to come out of the shadows and pursue the American dream. DACA has exemplified the enormous advantage of opening doors for immigrants and the substantial benefit the United States gains from the same. Immigrants have demonstrated their willingness to participate and contribute to a country they already know and love – they just need a chance. I hope that by DACA’s fifth anniversary, Congress will have moved forward on meaningful immigration reform that gives these families the chance they deserve.
By Katie Sarreshteh, Member, AILA Media Advocacy Committee