For America’s undocumented immigrant community, the hardest part is often living in the shadows. Without access to public services or basic protections that so many Americans take for granted, it is easy for such individuals to feel isolated and alone. This is doubly true for children without documentation who must suffer under the weight of their illegal status through no fault of their own, having been brought by family to the country when they were still minors, if not infants.
But the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has made great strides towards integrating and protecting this vulnerable population. Under DACA individuals who were brought to the United States as minors and meet several other requirements can apply for assurance of protection from deportation (removal) and work authorization (and subsequently a social security number).
So far DACA has protected over 600,000 people.
DACA is not just a humanitarian initiative, but sound policy. Upon approval, DACA recipients are able to do things as basic as opening a bank account, leasing an apartment in their own name, applying for academic scholarships, and obtaining an official identification or driver’s license – none of which were possible without DACA. Denying access to such benefits serves only to alienate the undocumented community and push deeper into to the fringes of our society. The result is immigrants who drive without licenses or auto insurance, working jobs untaxed and under the table (with less basic safety and employment protections) and invariably receiving health care from a system they are prevented from contributing to. Workers without lawful work authorization are also vulnerable to wage theft ad exploitation with little to no recourse available. Such scenarios benefit neither the immigrant nor the country.
Providing avenues for this community to achieve a legal status that entitles them to such benefits brings hundreds of thousands out of the shadows and into the light of day, to their benefit and ours. Research from the National UnDACAmented Research Project indicates that almost 60 percent of DACA beneficiaries obtained a job since receiving DACA status, with about 45 percent reporting increased earnings. Meanwhile an estimated 47 percent obtained driver’s licenses. Almost half of those with DACA protection opened bank accounts, with one-third obtaining credit cards.
These statistics highlight not only the definitive benefits to these immigrants, but to our society as a whole. We are all better off when more people have jobs, driver’s licenses, and insurance. Estimates predict that DACA and DAPA eligible populations could receive as much as an additional $103 billion in higher wages in the next decade. This reverberates through the national economy to the tune of an estimated additional $230 billion to the gross domestic product as a whole. Furthermore, protected immigrants will finally be paying into various social programs now that they are being properly taxed. The Social Security Administration, for example, anticipates an estimated increase of $41 billion in intake as a result of DACA and DAPA.
As a pragmatic policy that ensures accountability and verification of such a large segment of the undocumented immigrant community of America, DACA has been a success for the country at large. But the impact on the eligible undocumented immigrants is undeniable. Fernando Espiritu was brought to the United States at the age of 7. He was wholly unaware of his undocumented status until he tried to apply for a driver’s license, only to discover that he was ineligible. He recalls feeling “isolated, angry, and overall just disempowered.” It also caused tension between him and the family that brought him across the border all those years ago. But then Fernando was approved for DACA status in 2013. Now he has a legitimate job that he pays taxes on, a package of benefits that enable him to stay healthy and productive, and a driver’s license. Such changes can have an enormous impact on a life. And yet, one of the biggest benefits of DACA status is psychological. Fernando says that being approved for DACA status has been a huge relief for him that has opened the doors of his life, and testifies that “I’m no longer a prisoner of my own ambitions.” There is an undeniable value in the message that we as a society send that says we value people enough to invest in them, thereby proving that we in turn merit their trust and investment as well.
DACA is a success as a governmental policy and a humanitarian initiative, but there is still more than can be done. A companion program, called the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, (DAPA) aims to offer similar protections to the parents of American citizens or lawful permanent residents. Proposed by the Obama administration in 2014, DAPA has been legally challenged and held up in the courts. DAPA would extend similar protections as DACA to hundreds of thousands of additional immigrants. Furthermore, it would help prevent the fracturing of families across borders that immigrant communities are all to familiar with by preventing the deportation of citizens’ parents. In light of the success of DACA, DAPA is a logical next step that can expand the benefits to include even more vulnerable and isolated populations.
Fernando may no longer be a prisoner of his own ambitions, but too many of those in the shadows still are. DACA needs to be expanded to include anyone who came to the U.S. younger than 18, regardless of their current age. The obstructionists in Congress and the Courts need to get out of the way of progress for America and allow DAPA to be enacted. DACA and DAPA prove that immigration reform is good for the undocumented. But it is also good for every American and American resident.
-Posted by Lucas Caress, Bardavid Law Paralegal