The future of DACA at risk on its tenth anniversary

A decade after the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was initiated, advocates warn that, amid legal challenges against the program, thousands of young undocumented people are coming of age without DACA protections, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Implemented by the Obama administration in 2012 as a stopgap for broader immigration legislation after the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act failed to pass in Congress, DACA offered young undocumented immigrants, or Dreamers, work permits, access to college financial aid, and protection from deportation. Over 800,000 people have been enrolled since the program’s creation, according to The New York Times.

However, in the last decade, Congress has failed to arrive at a legislative solution, and DACA has faced staunch Republican-led opposition, creating a precarious outlook for the program. Last year, a Texas federal court ruled that DACA was created unlawfully and that the Biden administration could not process new applications. The status of current DACA recipients remains unchanged. As a result, 2022 is the first year a majority of the country’s almost 100,000 undocumented high school graduates are ineligible for DACA’s legal protections, according to a new study from the immigration lobbying group

The Biden administration is appealing the decision; there is a hearing scheduled for July, and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals court could hand down a ruling later this summer. “DACA is at grave risk,” leaders of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration—of which Georgetown President John J. DeGioia is a founding member—wrote recently, calling on legislators to “build on the success of DACA and pass Dream legislation once and for all.”

Related: Supreme Court upholds DACA, protecting thousands in higher ed >

‘The American Dream put into reality’

For Karla Mendoza Arana, 32, the protections offered by DACA have been life-changing. When the policy was announced in 2012, she was “instantly sobbing,” Arana tells NBC News. “We knew, especially my sister and I, our lives would be changing.” The program allowed Arana, originally from Peru and raised in the U.S., to apply to her first job at 23, receive medical employee benefits for the first time, see a dentist for the first time in a decade, and obtain a driver’s license.

Related: Georgetown reinforces its support for DACA >

As DACA hits the 10-year mark, beneficiaries like Arana are reflecting on how the program enabled them to earn postsecondary credentials, start careers, buy homes, and elevate their families to middle-class status. According to a 2018 report by the American Action Forum, DACA recipients contribute $3.4 billion annually to the U.S. Treasury and $42 billion to the annual GDP.

“It is really the American Dream put into reality at a scale of hundreds of thousands,” says Roberto Gonzales, a professor of sociology and education at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been studying the lives of DACA recipients and undocumented Americans. The program’s protections have also increased DACA recipients’ high school attendance and graduation rates, according to a 2020 study in the American Economic Journal. In 2017, the Migration Policy Institute also found that DACA recipients and U.S. adults ages 15-32 enrolled in college at similar rates.

Related: Despite uncertainty, DACA students persevering in college >

10 years later: ‘It’s like we regressed’

However, with new applications suspended and a growing number of undocumented students without DACA protections, experts fear a widening achievement gap. “It’s like we regressed,” Gaby Pacheco, a former undocumented student who was influential in urging the Obama administration to create the DACA program, tells The New York Times.

In a New York Times feature on undocumented students, Tommy Esquivel, a 19-year-old 2022 high school graduate from California, explains the obstacles he faces without legal immigration status. Ineligible for DACA protections due to the program’s court-ordered halt of new applications, Esquivel has no Social Security number or work permit, has limited access to obtaining a driver’s license in most states, and is at risk of deportation to Guatemala, although he has lived in the U.S. since the age of nine. A high-achieving student, he nevertheless has limited career development opportunities. “After doing all this work, I don’t know where it’s going to lead me,” says Esquivel. “I feel like I could do more, but there’s limitations.”

Related: Georgetown law journal editor openly undocumented, an advocate for diverse voices >

Like Esquivel, Teresa Perez, wonders about her career options. An undocumented student who immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. at age 2, Perez turned 15, the qualifying age to apply for DACA, just as the program stopped accepting new applications. Despite a national nursing shortage, her plans to enter the University of Utah’s nursing program were thwarted because she lacked a Social Security number. “It takes a big toll on you when you have something like this impacting your life,” Perez says.

Some legislators are pushing to codify protections for a new generation of Dreamers, allowing them to earn postsecondary degrees and work in the U.S. Speaking to the LA Times, Sen. Alex Padilla of California explains that long-awaited legislation would not only help Dreamers but also the nation as a whole. “When promising students … are pushed into the shadows, we all lose,” he says. “Our economy needs the talents and passion of immigrant youth.”

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