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3 years later, the young immigrants Obama protected are feeling less afraid — and more American

Life for "DACAmented" immigrants is relatively normal. That's a huge deal.

While the frontrunner for the 2016 Republican nomination promises to deport 11 million unauthorized immigrants (and their US-born children), and while the court battle drags on over President Obama's 2014 executive actions that would temporarily protect millions of those immigrants from deportation, something strange and underappreciated has happened.

The 680,000 beneficiaries of Obama's first executive actions, in 2012 — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — have begun to settle into a new normal. Many of them have now had protection from deportation and work permits for three years. And even as their status (and that of their parents) has become a hot topic politically, they've become more stable in their daily lives.

On October 2, the immigrant advocacy group United We Dream released a survey of DACA recipients conducted earlier this year. What they found is more than a little promising. Most immigrants with DACA are reaping the psychological benefits that come with no longer fearing deportation on a daily basis. Many of them are regaining the upward career mobility that they used to think they'd have as children, before the realities of unauthorized status set in. And many are able to serve as bridges between government and their still-unauthorized parents.

But the last one is a mixed blessing: Immigrant integration research has shown that it's harder to do better than one's parents in life when one has to spend one's time supporting them. The most obvious risk that immigrants with DACA protection face right now is a President Trump (or otherwise) who'd strip away their protection and send them off to deportation. But even retaining the status quo — in which DACA recipients are legally protected but their parents are not — could end up creating a glass ceiling for the DACA generation.

Before DACA, the late teens were a massive danger zone for unauthorized immigrants

DREAMer protest with sunglasses Scott Olson/Getty Images
DREAMer protest with sunglasses
(Scott Olson/Getty)
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Unauthorized immigrants are eligible to apply for DACA if they're under 30 and came to the US before they were 16. Many of those who've applied came much earlier, as children. That puts them squarely in what demographers call the "1.5 generation" of immigrant families. Technically, they're the first generation of their family to come to the US — just like their parents are. But their life experiences have been more like those of children born in the US to immigrant parents, or "second-generation" immigrants: They've grown up in the US, speak English fluently, and attended US schools.

That means they often don't even know there's anything different about them until they're in their mid- to late teens — exactly the time they become eligible to apply for DACA.

That's significant because the teen years are when immigration status starts to impact daily life in concrete ways. US public schools are obligated to accept students no matter their immigration status, so lack of citizenship, green card, or visa usually doesn't matter to younger kids. In fact, one 2011 survey of young unauthorized immigrants, conducted by Roberto Gonzales (then at the University of Chicago), found that only 19 percent of them found out about their immigration status when they were kids.

When immigrants turn 16 or so — when their peers are getting their drivers' licenses, getting their first jobs, and applying to college with financial aid — legal status suddenly becomes extremely relevant. And that's when many immigrants find out they're unauthorized. (In the 2011 study, 30 percent found out during the college application process, and 34 percent found out at work.)

The "transition to illegality" doomed immigrants to academic and career failure

That's a really traumatic thing for a teenager to learn. The young immigrants that Gonzales and other researchers talked to before DACA often felt that their parents and teachers had been lying to them, or that they wouldn't be able to have the career they dreamed of because they'd never be able to work legally or afford to get a college education. Unsurprisingly, it's not uncommon for immigrant kids to stop achieving well in school after finding out they're unauthorized, or even to drop out entirely. Gonzales and other academics call this the "transition to illegality": unauthorized-immigrant children are well-integrated among their peers, but as they learn about their unauthorized status and become adults, they start achieving less.

For some, this happens after high school, when they have to start working in the same underground jobs their parents hold because they can't afford college without financial aid. For others, it happens after they've managed to get a college or advanced degree, then realized those credentials aren't helpful to someone who can't work legally — and had to take the same jobs their parents hold after all the time they've invested in education.

Either way, it's rough — and arguably even worse because there's no explicit act of discrimination to point to, just a general sense of exclusion. Only a quarter of the DACA recipients surveyed by UWD said they'd suffered discrimination at work because of their unauthorized status — but an overwhelming 85.6 percent said they'd felt that their immigration status was holding them back from their career goals.

This survey provides evidence that DACA rescues young adults from the "transition to illegality"

DACA is designed to take away these basic barriers: to allow young unauthorized immigrants to live in the US, go to school legally, work legally, and drive legally. (DACA doesn't guarantee drivers' licenses, but every state's laws allow immigrants with DACA to get licensed.)

Virtually all DACA recipients have taken advantage of at least one of those privileges. The new UWD survey found that 90 percent of respondents had gotten a driver's license and 40 percent had bought their first car. Eighty percent of respondents were employed — and nearly all of them (76 percent of all respondents) had gotten a better-paying job since getting their DACA status. Additionally, 30 percent of respondents said they'd returned to school, and 31 percent said they'd qualified for additional financial aid. (Having DACA status doesn't allow students to fill out the federal financial aid forms, but some schools and private institutions offer scholarships.)

Only 30 percent of respondents said they were currently in a job they saw as their career — that could be because they were still pursuing a qualifying degree, or because a lot of industries (including law and health care) restrict licensing based on immigration status. But 80 percent of respondents agreed that they feel more likely to achieve their career goals now that they have DACA.

That might seem like a rote or automatic thing to say. But remember that the alternative is going through the "transition to illegality" — or, as researcher Gonzales called it, "Learning to Be Illegal." It's not just that DACA recipients feel more likely to achieve their career goals — it's that before 2012, they and their peers might not have felt they could achieve those goals at all.

Many DACA recipients are financial assets and "cultural brokers" for their parents

More than three-quarters of DACA recipients in the UWD survey had at least one parent who is still an unauthorized immigrant. Many of these parents probably could have qualified for the expanded executive actions President Obama announced in 2014, which would have allowed parents of US citizens and green card holders to apply for the same protections that DACA provides. (Many DACA recipients have younger siblings who were born in the US; 59.5 percent of people in the DACA survey had at least one US citizen sibling.)

But since those executive actions are currently being challenged in court, they've been put on hold. It now looks unlikely that the 2014 executive actions will be resolved all that long before President Obama leaves office — and his successor could easily get rid of the program anyway. So it's possible that DACA recipients will be in the same position for the foreseeable future that they've been in for the past three years: They have a little legitimacy in the eyes of the US government, but their parents have none.

Dreamers' moms
(United We Dream)

Because DACA recipients can work legally and many of them are earning more money, they're in a better position to help their families make ends meet: 59 percent of survey respondents say they can better help their families financially now that they have DACA, and 62 percent help families pay the bills. Because they can drive legally, they can help drive their families around: 41 percent say they're drivers for their families. And in some cases, their greater financial legitimacy is something they open up to their families as well: 12 percent of DACA recipients surveyed said their name is on their family's lease; 12 percent said their family uses their credit card; and 11 percent said their family uses their bank account.

There's also the more traditional work that 1.5-generation and second-generation kids do for their immigrant parents: 72 percent of respondents help their parents fill out official documents, and 70 percent of them help translate. As the sociologist Ruben Rumbaut has pointed out, it's common for the adult children of immigrants to play this role: to contribute to their parents financially and serve as "cultural brokers." But immigrants with DACA can also go places their parents might be afraid to go. Thirty-seven percent of United We Dream survey respondents said they attended "important meetings, like parent-teacher conferences," on their parents' behalf.

United We Dream

But does helping parents come at the cost of DACAmented immigrants' own independence?

On one hand, DACA is great for its recipients' families: It puts them in better shape financially and gives them someone who can safely drive the family around and deposit money. But on the other hand, as Rumbaut has written, the fact that immigrant parents need their adult children for so much is the major obstacle to those children completing their "transition to adult status" — leaving the home and getting married themselves. "They are the ones most likely to be living with their parents," Rumbaut said in a 2011 talk. "And who are their parents? Their immigrant parents, who need them!"

And Gonzales pointed out in his 2011 survey that children of unauthorized immigrants, who were more likely to be under pressure to make money from a young age, are less likely to have a chance to pursue higher education — or even have an enriching or normal adolescence: "Many of these youngsters must start contributing to their families and taking care of themselves. These experiences affect adolescent and adult transitions that diverge significantly from those of their documented peers, placing undocumented youth in jeopardy of becoming a disenfranchised underclass."

Of course, many of these youth are no longer unauthorized. But because their parents still are, the pressure to take money and time away from their own independent, adult lives is still there. The new survey makes clear that right now, DACA is a life raft that recipients are using to buoy their families. In a world where DACA recipients' parents were similarly protected from deportation, it's possible to imagine that each family member might have a lifejacket of his own.

The overwhelming psychic benefits of DACA

The most fundamental thing about being unauthorized isn't the inability to work or drive. It's the fear of deportation.

Studies have shown that the families of unauthorized immigrants — even children born in the US — often feel increased stress, anxiety, or depression because they're worried about their relatives being deported. This could even lead to long-term mental health effects and "decreased American identity," according to a recent report on immigrant integration from the National Academies of Sciences.

child hugging detainee father

DACA recipients who have unauthorized parents or relatives are still living with much of this. But they no longer have to worry about deportation themselves. And three years into DACA, this appears to be one of the program's lasting legacies.

United We Dream did a first survey of DACA recipients in 2013-'14. In some cases, there wasn't much change from the first survey to the new one: The same number of respondents said they felt more financially independent and could make more money with DACA, for example. But in some cases, it's clear that DACA recipients are settling in. In 2013, only 64 percent of DACA recipients had drivers' licenses and 20 percent had bought a first car; this year, 90 percent have licenses and 40 percent have cars. Fifty-two percent have credit cards now, whereas 37 percent did when the first survey was taken.

But what's most striking is what DACA recipients said about the psychological effects of DACA. Even in 2013, most DACA recipients felt safer after getting protected from deportation: 66 percent said they were no longer afraid, and 64 percent said they felt more like they belonged in the US. But as the program continues, those feelings are only growing. In 2015, 78 percent of DACA recipients say they're no longer afraid. And 72 percent say they feel like they belong in America.

People gather in front of the White House to celebrate president Obama's announcement of DACA on June 15, 2012. (Alex Wong, Getty Images)

This is partly a generational difference — for years, unauthorized immigrants from the "1.5 generation," who grew up in America, have been less afraid than their parents and felt more emboldened to speak up. That's why President Obama established DACA to begin with: He was under pressure from young immigrant activists who weren't afraid to confront him at speeches.

The difference between the generation of unauthorized immigrants who are eligible for DACA and their parents was illuminated recently by a Los Angeles Times article. The father depicted in the article knows exactly where he will go in Mexico if he is deported and who will pick him up. The daughter, Karla, who's 24 and has lived in the US since she was 5, says, "If they are going to deport me, they're going to have a very bad taste in their mouth. I'm going to call this person, this lawyer, this organization [...] I'm going to do a media circus. I'm going to stay in this country."

Right now, Karla's contingency plan is unnecessary: She's protected under DACA, just like hundreds of thousands of other immigrants. But the point of her plan is that even if the next president takes away her legal protections by ending DACA, she'll still have the confidence to fight to stay in the country. That confidence, as the UWD survey shows, is something DACA has only strengthened. And it poses a problem for anyone hoping that the people who are protected from deportation today can be deported tomorrow.


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