They touched off a political debate that has roiled American politics for years and even briefly shut down the entire federal government last month. But for all their political impact, in a country where demographics are computed, compounded, sliced and diced on practically an hourly basis, the young undocumented immigrants with DACA status live like phantoms in a statistical haze.
“We really know very little about them,” says Jessica Vaughan, directory of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors less immigration. “For a group that’s been at the center of so much controversy, we have hardly any idea of their educational and economic attainment.”
DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a status that allows undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children before 2007 to keep living and working here without fear of deportation.
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DACA has been controversial since its inception — President Obama created it in 2012 through executive order rather than getting Congress to make it a law — and President Trump’s vow to abolish it next month triggered a brief shutdown of the federal government. This past week, the president’s chief of staff, John Kelly, stirred outrage among some when he suggested that those who were eligible for DACA but didn’t sign up were “too lazy” to get off the couch. On Wednesday Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi commandeered the House floor for eight straight hours, the longest speech in the chamber in a century, seeking to have their status resolved as part of the latest spending plan.
Another political flashpoint is approaching, with DACA set to expire on March 5 unless President Trump and Congress can work out a compromise. Democrats have accused the president of holding the immigrants “hostage” to his desire to get Congress pay for a wall on the border with Mexico and curb legal immigration. As the controversy heats up, some supporters try to idealize DACA recipients as model citizens, while some opponents try to demonize them.
But there’s little statistical evidence to support either side. The U.S. government doesn’t collect much data on DACA recipients, and private research has met with limited success. “This is a hard-to-reach population,” says Roberto G. Gonzales, a Harvard education professor whose five-year study of 2,684 young DACA-eligible immigrants is generally considered the most extensive research project on the subject.
“Many of our traditional measures to get a representative sample don’t work well on this. It’s very difficult to do. I’m confident in our research, but you can’t extrapolate it to the entire DACA population. What we say is, it’s a very good snapshot of our sample of 2,684 people. And that’s all it is.”
Because a few hundred of those people, though they were eligible for DACA, never got around to obtaining the status, the real sample of recipients is a bit less than 2,400 — a tiny percentage of the 690,000 or so immigrants who actually have their DACA papers.
“Professor Gonzales’ project was a good effort,” says Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies. “But it’s still really just a guess. And you’ve got to remember that, always, when you’re discussing it.”
Those on the other side of the immigration debate have described Vaughn’s organization as nativist, a label the group considers absurd. But therein lies a problem. Groups that track immigration numbers often have a point of view, which can manifest itself in the numbers and language they choose to highlight. President Trump and his allies are careful to use the neutral term “DACA:” to refer to the immigrants while Democrats use the more the more lyrical “Dreamers,” because a previous legalization bill was called the Dream Act.
The bill was rejected; the name stuck.
Government statistics do give us a pretty good picture of the DACA recipients in broad terms. We know there are about 690,000 of them. (The 800,000 number originally used by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has been adjusted downward as some recipients marry Americans, starting on the path to U.S. citizenship; leave the country; or fail to renew their status.) A little more than half — 53 percent — are female. Average age: 23.
The overwhelming majority of them, about 548,000, came from Mexico, so it isn’t surprising that California and Texas, by far, have the biggest DACA populations, about 311,000 combined. Florida is a surprising small player in the DACA game, with just 27,000 DACA residents, about 11,000 of them scattered from Miami to Palm Beach.
But getting down to the finer details is not so simple. The government doesn’t provide names, addresses or phone numbers for DACA recipients (and may not have a very accurate list itself; the recipients don’t have to notify immigration authorities when they move). So private researchers usually ask pro-immigration organizations to provide the names of DACA recipients they’ve worked with.
That introduces an element of bias into the study; immigrants who work with advocacy groups may not be typical. “They’re probably more politically involved,” said Vaughan, “and they may view the survey as a chance to send a message, which could alter the content.”
If the study makes use of email or websites, that restricts it to those who have access to a computer, perhaps skewing toward a higher-than-average economic status. And immigrants — all of them, not just DACA — are generally wary of drawing attention to themselves for fear of attracting unwelcome government attention.
The groups that have conducted studies of DACA recipients say there’s some validity to the criticisms.
“Any study that takes a look at DACA is going to have some limitations,” says Nicole Prchal Svajlenka, a senior policy analyst on immigration issues at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that has sponsored research on DACA. “We can’t empanel a group of immigrants the way we would with other polling data. But I’m confident we’ve got solid data.”
The Center for American Progress study — conducted through on-line surveys over a three-week period last August among 3,063 individuals — produced generally similar numbers to the Harvard research project headed by Gonzales. Among the findings:
▪ About a third of the people polled in each study had high school diplomas or less, a third had some college, and a third had college degrees.
▪ DACA made it easier for recipients to get drivers’ licenses, which in turn made it easier for them to pursue additional schooling and work opportunities. In the Harvard study, 57 percent got a license within 16 months of the start of DACA.
▪ DACA jolted its recipients higher in the job market. In the Harvard study, within 16 months of the launch of DACA, 61 percent had new jobs, and 45 percent were making more money. In, the Center for American Progress study, 69 percent got jobs that paid better, and their average wages were over $36,000 a year.
▪ The benefits of DACA ripple out into the general economy. Among those polled by the Center for American Progress, 65 percent had purchased their first car (average price: just over $16,000), injecting sales tax and and registration fees into government tax receipts. And 16 percent bought their first homes.
The cascade of statistics certainly seems to show that DACA was good for its recipients. Whether the recipients are a boon to the American economy, though, is a more complicated question. Are DACA recipients making more money or getting more educated than other people their age? Other immigrants their age? Who should they be compared to? Do they take jobs that would otherwise go to native-born U.S. citizens?
“It’s difficult to sort that out,” agrees Gonzales. “Their two comparison groups are their American-citizen peers and older immigrants who came at different times, and the DACA recipients fit uncomfortably between those two groups.
“The DACA recipients in some ways are virtually identical to U.S. citizens their age. They largely went to the same schools, they said the Pledge of Allegiance together every day, they all watched the Power Rangers together and went to the prom and made friends in the same way.
“But at a critical juncture — getting a summer job or an after-school job, applying to college — before DACA, they couldn’t do those things, so they ran into a wall, and that changed everything. As they aged, their lives came to resemble those of their parents more than those of their citizen friends.”
Here are some facts about the group, currently 690,000 strong, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA and sometimes called ‘Dreamers’.
Top states where they live
Largest concentrations by area
Los Angeles/Long Beach/Anaheim
New York/Newark/Jersey City
Houston/The Woodlands/Sugar Land
Miami/Fort Lauderdale/West Palm Beach
Top five countries of origin
More on DACA, from the Migration Policy Institute:
- While DACA recipients are almost as likely as U.S. adults in the same age group (15-32) to be enrolled in college (18 percent versus 20 percent), they are far less likely to have completed college (4 percent versus 18 percent).
- Forty-four percent of DACA holders have completed secondary education, but are not enrolled in college. Another 20 percent remain in secondary school.
- Fifty-five percent of DACA recipients are employed, amounting to 382,000 workers. Sixty-two percent of those not in the labor force are enrolled in school.
- DACA holders are much less likely than young unauthorized immigrants who are ineligible for deferred action to work in construction jobs and are more likely to work in office support jobs.
- The most common industries of employment for DACA recipients are hospitality, retail trade, construction, education, health and social services, and professional services.
Sources: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, CLAIMS3 and ELIS Systems, Migrant Policy Institute