The Supreme Court is expected to announce its ruling on the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) any day now. Whatever the ruling, it will affect a little under a million migrants.
DACA protects immigrants who were brought to the United States as children without authorization. It provides employment authorization and peace of mind about a recipient’s legal status. DACA, however, has always been a half measure.
Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, it is time to scrap the DACA program. DACA should be replaced with a long-term solution that will do justice to childhood arrivals and increase the welfare of Americans.
DACA was a one-sided compromise
DACA was enacted via executive discretion in 2012. President Obama meant it to be a temporary policy giving Congress time to develop a bipartisan solution. There had been a chance for a bipartisan solution then, as the Dream Act moved forward.
The Dream Act, from which DACA recipients earned the moniker Dreamers, would have provided a pathway for citizenship for childhood arrivals. It failed in the Senate by only five votes in 2010.
Nearly a decade later, no long-term solution has made it out of Congress. Yes, DACA provided some peace of mind, but it also encouraged complacency. DACA turned the discussion from long-term reform into how to “save” DACA. Why devote resources improving on a seemingly solved problem after all?
The fate of childhood arrivals hasn’t been solved by DACA though. DACA was only a temporary solution and, as time passes by, its limitations become more glaring.
The Case for Action
Some may believe that there is no need to save DACA, let alone to find a “long-term” solution for it. DACA recipients should, some believe, be deported and “get in line” behind those who are applying to migrate “the right way” through existing legal pathways.
It is, however, entirely unrealistic to propose that childhood arrivals be deported. For starters, where would they be deported to? They’ve spent most of their lives in the United States. Many of them do not speak the language of their countries of birth. It would be a humanitarian nightmare to deport them. Does anyone seriously wish to deport a million English-speakers to Mexico (the largest DACA nationality group) and South Korea (the 5th largest DACA nationality group)? Any deportation proposal is a nonstarter on humanitarian grounds.
What’s more, public money has already been spent on DACA recipients’ K-12 education and they’re now in their prime working years. On purely utilitarian grounds, it is a waste of taxpayer money to deport educated migrants who pay more in taxes than they consume in services.
The largest fiscal expense caused by unauthorized migrants is the cost of educating their children, which is legally required. It is a waste to have educated DACA recipients and allow other countries to benefit from their American education. Why should American taxpayers effectively subsidize the labor force of another country? It would be better to integrate DACA recipients into the American labor force so that we benefit from their labor and tax contributions. As the American population ages, the tax contribution of DACA recipients and other immigrants will become increasingly useful in helping keep social security solvent. DACA recipients are estimated to contribute $280 billion in the next decade to the United States economy, including a $60 billion contribution to public funds over what they consume.
How DACA works
DACA recipients receive employment authorization in two-year renewable intervals. DACA does not pardon unlawful presence nor provide a pathway to citizenship. In effect, this bars Dreamers from “the line” that other immigrants use to become citizens, such as marriage or employment sponsorship.
DACA’s beneficiaries arrived in the United States as children, but this should not be confused to mean that they are still children. The average DACA recipient is 25 years old. These are young adults making key investments in their pursuit of higher education, careers, and families. By providing a long-term solution we can improve their decision-making during this crucial period.
Failing to provide a long-term solution for childhood arrivals impoverishes them and the US as a whole. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the share of migrants in essential jobs. 16 percent of healthcare workers and 26 percent of home healthcare aides are foreign-born. Providing a long-term solution ensures that DACA recipients continue contributing to essential services now and as the pandemic passes.
The Limitations of DACA
The ideal policy would capitalize on that potential in young immigrants like Dreamers to continue working in essential fields. For example, a solution should encourage Dreamers to pursue higher education, employment, and to start families. Yet the design of DACA limits recipients from achieving their potential. It turns out that the peace of mind that DACA provides is tenuous at best.
Research suggests that DACA mainly encourages migrants to enter the workforce. It neither promotes pursuing higher education nor establishing families. The central cause of this is that DACA is issued in two-year intervals which makes long term planning difficulty. Dreamers also face a maze-like path to citizenship and additional barriers for basic rights. Even a confident applicant faces bureaucratic delays. Average processing time for a renewal is three months.
Fundamentally, DACA’s two-year timeline for renewal creates considerable struggles in planning important life decisions. A two-year timeline discourages pursuing four-year degrees. Imagine pursuing a college degree unsure if you would be legally eligible to continue after your sophomore year. That’s the reality for those protected by DACA. Given DACA’s design, they can’t be blamed for being wary of investing in higher education.
Marriage and establishing a family are similarly long-term investments difficult to make in just two years. The average couple takes between 13 to 18 months to just plan their wedding. How can childhood arrivals plan a wedding, let alone plan to establish a family, in the two-year intervals they are given?
DACA’s second major limitation is that it does not allow recipients to apply for citizenship. They are ineligible for the existing pathways. DACA recipients who marry a US citizen cannot be sponsored if they accrued unlawful presence that has triggered an “immigration bar”. Immigrants facing an immigrant bar are unable to re-adjust their status or re-enter the United States for three to ten years, depending on their circumstance. Nor can DACA recipients be sponsored through employment.
It would be one thing if DACA recipients had to “wait in line” with other migrants, but under DACA there is no line. This limitation not only harms DACA recipients but harms their US citizen spouses and frustrates would-be employers.
DACA’s third major limitation is that recipients’ rights are not uniformly protected. For example, it took six years to win the right to driver’s licenses in Arizona. Yet state and local governments continue to discriminate against DACA recipients through other means.
Consider how undocumented students are barred from in-state tuition in some states. In Alabama and South Carolina, they are even barred from enrolling in public universities. Undocumented students face these restrictions despite their, and their family’s, contributions to state taxes that fund state universities. Undocumented migrants pay an estimated $11.74 billion a year in state and local taxes. Any future long-term solution needs to protect the rights and civil liberties of childhood arrivals from overreaching state and local governments.
What would a long-term solution be like?
What would a long-term replacement for DACA look like? One possibility is revisiting 2012’s Dream Act. The Dream Act would have provided a pathway to citizenship for childhood arrivals who met educational attainment and work requirements. This would codify some of DACA’s existing requirements, like educational attainment. The Dream Act would have required recipients pursue higher education to qualify.
Although the Dream Act should be used as inspiration, a long-term solution should learn from the political battles over the Dream Act. One of the political hurdles the Dream Act faced was that some were reluctant to provide a “special” pathway to citizenship for unauthorized migrants. DACA has enjoyed bipartisan support in part because it grants only temporary legal presence and does not create a pathway to citizenship.
An improvement to the Dream Act could, instead of providing a pathway to citizenship, involve the creation of a visa status that allows for citizenship through existing pathways. This would remove the barriers that childhood arrivals face to obtaining citizenship through normal means (e.g. marriage to a US citizen, employment sponsorship). Some childhood arrivals may be content with only a visa that does not require a renewal every two years — let’s give them the choice.
Ideally, the visa should model existing green cards by being indefinitely renewable and last for 10 years at a time. This would allow childhood arrivals to make long-term investments in education and family planning. Finally, this visa should explicitly protect the rights of childhood arrivals from state and local governments.
In the past, a solution for DACA recipients has been paired with broader immigration reform. The Obama administration tried unsuccessfully to implement Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), which would have provided relief from deportation and granted work authorization for parents of DACA recipients. Unlike DACA, DAPA did not enjoy the same degree of bipartisan support. DAPA’s failure illustrates the roadblocks to including a long-term solution for DACA recipients in a package of other immigration reforms. Achieving a long-term solution like a 10-year visa may be more successful without attaching it to other immigration reform.
A longer visa timeline and the removal of roadblocks on the normal path to citizenship provide a clear opening for DACA recipients to plan their lives in greater detail. A long-term visa replaces a half measure with a real solution. It gives recipients a way to plan their lives. Such reforms paint a path towards economic success for the Dreamers and the entire country.