DACA Offers Lessons for Executive Action on Immigration

As President Obama readies plans for executive action on immigration before the end of the year, it is clear that the biggest and boldest initiative involves suspending deportation and offering work authorization for potentially millions of people living in the United States without legal status.  

The plan, still in the works, could expand eligibility for the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—or DACA, also established by executive order— to a larger number of young people who arrived in the United States before the age of 16. It might also initiate deferred action to a new and larger group: undocumented adults with close family ties, including those with children who are U.S. citizens or have DACA approval. This would be a move in the right direction, because family separation, especially among those who have roots in this country, has long-term economic, social, and migration consequences.

My own research on the implementation of DACA as well as other recent studies provides three broad lessons in the event of such an expansion:

    DACA expands economic opportunities by authorizing work, increasing earnings and taxes. A survey of DACA beneficiaries demonstrated that 60 percent obtained a new job and 45 percent increased their earnings.  This benefits workers and their families as well as the communities they live in through an increased tax base. Expanding DACA to adults who are already in the workforce and providing for families could boost their earning power and contributions to local, state and federal taxes.

    Older DACA applicants have more difficulty documenting continuous residence. Younger applicants typically have an easier time documenting their presence in the United States primarily because of their ties to schools and enrollment records. Older potential applicants, and those with more time in the United States, face a more difficult task in gathering the paperwork to prove they have lived here during the required period. After all, many of these are people spent their lives purposefully living in society’s shadows. Given that demonstrating continued presence in the United States grows more difficult the longer the stay, any new initiative should consider requiring a shorter period of time here.

    Not everyone eligible for DACA applies and the same may be true of any new program.  Many who are eligible face barriers to requesting DACA. Some are uncertain of their eligibility or simply are not aware the program applies to them. Others face trouble coming up with the funds to pay for the application fee. Still others are afraid to take the risk of exposing themselves to the very government agency that can also deport them. Any new initiative should define eligibility based on national security concerns, criminal history, time in the United States, and ties to long-term citizens and residents. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security must communicate these eligibility guidelines vigorously and work with state and municipal governments, national and local organizations, and advocates embedded in local communities to reinforce the benefits and provide reassurance that applying is the right thing to do. DACA does not have a fixed application date and applications have rolled in over the past 27 months. A new initiative should have a reasonable but hard application deadline, balancing enough time for applicants to gather necessary material while adding needed pressure to make a decision.

    As the White House works through the various permutations of what it will order, House Republicans, instead of looking for policy solutions to resolve the status of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, are seemingly only looking for a good reason to oppose action by the president.

    Yet, the best action by the GOP would be a legislative proposal. But executive action may have to do until Congress gets its act together.