Few dozens of DACA recipients rally on Foley Square demanding citizenship now for all undocumented immigrants. – New York, NY – August 17, 2021 (Shutterstock)
Many Dreamers’ most important life milestones have happened in the U.S., in part because of the protections and opportunities provided by DACA. But the futures of the policy and the young people protected by it are in jeopardy.
The Biden Administration must act swiftly to remove uncertainty for these young people by fortifying the DACA policy; however, we know what is really needed is for Congress to pass legislation providing immigration relief for Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants through the budget reconciliation process.
Nine years ago, the first young undocumented people to request Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) received their employment authorization documents, identification cards that granted them authorization to work legally and protection from deportation.
Nereyda, a Montana DACA recipient who serves as an essential health care worker, describes the moment she found out that her request for DACA was approved: “I just felt a sense of relief, like somebody untied my hands. You know, I could finally move. I could finally offer my kids a better future, a better life. It was like a key to a door.”
New FWD.us analysis described below gives fresh insight into just how much DACA recipients’ lives have changed in the nine years since the policy was implemented.1 With DACA, these Dreamers have grown to become graduates, professionals, and parents of more than 400,000 U.S. citizen children. There is no question that DACA, with both its opportunities and limitations, has changed the course of their lives in America, and that their futures, and their families’ futures, are deeply intertwined with the future of the policy.
“For many DACA recipients, the sense of certainty and new opportunities it provided were literally life-changing.”
The average DACA recipient arrived in the U.S. at 7 years old, and the vast majority—more than 85%—arrived before they were teenagers. The average year of arrival for DACA recipients is 1999, meaning that the average DACA recipient has lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. For many DACA recipients, these have been formative years, living through many of the major events and moments that have shaped the recent history of our nation like the turn of the new millennium, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Great Recession and subsequent recovery, six presidential elections, and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
For many recipients, DACA was implemented in the midst of their adolescence or early twenties, and the sense of certainty and new opportunities it provided were life-changing for these young people. For example, with DACA, many young people have been able to get driver’s licenses so that they can safely travel to work and school. In fact, since DACA was created, it is estimated that roughly 400,000 young people, or their spouse or partner, have purchased a car.
“DACA recipients have also grown their families and set down roots in American communities.”
Over time, DACA helped young undocumented people transition into adulthood, and prepare for their futures. The average DACA recipient is 25 years old. More than 4 in 10 DACA recipients have been to college, and at least 15% have finished a post-secondary degree. Roughly a quarter (27%) of DACA recipients are currently in school.
Because the policy allows DACA recipients to work lawfully and pursue their careers, many DACA recipients are putting their education and talents to work in critical industries, like construction (58,000), transportation (41,000), healthcare (38,000), and education (20,000). The vast majority of DACA recipients — more than three-quarters (77%) – are currently working in the labor force. DACA has allowed recipients to achieve financial success and stability for their families.
DACA recipients have also grown their families and set down roots in American communities. An estimated 140,000, or about a quarter, of DACA recipients live in a home that they purchased themselves, further helping to fuel the local economy and establish their family in the community. We estimate that at least 150,000 DACA recipients have gotten married since the policy was announced, about 90,000 to a U.S. citizen spouse. And more than 200,000 DACA recipients are parents, with an estimated 100,000 becoming parents for the first time since receiving DACA. Almost the entirety of these 400,000 children born to DACA recipients are U.S. citizens. In these many ways, the livelihoods and welfare of many U.S. citizens—spouses, children, other family members—are dependent on the future of DACA, as the policy has shaped their lives as well.
For all of its benefits, DACA has significant limitations, as well. DACA protections are issued at the discretion of the government, and have to be renewed every two years6, leaving applicants and recipients alike with persistent uncertainty about their future. And a future administration could end the policy, as the Trump Administration attempted to do multiple times. Because of the policy’s narrow eligibility criteria, millions of Dreamers who came to the U.S. at a young age are not eligible to apply for DACA, including nearly all of the 600,000 undocumented K-12 students in classrooms across the U.S.
“A pathway to citizenship is critical to keep families together and drive America’s recovery.“
Now, DACA recipients are once again caught in limbo and uncertainty as a federal judge is trying to end DACA protections for Dreamers. After decades in the United States and nine years living with DACA, these hundreds of thousands of undocumented Americans face an uncertain future without urgent action from the Congress and the Biden Administration to allow them to continue living the lives that they have built here.
There is no time to waste. Congress must provide immigration relief for DACA recipients, Dreamers who are ineligible for DACA, and other undocumented immigrants in its 2021 budget reconciliation legislation. And the Biden Administration needs to carry through fully on its promise to fortify and strengthen the DACA policy through formal rulemaking.
Ultimately, a pathway to citizenship is critical to keep families together and drive America’s recovery, and must be a priority even alongside these narrower steps.