DACA lessons from the field for outreach to immigrants

With implementation of the Obama administration’s latest executive action on immigration—the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability program, or DAPA—stalled by a court injunction, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has suspended its preparations to process potentially millions of applications.

Meanwhile, advocates, service providers, and local organizations continue to hold information sessions about the program. An important task includes protecting would-be applicants from fraudulent actors by spreading the word that USCIS is not yet accepting applications. Another is letting people know that, although the new program is on hold, they should prepare their paperwork in the event that the court case is resolved—or something replaces DAPA— and that these intermediaries are standing by to help.

There is a good reason for advocates and local groups to remain mobilized—they are the ones that will be supplying resources, information, and assistance in filling out forms and helping immigrants understand how the new program works. In our new report, we find that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the 2012 executive action program for undocumented youth, requires coordination by civic organizations and state and local governments even as the federal government provides no funding or structure to these intermediaries.

Our study of eight metropolitan areas across the United States, which included interviews with practitioners, advocates, and local governments, was a deep dive into how places implemented DACA and how applications varied across different states and immigrant groups. Along the way, we were able to gain insights from DACA that are instructive for DAPA or a future legalization program.

The DACA and DAPA programs have a host of similarities, given that they are both administrative relief programs for unauthorized immigrants. In both cases immigrants have to weigh the opportunities and risks that come with the application process. National and local advocates and practitioners will undertake the work of providing information, outreach, and assistance. State, local, and foreign governments will have to provide documents to those who request them for proof of identity and residence in the United States. And when the time comes, the federal government will have to build and train staff in order to process applications swiftly and fairly.

But the two programs target different populations. DACA is for immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children, while DAPA’s provisions are explicitly for the parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents; they most likely arrived in the United States as adults. There are many more DAPA-eligible than DACA-eligible, making this effort a bigger lift. Importantly, qualifying for DAPA is contingent on being a parent, which gives this eligible population on the whole an older profile than the DACA-eligible, who must be between the ages of 15 and 30. Because the DACA-eligible arrived as youngsters, they tend to have stronger ties to U.S. schools, the English language, and technology, whereas the DAPA-eligible on the whole are less connected to mainstream educational institutions and less tech-savvy.

These differences will make it more challenging for organizations to assist the DAPA-eligible. Organizations and advocates must find new ways to reach and interact with this group.

The immigration executive action case will make its way through the court system. However the case is decided, the unauthorized immigrant population will remain here, perhaps with temporary protection, perhaps with the lack of status they have now. Ultimately, Congress, which has not passed a substantial immigration bill addressing unauthorized immigrants in 29 years, must provide a long-term solution. Whether these immigrants remain in limbo legal status or have the opportunity to legalize will make a difference for their contributions to the U.S. economy and society, and to the lives of their family members.