One of President Trump’s signature campaign promises was to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a controversial program created by the Obama administration in 2012 that granted work permits, identity documents, and relief from deportation to approximately 800,000 illegal immigrants who arrived as youths. More than six months into Trump’s term, however, DACA is still alive, and his administration appears divided over how to proceed. It is time to stop wavering. The president should end a program that is illegal, overbroad, and likely to lead to a more extensive amnesty.
The most obvious problem with DACA is that it is illegal. By unilaterally issuing work permits and deportation relief to a large class of illegal immigrants, President Obama effectively rewrote immigration law. Take it from a knowledgeable source:
With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive order, that’s just not the case, because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed. . . . The executive branch’s job is to enforce and implement those laws. . . . There are enough laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system that for me to simply through executive order ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as President.
That statement comes from President Obama himself, one year before he reversed course and instituted DACA. His new justification was that the executive branch would merely be exercising “prosecutorial discretion” in whom it chooses to deport, but — as Obama himself had said — there must be limits to such discretion. Imagine that President Trump becomes frustrated that Congress will not lower the corporate income tax. In response to congressional inaction, could Trump simply announce that the IRS will no longer punish corporations for tax evasion?
The second problem with DACA is that it harms working-class voters, the very people who put Trump over the top. The employment situation for those without a college education continues to look bleak. We can see this clearly if we ignore the official unemployment rate, which includes only people who report they have actively looked for a job in the prior four weeks. In the first quarter of this year, only 62 percent of young native-born Americans (18 to 29) without a college degree were working, which means that 38 percent were not employed. While these figures include those in school, this was also the case in 2000, when 70 percent of these young, less-skilled workers had a job. The bottom line is that the young and less educated work much less than they used to. These are the workers most likely to compete with DACA recipients armed with their newly issued work permits.
One might argue that many DACA recipients were already working, so it’s better if they have work permits. But giving work permits to illegal immigrants makes it possible for them to seek employment in almost any job, so the competition with less-educated natives will hit occupations that until now were mostly unaffected. Security jobs are a good example. The lobbies of all large offices and apartment buildings in America have security guards who at a minimum take the names of visitors and call police if there is a problem. These are $12- to $20-an-hour jobs that often come with benefits and that can pay even more depending on the security level. In cities across America, many of these workers are African-American men. Illegal immigrants typically cannot get such jobs because they require valid Social Security numbers and IDs and the ability to pass a background check. But with DACA, they now have these things. Long-haul truck driving, package delivery, and jobs that require workers to be bonded also often demand these documents. These jobs pay at the higher end of what those with modest levels of formal education typically earn.
In addition, some states are allowing DACA recipients to receive professional licenses such as those for contractors. And of course it seems like only a matter of time before states open government jobs to those covered by the program.
Putting aside its legality and the impact on less-educated Americans, the program itself is deeply flawed even on its own terms. When President Obama first announced DACA, he portrayed recipients as de facto American citizens. “They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.” He went on to describe them as brought here before they could even understand the word illegal, raised in the U.S. from a young age, steeped in American culture, now facing “deportation to a country that [they] know nothing about.”
Some DACA recipients do fit this sympathetic description, but the program applies to a much broader group of illegal immigrants. Based on the age and residency requirements, a 15-year-old can travel to the U.S. illegally, stay for five years, and then receive a work permit at the age of 20. Contrary to media portrayals, applicants need not identify as Americans or demonstrate any affinity for American culture. For example, travel to and from their native countries does not invalidate applicants’ five-year period of “continuous” U.S. residence, as long as the trips are “brief, casual, and innocent.” Furthermore, applicants are not required to speak English. In fact, there is space on the DACA application itself to note the assistance of a translator. “Deportation to a country that [they] know nothing about” is quite a stretch when some applicants can arrive as teenagers, make trips to their home countries, and speak and read English so poorly that they need a translator.
Other requirements imposed on DACA applicants turn out to be weak sauce. President Obama implied that applicants must be “willing to go to college,” but the program requires only a high-school diploma, and even that requirement is waived for those who are simply enrolled in some kind of educational program. This is close to no education standard at all, as 92 percent of U.S.-born 20-year-olds had a high-school diploma or the equivalent in 2012. Similarly, forget zero tolerance for crime. DACA applicants may be convicted of up to two “non-significant” misdemeanors before they are deemed threats to public safety. After detaining a DACA recipient suspected of gang ties, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) acknowledged earlier this year that it has had to revoke the status of over 1,500 DACA recipients owing to a criminal conviction or gang affiliation. How many other criminals have slipped through the department’s vetting procedure?
DHS could tell us how many DACA recipients had short tenures in the U.S., or traveled back to their home countries, or required a translator, or committed crimes. My colleagues at the Center for Immigration Studies have been eager for that data, but so far DHS has offered only the simplest demographic breakdowns by variables such as gender and city of residence.
In the meantime, we are left to use Census data to make educated guesses about which respondents are illegal immigrants eligible for DACA. Researchers Donald Kerwin and Robert Warren at the Center for Migration Studies, which is generally pro-immigration, did just that, and although they put a positive spin on the numbers, it is clear that camera-ready DREAMer activists are not representative of all DACA beneficiaries. Of those who are likely eligible for DACA, 15 percent have been residents for less than 10 years, 25 percent admit they speak English less than “very well,” and a majority have no more than a high-school diploma.
DACA is not a program that carefully considers the humanitarian case for individual applicants.
Even those numbers could exaggerate the level of assimilation. As mentioned above, a high-school diploma has become so commonplace among today’s youth (due in large part to watered-down standards) that it is no longer a strong indicator of skills. Similarly, CIS research has shown that immigrants tend to overstate their English ability. When Hispanic immigrants, who make up some 80 to 90 percent of DACA recipients, recently took an objective test of English literacy, 44 percent of those who said they speak English “well” or “very well” actually scored “below basic” — a level sometimes described as functional illiteracy. Based on test-takers with the required age and residency, I estimate that perhaps 24 percent of the DACA-eligible population fall into the functionally illiterate category and another 46 percent have only “basic” English ability.
Put simply, DACA is not a program that carefully considers the humanitarian case for individual applicants. It is a blunt instrument that protects some who can be described as sympathetic youth as well as a less sympathetic group who are more akin to ordinary illegal immigrants. And that’s probably by design. For the leadership of the Democratic party, DACA is but a first step toward legalizing the entire illegal population. After the 2014 midterm election, the Obama administration added Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), since stalled by the courts, that would have covered illegal immigrants who had children while in the U.S. During the 2016 election, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders went farther still, promising to protect all illegal immigrants who are not violent criminals. Their proposal, which we might call DANF (Deferred Action for Non-Felons), is the logical endpoint of the path that DACA began. And it may not even be the ultimate endpoint, as groups such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network are against deporting felons.
Like any debater who faces constant questions from his opponent about the hard cases, immigration restrictionists are confronted with DACA not as a small exception but as a means to undermine their entire position. The only way some kind of DACA-like amnesty should even be considered by Congress is in the context of reducing overall immigration levels, perhaps attached to the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act, introduced in revised form yesterday by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue.
The White House will soon be afforded a great opportunity to get out from under the program. Ten states have indicated they will add DACA to an existing federal lawsuit dealing with DAPA if the program is not ended by September 5. If the administration chooses not to defend DACA in court, then the program may simply die a quiet legal death. But there is no need to wait; the president should take this opportunity and honor his campaign pledge to end the program.
— Steven Camarota is Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies.