Challenges Persist for DACA Participants: Navigating the ...
Challenges Persist for DACA Participants

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is facing another hurdle in its quest for survival, as a federal court has once again ruled that the Executive Branch overstepped its authority in creating the program. However, there is still hope for legal remedies that could keep DACA alive for years to come, despite the ongoing efforts to limit access to the program for new entrants through previous court rulings. Therefore, DACA participants persist challenges. 

On Wednesday, the U.S. District Judge ruled that current DACA recipients can maintain their protections and renewals because the case is once again making its way through the judicial system. As of the latest available data from the government, there were 579,000 active DACA holders as of March 31st. This number is significantly lower than the program’s peak of 700,000 participants, and with court rulings restricting access for new entrants, the program’s population is expected to decline over time.

Of the current DACA recipients, approximately half of the 1.2 million undocumented individuals in the program are represented. According to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), the program’s eligibility criteria, which includes age at arrival in the United States, years of U.S. residence, and educational requirements met as of 2022 under the original rules, have been fulfilled. Within this group, MPI estimates that 58,000 young people are eligible for DACA based on age, despite attempts by the Trump administration in September 2017 to end the program and largely shut off access.

A New Negative Ruling

As DACA’s future faces legal challenges, the Biden administration solidified a federal regulation last year aimed at bolstering the originally implemented program through an official rulemaking process initiated by the Secretary of Homeland Security under the 2012 memo. Judge Hanen ruled that the Obama-era program exceeded executive authority, whether it was established through formal regulatory action or not.

Almost certainly, Judge Hanen’s decision will be appealed in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and, ultimately, to the Supreme Court, a process that could take years to complete. In the initial round of decisions, the Fifth Circuit permitted DACA to operate during the pendency of legal challenges, so there is a possibility that the program will remain on life support for the foreseeable future, beyond congressional intervention.

A Program in Limbo, Protecting a Shrinking Group

Following the Trump administration’s decision to end the program, DACA has been in legal limbo, closed off to new entrants. Only those who had DACA prior to the termination date of September 2017 have been able to maintain their protections by renewing them through court orders, and very few have been able to create a brief window of opportunity through the creation of a limited window of opportunity, which has benefited very few. The future of DACA holders hinges on how the program ends.

While high renewal rates during the program’s existence provide evidence of its value, participation rates have been driven down by several factors, despite the requirement to renew every two years and pay a $495 application and biometrics fee. Some have found paths to legal permanent residency status. Others left the country, lost their eligibility, aged out, or died. Nevertheless, others have made a calculated decision not to renew in light of the program’s uncertain future or out of concerns about providing the government with current information.

Participation in the program

Since its inception in 2012, over 800,000 people have obtained DACA at some point. According to MPI estimates, nearly 1.2 million individuals met all the eligibility criteria at some point, suggesting that a majority of those eligible have participated. Participation in DACA differs by gender, age, and country of origin. Women participate at higher rates than men; 59 percent of DACA-eligible women have enrolled compared to 42 percent of eligible men. Participation is highest among those aged 26 to 30, while older individuals have lower participation rates. Those aged 16 to 20 have the lowest participation rate (7 percent) because many were aged out when they became eligible.

Protestation against court ruling
Protestation against court ruling

Participation in DACA also varies by country of origin. Among current DACA recipients, participation rates are highest for those from Mexico (63 percent) and lowest for those from South Korea (16 percent). The lower participation rates among some Asian groups are theorized to be due to greater stigmatization and shame about legal status in some Asian communities, limited outreach and information about DACA outside of Spanish-speaking communities, concerns about immigration consequences for family members, and difficulties obtaining Korean passports for Korean men who did not complete their mandatory military service.

Characteristics of Current DACA Holders

Despite fluctuations in enrollment, the demographics of recipients’ home countries, gender, states, and metro areas of residence have remained similar since U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) began publishing data on DACA holders in 2017, with the DACA population now aging.

Home Countries

Mexico remains the top country of origin. As of March 2023, nearly 81 percent (468,000) of DACA recipients were from Mexico. El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru round out the top five countries of origin.

Ages of Current DACA Recipients

According to DACA eligibility requirements, applicants must have been at least 15 years old to apply and under the age of 30 as of June 2012. Given the program’s creation 11 years ago, that means the maximum age for eligibility is now 42. And since applicants had to have entered the United States before 2007, when they were 16 years old or younger, the youngest age for eligible individuals is now 16. However, relatively few very young people have received DACA because those who gained eligibility in the past five years mostly aged out of the program.

As of March, just under three-quarters of current DACA holders were between the ages of 21 and 30, while only 1 percent were under 21.

Because DACA recipients are aging and new applicants have largely been locked out of the program, the average age of current recipients increased from 23.8 years in September 2017 to 29.2 years in March.

Places of Residence

DACA holders reside throughout the United States, but they are concentrated in states with large populations of traditional immigrant communities. Since 2017, the top five states of residence have not changed: California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida. California and Texas are home to 45 percent of all recipients in the top five states.

At the local level, DACA holders are most concentrated in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, where more than one in 10 participants in each program resides (see Table 3). New York and the metropolitan areas of Dallas, Houston, and Chicago have nearly 30,000 or more DACA participants each.

The Success Story of Integration

DACA has delivered substantial benefits to more than 800,000 people who have at some point benefited from its status, as well as to their communities. Its renewability, two-year reprieve from removal, and work authorization have allowed recipients to seek steady employment that utilizes their American education, training, and English-language skills. Consequently, research shows that DACA has opened doors to higher education, better and higher-paying jobs, increased homeownership, and improved mental health. In return, DACA holders have filled essential jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, paid more in taxes, and, on a larger scale, fully engaged in their communities.

Challenges Persist for DACA Participants
Challenges Persist for DACA Participants

State policies have also created opportunities for DACA holders. Some states have opened in-state tuition and/or state financial aid to DACA holders. Therefore, if the program is ultimately terminated, its effects will be felt most acutely by DACA holders and others with prior status in states where pre existing bars to immigration status once again prevent access to these and other benefits.

The Uncertain Road Ahead

While DACA represents the broadest effort since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 to provide legal status to unauthorized immigrants, it has always been a limited program, offering a short-term reprieve to just a fraction of the unauthorized population at any given time. Its limitations, however, make the program’s continuous two-year renewals feel precarious.

Indeed, DACA was never meant to be a permanent solution but rather a temporary reprieve with more sustainable protections for those who dream. Because of DACA’s stringent eligibility criteria, most unauthorized immigrant youth who arrived in the country in their youth remain without the program’s protections. MPI estimates that 179,000 unauthorized immigrant children under 18 who entered the country at a young age, along with 329,000 youth ages 18 to 23, arrived too late in life to qualify for DACA.

Life Support

With DACA, its beneficiaries live their lives working legally, free from immediate fears of deportation, and benefiting from all the opportunities that the program offers when it is in effect. But the program’s limitations and legal challenges have left groups—especially those who aged into eligibility over the past five years—on the outside looking in.

If a final decision in the future were to terminate DACA, the Biden administration is expected to make another attempt at executive action to protect current and former DACA holders. This could instruct Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) not to prioritize arrests and removals of former DACA holders or to offer them deferred enforced departure or some other form of alternative action. Such actions could be challenged in the courts. A narrow remedy that provides DACA holders with protection from removal but not work authorization could fare better in the courts but would not grant full inclusion in the labor market or full community membership.

A Decades-Long Struggle

A decade of research has documented the benefits of DACA to its recipients, their families, and communities, and to the U.S. economy. Pressure mounts once again on Congress, which has been debating relief for dreamers since 2001, to take serious consideration of lasting protections for those who came as children—perhaps as the only path forward.”

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