On June 15, 2012, President Obama authorized Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to provide deportation reprieve for the nation’s estimated 1.9 million young people who came to the United States as children. To be eligible, individuals must have come to the United States before their sixteenth birthday and have resided in the United States since June 15, 2007, were under age 31 as of June 15, 2012, are in school, have graduated or obtained a GED, or honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States, have no immigration status, and pass a background check. With DACA, these individuals can work, drive, go to school, and live in the U.S. legally.

DACA was a response to Congress’ inability to pass legislation to create a pathway to citizenship for this population, who came to be known as DREAMers. More than twenty-one years ago, on April 25, 2001, Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) introduced the first bill, Immigrant Children’s Education Advancement and Dropout Prevention Act of 2001, to create such pathway to permanent immigration status. A more well-known bill called Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act of 2001 was introduced by Senators Dick Durbin and Orin Hatch on August 1, 2001, which came to be called the DREAM Act. Two subsequent comprehensive immigration reform bills in 2006 and 2007 included the Dream Act, but neither passed. The closest we got to passing the Dream Act was in 2010, which passed the House, but failed in the Senate because of filibuster. The spring of 2013 gave a fleeting hope that the passage of the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform could become a reality with the bipartisan Gang of Eight declared that 2013 was the “Year of Immigration Reform.”[1] Nothing came of it. Elected officials in Congress continue to use the fate of DREAMers and the other 10 million unauthorized immigrants to bargain for more border security and more immigration enforcement when the budget for immigration enforcement has already more than quadrupled to nearly $5 billion dollars over the past two decades.[2] The latest attempt in the DREAM Act (American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, H.R. 6), which passed the House in March of 2021, continues to languish.

A decade since President Obama introduced DACA, around 611,000 individuals were active DACA recipients as of December 31, 2021. U.S.C.I.S. approved a total of 835,097 DACA applications since the launch of the program on August 15, 2012.[3] The data suggest that nearly 225,000 DACA recipients either did not renew their status and became undocumented or found alternative pathways to immigration protection. Texas has the second largest population of DACA recipients, at 101,350, second only to California’s 174,680. There are 31,370 active DACA recipients in Greater Houston, the fourth largest DACA population by metropolitan areas after Los Angeles, New York, and Dallas-Fort Worth. The median age of DACA recipients is twenty-seven years old. The oldest among them are just shy of forty-one years old and who have lived in the U.S. for at least twenty-five years. The youngest among the DACA recipients are sixteen years old and they would have been living in the U.S. since they were one year old or younger. On average, DACA recipients arrived in the U.S in 1999 at the age of seven; more than one-third arrived in the U.S. before the age of five. The DACA recipients are individuals who have grown up in the United States, who have received their education here, and who have lived and worked in our community.

Since the launch of DACA a decade ago, there were lawsuits challenging its legality and attempts to terminate it. President Trump attempted to terminate the DACA program in September of 2017, giving only a 30-day window for a small group of eligible DACA recipients to renew their status and completely blocked new DACA applications, leaving tens of thousands of individuals who aged into or become eligible for the program unable to pursue the protection. Ensuing litigation enjoining the termination, which was affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in June of 2020 allowed many DACA recipients to renew their immigration protection, but U.S.C.I.S. did not resume accepting new initial application until early December of 2020. New applications came to an abrupt stop when Judge Hanen of the Southern District of Texas ruled that DACA is unlawful but allows it to continue for current recipients. The case is on appeal with oral argument scheduled for July 5, 2021, in the Fifth Circuit. As a result of the July 2021 ruling, young people who turned fifteen and those who fulfilled the educational requirements since December 2020 but whose DACA applications were not adjudicated as of July 16, 2021, do not have DACA protection. In fact, more than 91,000 initial DACA applications were pending with U.S.C.I.S. as of December 31, 2021[4], and they are not likely to be approved any time soon. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued proposed rule to formalize the existing process for DACA last September, but DHS has yet to finalize the rule.

Ten years since DACA came into existence, hundreds of thousands of individuals who are active DACA recipients continue to have to live life two years at a time, uncertain about potential path to permanent immigration status, and constantly having to worry about being immigration enforcement targets should DACA end. More than 1.3 million people live with a DACA recipient, who are raising 300,000 U.S.-born children. A 2021 survey shows that more than three-quarters of DACA recipients in the workforce – 343,000 people – are essential workers in healthcare, education and food supply chain helping to keep the country running and safe at great personal risk during the Pandemic. They contributed $9.4 billion dollars in state and federal tax and constituted an economic engine of $25.3 billion dollars in spending power.

A generation since Representative Gutierrez introduced the first DREAM Act in Congress in 2001, ten years since we slapped together the DACA program as a band-aid solution, DREAMers have aged from being elementary school pupils to having elementary-school-age children of their own. They have, on average, lived 23 years in the U.S., well above the duration of conditional residency in any proposed DREAM Acts. A humane immigration system values the community ties and economic contributions of our long-term residents. It is past time that Congress acts to provide a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers.

~ By Zenobia Lai

[1] Liz Halloran, Gang of 8 Champion Plan, Declare ‘Year of Immigration Reform’,” (NPR, April 18. 2013), https://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2013/04/18/177780665/bipartisan-senate-gang-prepares-to-sell-immigration-plan.

[2] The Cost of Immigration Enforcement and Border Security (American Immigration Council, Jan. 20, 2021), https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/the-cost-of-immigration-enforcement-and-border-security.

[3] Number of Form I-821D, Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Requests by Intake and Case Status, by Fiscal year August 15, 2021 – December 31, 2021, https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/document/reports/DACA_performancedata_fy2022_qtr1.pdf.

[4] Count of Active DACA Recipients By Month of Current DACA Expiration As of December 31, 2022, https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/document/reports/Active_DACA_Recipients_December_31_2021.pdf.

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