Report: DACA’s crucial role in workforce opportunities for undocumented college grads

The federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, first enacted in 2012, offers undocumented immigrants protection from deportation, access to college financial aid, and work permits. Those permits in particular have allowed undocumented college graduates to become an indispensable part of the U.S. workforce, according to a new survey report from TheDream.US and Golden Door Scholars, two scholarship organizations for undocumented students. 

Over the last 12 years, DACA has allowed more than 835,000 recipients, or Dreamers, to attend school and work. However, with DACA applications on hold since 2021 due to legal and judicial challenges, thousands of undocumented college graduates are feeling anxiety about their ability to find sustainable jobs and continue working to support themselves and their families, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports. 

The survey report, released to coincide with the anniversary of when the DACA program was first announced, provides insight from over 2,000 alumni of TheDream.US and Golden Door Scholars programs, and examines the impact of the DACA program and other initiatives for undocumented immigrants. 

“The data speak[s] to how economic integration is relatively smooth for those able to take advantage of DACA,” Dr. Hyein Lee, chief operating officer at TheDream.US, tells Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “Those who only have individual tax payer ID numbers have to be freelancers or contract workers.”

Related: The future of DACA at risk on its tenth anniversary >

Opportunities for work, social mobility

The vast majority of respondents (91%) said they are working. Ninety percent are employed full-time, and over half are in business, medicine, or education fields. Some undocumented college grads are working in leadership positions at Fortune 500 companies, including Apple, Moderna, and JP Morgan. The respondents are part of the nearly 600,000 DACA recipients collectively paying $9.4 billion in taxes each year and contributing almost $2.1 billion to Social Security and Medicare annually, the report says. 

Two-thirds of respondents (66%) said they were the first in their families to attend college, 63% are out-earning their parents, and 26% are the primary providers for their household. 

Related: Without DACA protections, undocumented students meet increased barriers to college >

Challenging job outlook amid DACA pause

However, legal challenges to DACA have left a growing number of undocumented adults without work authorizations and feeling uncertain about their future. Most of the 100,000 undocumented students graduating high school each year do not have DACA or Temporary Protected Status. Among survey respondents without work authorization, 69% said they are working, compared to 93% of respondents with work authorization. Losing work authorization is the biggest concern among respondents at 59%, and almost all respondents (96%) reported feeling some anxiety over the past year about their immigration status.

Undocumented college graduates “are impacting our community and doing great work,” Gisselle Molinary Rivera, senior program manager at Golden Door Scholars, tells Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “We would love more alumni to do the same thing, but they can’t without work authorization…All people want to have a career, but they hit a wall.”

Postsecondary institutions play a pivotal role in supporting undocumented students, sharing their success stories, and discussing their contributions to the workforce and society as a whole. Driven by their experiences, many undocumented graduates work in education and public health as nurses and teachers, Lee says. 

“Our alumni have grown up with personal experiences of watching their parents, who may have an injury, be denied health care [because of immigration status],” says Lee, according to Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “They themselves have gone through K-12 with such high expectations from parents and themselves only to be told they have no option for college. They are then so committed to careers that change this outcome for future generations.” 

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