Last Friday, August 15, marked the one-year anniversary of implementation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. For one year now, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and meet other specific requirements have been able to obtain work permits and other related benefits for the first time. Though many have benefitted from the program, the last twelve months have also revealed obstacles to accessing the advantages DACA provides and the limitations of the program in general.
An estimated 900,000 individuals were immediately eligible for DACA when it was implemented last year. Since then, USCIS has approved 430,236 DACA requests, while over 60,000 remain pending as of July 31, according to the latest USCIS report.
These 400,000 plus DACA recipients have not only benefitted from the employment authorization and protection from deportation that DACA provides, but also from important related opportunities. In almost every state, DACA recipients are eligible to apply for driver’s licenses under state documentation requirements, with only Arizona and Nebraska explicitly prohibiting DACA recipients from obtaining driver’s licenses.
The work authorization and accompanying eligibility for a Social Security number have also paved the way for new economic opportunities for DACA grantees. A study released by the American Immigration Council reports that, because of DACA, many undocumented young adults have been able to get their first job, open their first bank account, and acquire their first credit card.
In some states, DACA has also made available new opportunities in higher education for undocumented immigrants. Though no federal law prohibits undocumented individuals from attending U.S. colleges and universities, undocumented students do not qualify for federal financial aid and in most states cannot access in-state tuition, despite meeting residence requirements. For this reason, higher education has long been an unattainable goal for these young people, particularly given the limited future career opportunities for someone without employment authorization. With the benefits provided by DACA, higher education is more accessible, as some states, including Ohio most recently, have started offering in-state tuition to DACA students.
DACA may also ease certain other immigration restrictions for those who qualify. Individuals with DACA are eligible to request “advance parole,” or permission to travel outside of the United States for limited purposes and re-enter, an option generally not available to undocumented immigrants. Additionally, though DACA is not considered a legal “status,” an individual with DACA is not considered to be accruing unlawful presence, which can avoid serious immigration consequences if eligible for other immigration relief in the future.
However, despite the advantages available through DACA, many undocumented immigrants eligible for the program have not applied and applications have tapered off significantly since the high point in October 2012. For many individuals, fear of exposing themselves or undocumented family members deters them from seeking DACA’s benefits. Contributing to this fear is the insecurity of this program: a policy adopted by the Obama administration, DACA is not a law and can be ended at any time.
The education requirement also creates a barrier for many would-be applicants. To qualify for DACA, an individual must have graduated from high school, obtained a GED, or be currently enrolled in high school, a GED course, or a similar educational program. The estimated 900,000 immediately eligible for DACA at its implementation last year does not include another estimated 400,000 who would be eligible if they met the education requirement. In the months since DACA was first announced, USCIS has provided an expanded list of ways to meet the education requirement, including enrollment in certain literacy and career training programs. For those who meet every other requirement, DACA is still available upon enrollment in a qualifying educational program, but for many the barrier to access is too great.
Still others who may be eligible for DACA have put off applying in hopes of a future immigration reform that would provide more benefits and more stability than that offered by DACA. However, there is no guarantee of comprehensive immigration reform in the near future, and even if passed, it may be a long time before undocumented immigrants are able to fully take advantage of any new law.
In the last year, DACA has provided many new opportunities for undocumented youth in employment and education. Many DACA recipients have been able to obtain a driver’s license for the first time. At the same time, DACA has acutely revealed the shortcomings of such a temporary fix. In many states, DACA recipients still face the educational barriers presented by ineligibility for in-state college tuition, and DACA recipients everywhere continue to be ineligible for federal financial aid. When these individuals’ DACA protections are up for renewal in two years, there is no guarantee the program will even still exist. The benefits provided by DACA have allowed for many “firsts” for its recipients and continue to benefit new grantees every month, but any solution short of comprehensive immigration reform will continue to leave undocumented youth in a precarious immigration limbo.