A decade with DACA shows sensible immigration policy, we still deserve better
The Obama-era order grants rights to certain young adults who came to the U.S. before the age of 15
Supporters of the DACA program rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court. (Robin Bravender / States Newsroom Washington Bureau)
The immigration policy that is providing hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to live and work in the United States without fear that their future would be disrupted by deportation is now ten years old.
When Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA was issued by executive order under the Obama Administration on June 10, 2012, it caused a big reaction because it seemed like a radical idea to provide benefits to certain undocumented immigrants living in the United States and not punish them.
A decade later, it is clear that this policy was sensible and has been enormously effective. Our lawmakers should be trying to replicate and improve it at a far larger scale. It is what immigrants and citizens alike deserve.
Here is a quick primer for anyone who doesn’t know what the DACA policy is:
The executive order was issued following years of immigration policy proposals failing in Congress and extraordinary activism on the part of young immigrants.
DACA grants rights to certain young adults who came to the United States before the age of 15, have little or no criminal issues and are enrolled in an educational program or have graduated high school. If an individual can prove eligibility to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services then they receive a reprieve from deportation, a work permit, a social security number and the opportunity to renew their DACA every two years.
This is by no means a perfectly designed program. The criteria to qualify is nitpicky and the evidence a person had to provide to prove eligibility is onerous. It’s also an expensive pain in the butt to re-apply every two years, especially when agency delays can cause work permits to lapse and disrupt people’s jobs. DACA also has shown to be very vulnerable to legal challenges because of the nature of executive authority.
But it has provided hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to work legally and live without fear that their future would be disrupted by deportation. And when people have that opportunity they then give back to their communities with cultural contributions, ideas, tax dollars, spending, labor, business creation, earning degrees and living healthier lives that don’t depend on government services.
In 2012 I was a freshly minted lawyer and excited to help young people in my community access these benefits. I remember the first case I filed. My client was a bright teenager with a beautiful smile and her mom was rightfully too scared to accompany her to a fingerprint appointment in Albuquerque. So she and I went together. We were both so nervous and even though the appointment was early in the morning, I remember going for a frappuccino at the nearby mall afterwards to calm our anxiety.
I am still in touch with that young woman today. She is an accomplished professional and raising a family. I am always cautious to not include too much information that would reveal my clients’ identities, but it is telling how that description could describe so many hundreds of the individuals who I have met over the years of helping people apply for DACA. I run into former clients everywhere and they are thriving students, professionals, homeowners, business people, and parents. Some are now permanent residents or citizens too. It would be wrong to say I am surprised by their success. It would be absurd and racist to have low expectations for people because they weren’t born in the US. But it is really wonderful to see them proving the concept that if our government provides immigrants access to the tools to succeed they will.
I don’t mean to place pressure on DACA recipients to be model human beings. The concept that an immigrant has to be perfect to deserve benefits is dangerous. We should all be allowed to make mistakes and have messy lives without the stakes being so high. But I have seen the people I worked with over the years grow and change in so many positive ways. And I have seen myself change positively too. I have many colleagues and friends with DACA, people who have been absolutely critical to my own growth as a lawyer, activist and human being. I can’t imagine working without them. Their success makes our whole community more successful.
Studies of DACA back this up. The Center for American Progress released a report in 2021 that shows that there are around 600,000 DACA recipients in the US right now and they are contributing $9.4 billion dollars in tax revenue to our country. They also estimated that over half of those people were essential workers during the pandemic. It is also important to point out that DACA recipients have a lower incarceration rate than people of similar ages and educational levels who were born in the US.
Why wouldn’t we want all the other undocumented individuals living in the United States to contribute and succeed on this level? Arresting and deporting people en masse doesn’t work very well. That was Trump’s angle and although there were a lot of deportations directly from the US border, when it came to ICE hunting down people living in the interior of the US, his deportation numbers were lower than many of the Obama years. We have a 1.6 million case backlog in our nation’s immigration courts. In an effort to cut down that backlog, the head of ICE’s legal department just issued a memo instructing ICE attorneys to dismiss cases filed before 2020 where the person isn’t a threat to public safety.
DACA on the other hand, shows that empowering people rather than punishing them is good policy for the US. We need laws that will expand the number of immigrants who are eligible for the same types of benefits as DACA and include a pathway to permanent residence and citizenship. Organizers are currently fighting in Washington D.C. for laws that would do just that. We need to listen to their voices and follow their lead. It may seem radical in the moment but give it ten years and, like DACA, it may just seem sensible too.
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