Congress on Monday halted the government shutdown and gave itself three weeks to negotiate the future of US immigration policy — and at the center of this debate is a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
DACA was created under the Obama administration to give legal status to children who were 16 or younger when they came to the US as unauthorized immigrants. It has protected nearly 700,000 undocumented young adults from deportation.
The program — which was designed for those who grew up in the US, many of whom discovered they weren't citizens when they were getting ready to apply to college — required that they be enrolled in school or have a high-school diploma or GED, or have been discharged from the military.
But the Trump administration announced last fall that it would end DACA, which left it up to Congress to decide the future of nearly 700,000 undocumented young adults. Democrats want a path to citizenship for these people; Republicans haven’t decided exactly what they want. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised he would bring a bill to the floor to resolve the issue.
This is about how we got here, what the program did for these people, and what's on the line for them.
How tougher border security backfired
From the mid-1960s to the 1980s, an estimated 36 million people entered the US undocumented from Mexico. But about 86 percent of those entries were offset by departures.
In other words, men came to work in the US and then left to go back to their families.
But when the US began to ramp up border security in the early 1990s, many of these migrant workers decided it wasn't worth the dangerous border crossings. Instead, they came to the US — often with families — and then they stayed.
And shortly thereafter, Bill Clinton signed a bill that made it extremely hard for these people to get legal status. (More on this in an excellent Vox explainer here.)
That's when the number of unauthorized people in the US — those who were staying with families and making a life here — started to skyrocket.
Many of these people brought with them underage children. So these kids grew up in the US, were educated in the US, and integrated into American culture.
In fact, there are about 1.9 million people that are potentially eligible for DACA, now and in the future, including those who are already in the program, according to the Migration Policy Institute. And most are from Mexico and Latin America.
And most DACA recipients came to the US at a very young age, according to a recent survey from the Center for American Progress.
So by the time Barack Obama became president in 2008, many of these kids were teenagers or young adults — and still undocumented. This meant they couldn't drive, work, or be in the US legally.
This was an especially politically sympathetic group of people, because they had no choice whether or not to come to the US. The decision was made for them — and they grew up as American children. And if they didn't have criminal records, they were considered low on the priority list for deportation.
So in 2012, as an initial step for immigration reform, President Obama signed an executive order called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In short, if you arrived in the US as a kid during that influx of immigration, and you stayed out of trouble and were enrolled in school or graduated from school, then you qualified for the program.
That doesn't mean everyone who qualified was approved, but thus far nearly 800,000 people are protected from deportation through DACA.
The US was often the only country they knew, but being undocumented meant they couldn't make a life for themselves here
These days, most DACA-eligible people aren't children or teens anymore. That's because DACA has an age cut off since it was largely designed for underage children who arrived during that influx from Mexico and Latin America in the 1990s to mid-2000s. That means younger kids who arrived more recently or those who arrived long before don't qualify.
And this is the exact time during which people start to find jobs and figure out how to survive as an adult. But without documentation, they can't work legally in the US and, in many states, they can't get a driver's license.
Those two barriers meant that most people who eventually became DACA recipients didn't work before they were in the program — and those who did earned on average $20,000 a year.
In other words, children who grew up in the US — and frequently didn't even though they were undocumented — were often unable to make a life for themselves in the only country they knew.
Here's how much DACA helped them
DACA not only gave them protection from deportation, but it also opened the doors for the things that adults often need to survive.
After they were accepted, about 80 percent of DACA recipient said they got their driver's license for the first time. So not only could they work legally — but they could actually get to work.
Speaking of work, more than 90 percent report they are now employed, double the rate from before DACA. And they say they earn an average of $36,000 a year, which is 75 percent more than before DACA.
Almost all DACA recipients are bilingual, and almost all of them report their language skills are valued by their employers.
In addition, almost half of them are attending school, mostly to get a bachelor’s degree or higher.
While many of them are working in industries that are occupied by people who are still undocumented, like food preparation, a good portion are able to leverage their work authorization and educational opportunities into white collar jobs, like sales or office administration. (Note that the data below is from 2014 — though the report was published in August 2017 — while the survey data from the Center for American Progress is from this year.)
In other words, they are a group of young Americans who are much like their peers, except every two years they have to reapply to DACA to stay and work in the country legally.
It’s already been an anxiety-ridden process
The Trump administration has already created chaos for DACA recipients, rejecting 4,000 renewal applications that were sitting in a mailbox at the deadline in November. It eventually said these people could reapply.
In addition, a federal judge recently ordered the Trump administration to continue accepting renewal applications, but the Justice Department is challenging the decision and it could be overturned in a matter of months.
But with every day Congress doesn’t act on DACA, over 100 people lose their work permits. And after March 6, that pace will accelerate, to over 1,000 DACA recipients losing their status a day. Even a narrow “DACA fix” could shut out people who were eligible and never applied and people who were too young to apply:
Failure to act would mean there are 700,000 people who, in the next two years, would lose deportation protections and their ability to work legally in the US.