E.g., 10/20/2017
E.g., 10/20/2017

All Eyes Turn to Congress, Following Trump Decision to Terminate DACA Program

Commentary
September 2017

All Eyes Turn to Congress, Following Trump Decision to Terminate DACA Program

Susan Melkisethian

President Trump’s decision to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, immediately halting new applications and allowing renewals for just six more months, will have repercussions across the United States. The roughly 790,000 approved beneficiaries, all raised and educated in the United States, live, attend school, and work in countless communities. Unless Congress steps in, the end of DACA in six months will affect not only DACA recipients and their families, but also employers, universities, and communities alike as beneficiaries begin to lose work authorization and protection from deportation, and face renewed barriers to higher education. New Migration Policy Institute (MPI) research shows that work authorization has helped DACA recipients contribute beyond low-skilled sectors of the economy, rising into higher-paying office jobs.

The President’s decision also slams the door shut for around 1.1 million others in the potentially eligible DACA universe—either because they did not apply, needed additional educational attainment, or were too young to file an application. MPI estimates that 1.9 million unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children met the age at entry and years of U.S. residence requirements to qualify for DACA. Of that number, an estimated 1.3 million immediately met all requirements to apply; 790,000 of these received DACA status, while the others did not apply. Another 398,000 could have met eligibility by completing additional educational requirements. And 228,000 would have become eligible once they turned 15. All told, roughly 40 percent of the DACA population has benefited from the program’s grant of protection from deportation and work authorization.

The six-month deadline for ending the DACA program, launched in 2012 via executive action by the Obama administration, places pressure squarely on lawmakers to consider the DREAM Act that has been pending in Congress for 16 years, or a related measure. Often referred to as Dreamers, unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children have been seen by many Democrats and Republicans alike over the years as a particularly sympathetic population, given that their immigration violations occurred when they were too young to make such decisions for themselves and many spent the bulk of their childhoods in U.S. classrooms.

The DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal status for Dreamers who meet a range of educational and other requirements, has long drawn bipartisan support. It was first introduced by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, and the sponsors of this year’s versions of the DREAM Act in the Senate and House are from both parties. The Republican-led Recognizing America’s Children (RAC) Act contains many of the same measures with stricter eligibility requirements. And the narrower bipartisan BRIDGE Act would essentially enact DACA through legislation for a period of three years.

How many might qualify would be determined by the exact contours of the legislation, but could range from the roughly 790,000 already granted DACA to anywhere from 900,000 to 1.5 million who could gain permanent legal status, according to MPI estimates of the RAC Act and the DREAM Act.

The experience of the last five years has demonstrated the deferred action program’s significant value. Its grant of work authorization has allowed employers to draw upon the education and skills of DACA recipients—and often their bilingual fluency—to meet labor needs across the economy. Recent MPI analyses show that the DACA-eligible population is far more likely to work in white-collar jobs, such as sales and office and administrative support occupations, than are other unauthorized immigrants of similar age. Those not eligible for DACA tend to work in occupations commonly associated with unauthorized immigrant workers in general, including construction and building and grounds maintenance.

If Congress does not act before DACA expires, starting in six months law-abiding employers will lose access to these employees as recipients’ two-year grants of work authorization expire, and with it the training investments many have undertaken. Instead of contributing their skills to the formal market, many one-time DACA recipients working without authorization will grow the country’s underground economy—which undermines a level playing field for all workers—and may see their job progress stall or even reverse.

If DACA ends before legislation is passed, this may also mean the United States misses out on the skills of what has been a growing cohort of educated workers. MPI data show that about one-third of the DACA eligible were enrolled in college or had already graduated. DACA opened doors to higher education for many. Gaining work authorization meant recipients could work at formal, higher-paying jobs to save more money for tuition. In fact, our work shows nearly one-quarter of the DACA eligible were both holding a job and enrolled in college.

A handful of states that do not offer in-state tuition to unauthorized immigrants in general made exceptions for DACA recipients. And with work authorization, these young people had the incentive to invest in their education, knowing that better jobs were available if they earned a college degree. Without DACA, students will face renewed obstacles to affording college and reduced motivations to enroll.

Losing DACA, without new legislation, would also mean losing access to protection from deportation. Some recipients would undoubtedly encounter U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, given the administration’s new policies making all unauthorized immigrants potentially susceptible to deportation. But as shown by the arrests of a few DACA recipients earlier this year, these enforcement actions would surely be met with public outcry and protests by legal service providers, community leaders, immigrant-rights advocates, and local elected leaders sympathetic to unauthorized immigrant youth, and would serve to strengthen calls for Congress to take action.

By freezing DACA in place for six months, the President may have addressed a short-term political dilemma. But this slow unwind of DACA ensures debate will rage on in search of a lasting solution.