An event at UC San Diego this week highlighted the economic impact of young undocumented immigrants on the United States economy, their individual stories, and what institutions and States can do to protect them as they face an uncertain future after President Trump ended the program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
The Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego hosted the event, “Challenges for Dreamers in Trump’s America,” on Monday, Dec. 4, which consisted of presentations by immigration experts and DACA recipients themselves.
The event was timely given the debate in Washington, D.C., on how to deal with the approximately 800,000 young immigrants who were granted social security numbers, work permits, and the ability to apply for driver’s licenses under the Obama era program.
The program was only available to undocumented immigrants under 26 years old that were brought into the U.S., by their parents before as minors.
Congress must pass a spending bill to keep the government funded, however, disagreements over the protection of these young undocumented immigrants could lead to a government shutdown.
Until recently, immigrants who arrived to the U.S., as children, known as Dreamers, were protected from deportation under the DACA program after they submitted detailed applications to avoid immediate deportation.
On Sept. 5, President Donald Trump ended the DACA program, but gave Congress until March of 2018 to develop a plan to deal with those immigrants.
In an interview last Sunday with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that there would not be a government shutdown.
McConnell said the President gave Congress until March to make a decision on DACA, and that it would not be smart on the Democrats to shut downs the government over a, “non-emergency.”
Dreamers who applied and were approved for the DACA program, still did not have a path to citizenship, but could function more effectively by working legally in the U.S.
Now, those individuals are left with uncertainty about their future in a country most of them have known their whole lives.
Surrounded by educators, academics and guests at this week’s event, Tom Wong, assistant professor of political sciences at UCSD, explained the positive economic impact DACA has had on the individuals and the U.S., and what will be lost if the Dreamers can no longer work legally, based on the results of his recent survey.
According to Wong, 91 percent of DACA recipients who responded to the survey said they were currently employed and among respondents age 25 and older, 93 percent reported to be employed.
“When it comes to the economic integration of DACA recipients, there’s so many data points that line up in a way that make very sort of hard to argue evidence that DACA works not just for individual DACA recipients and their families, but for the American economy more broadly,” Wong said.
The online survey conducted from Aug. 1 to Aug. 20, with a sample size of 3,063 respondents in 46 states was used to analyze the economic impact and the experiences of DACA recipients in relation to employment, education and society.
In the survey, researchers asked participants what they stand to lose if they lose their DACA status. The most common responses were the fear of losing their jobs, homes, cars, and businesses.
When Trump ended the program, Dreamers were given a deadline to apply for renewals of their work permits, but some did not meet the deadline or their permits expired after.
According to Wong, as of September 2017, there are currently 689,800 active DACA applicants.
The assistant professor and author of “Rights, Deportation, and Detention in the Age of Immigration Control,” said it is more than just looking at data, it is also about storytelling.
“When we think about the gravity of what losing DACA means for these individuals,” Wong said. “You’ll sort of get it from hearing from recipients themselves.”
Wong said Dreamers are fighting to keep their DACA status and simultaneously having to think about a Plan B if the program is not extended.
“Personally, I think we are better than this as a country,” Wong said. “This type of uncertainty is not something that is idiosyncratic, this is manufactured by policy.”
Critics of the program tend to highlight that, despite their age when entering the country, there is the rule of law and no one should be rewarded for violating immigration laws. One person in the audience asked how to argue against that idea when “that family member” brings it up.
Wong said the rule of law argument is secondary to the argument about jobs, because Dreamers are not filling in a labor surplus, he argues. Instead, Wong says, Dreamers are filling in labor gaps, since 36 percent of DACA recipients over the age of 25 have bachelor’s of arts degrees or higher, and are in fields that are experiencing worker shortages.
He also points out that DACA recipients occupy a unique part in the immigration debate because they entered the country as children.
“If illegal means illegal and that’s it, then you discount the fact that they had no agency to make this migratory decision and then we’re discounting the decades that they have spent building their lives here,” Wong said.
According to the survey, the average age respondents said they first came to the U.S. was 6 ½ years old.
“In what other aspect do we hold children who are six and a half years old accountable for their accounts in a court of law?” Wong asked. “We don’t, and so why would we do this for DACA recipients?”
Among the panel of DACA recipients during the event were Veronica Benitez, Paris Salgado, Yesenia Sanchez, Luis Cruz Cardoso, and moderator Dulce Garcia.
Each of them came to the U.S. as children and most of them grew up not knowing they were undocumented until a later age.
Through DACA, the panelists were able to stop placing their dreams on hold and attend college or pursue careers that better fit their educational level.
Salgado explained that like many young children who dream of what they will grow up to be, he dreamt he would grow up to change the world, possibly by becoming President of the U.S.
He arrived to the U.S. when he was two years old, and unaware that he was undocumented, he asked his mother for his social security card and birth certificate to apply for a driver’s license at the age of 16.
He jokingly shared that his reaction to learning about his legal status was a sense of embarrassment.
“You’re telling me I can’t become President of the U.S.?” Salgado recalls he asked his mom.
Each of the Dreamers shared how DACA helped them and expressed their fears about their future.
The Dreamers explained that they were not surprised that Trump ended the program and all but one expressed not being optimistic that Congress will be able to make a decision before deadline.
Garcia, an attorney and owner of Garcia Law Firm, was the only Dreamer on the panel that expressed optimism and encouraged universities and employers to support Dreamers.