Center for American Progress

The Early Success of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Policy

The Early Success of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Policy

In the two months since President Obama’s deferred-action plan started, more than 4,500 eligible youth have received a two-year reprieve from deportation and a work permit, giving them a shot at the American Dream.

Pilar Quinn, voluntaria, imparte una clase de preparación para el examen de Competencia de Escuela Preparatoria (GED) en una Escuela Marista en Atlanta, Georgia, el jueves 11 de octubre de 2012. La clase es para los inmigrantes que aplicaron para la Acción Diferida para las personas que llegaron en su Niñez. (AP/Rebecca Breyer)
Pilar Quinn, voluntaria, imparte una clase de preparación para el examen de Competencia de Escuela Preparatoria (GED) en una Escuela Marista en Atlanta, Georgia, el jueves 11 de octubre de 2012. La clase es para los inmigrantes que aplicaron para la Acción Diferida para las personas que llegaron en su Niñez. (AP/Rebecca Breyer)

The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services recently released a second round of data on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. Since implementation began in mid-August, nearly 180,000 applications have been accepted for consideration, and more than 4,500 eligible youth have received deferred action. Although the policy is still in its infancy, it is not premature to begin evaluating its success and considering its potential impact.

The success of any policy that is designed to encourage undocumented immigrants to present themselves to the government and request legal status can be evaluated using two standards. The first—and arguably most important—benchmark is maximum participation of the eligible population. The second is a fair, efficient, and transparent process of receiving and adjudicating filings. The deferred-action program has so far excelled under both of these standards, and, if it stays on this path to success, the United States will be in a position to reap significant economic rewards.

The history of deferred action

Before evaluating the program’s success, it is important to first understand the context in which the program was created. For more than 10 years, countless people, including many fearless immigrants lacking legal status, have championed a legislative effort to pass the DREAM Act—a bill that would create a pathway to U.S. citizenship for unauthorized individuals who came to the United States as children. But after several unsuccessful attempts to pass the bill—the last failure following an insurmountable Republican filibuster on the Senate floor despite a majority of senators (55) voting in favor—President Barack Obama used his executive authority to permit up to 1.76 million aspiring Americans to emerge from the shadows of our society, with 950,000 people eligible immediately. And on June 15 of this year, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano issued a directive allowing eligible youth to request discretionary relief from removal—a policy later named Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Under this directive, immigrant youth are authorized to request a temporary two-year reprieve from deportation and apply for a work permit if they meet a series of requirements—including being under the age of 30, having lived in the United States for more than five years, and having entered the country before their 16thbirthday. Additionally, they need to have completed or currently be enrolled in high school (or have received a GED) or have served in the U.S. armed forces. Unlike the DREAM Act, deferred action is a discretionary administrative program that is temporary—granting two years of reprieve from the date of approval—and it does not confer permanent residency.

The last time such a large number of undocumented immigrants were authorized to request a reprieve from deportation was in 1986, when then-President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act into law. Many scholars, policymakers, and citizens today view the Immigration Reform and Control Act as a highly successful legalization program because it was able to legalize a large percentage of the eligible population in a short timeframe. Under that law, nearly 1.7 million individuals* were granted temporary legal residency and the opportunity to earn permanent residence. This encompassed more than 77 percent  of those who were potentially eligible to apply. A quick examination of the numbers suggests that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy is on track to be just as successful in terms of its participation rates and applicants’ positive experiences throughout the process, if not more so.

Deferred action’s success

In just the first two months, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received and accepted for processing 179,794 deferred-action requests. That’s 18.9 percent of the 950,000 immediately eligible individuals. The Immigration Reform and Control Act program reached this level, at the earliest, in the fourth month of application filings; only 3.07 percent of the 2.2 million immigrants who were potentially eligible under that law filed an application in the first month of the law’s enactment, and by the third month as few as 13.3 percent of potential applications had been filed. High participation rates early on in a policy’s implementation are crucial because they send a positive signal that other eligible people should apply. So far, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has done just that. This is an indication of the first benchmark being reached.

Similarly, the high number of filings and the more than 158,000 appointments made for biometric interviews suggest that the second benchmark for success is, at least at this initial stage, also being met: The process for requesting deferred action is streamlined and transparent. Even more suggestive of success in this regard is that in the first two months of the program, 4,591 requests for relief have already been granted. As of October 10 no applicants had received letters of rejection. These positive outcomes signal to other eligible participants who may be hesitant to register with the government that it is safe to come forward and apply. The efficiency and transparency of the process thus encourage more immigrants to apply and increase the potential for the policy’s overall success.

With the Department of Homeland Security putting the first two benchmarks for success on a positive track, policymakers should be considering how to ensure that the program’s successes are taken advantage of as much as possible. These immigrants have the potential to contribute to our economy and society for years to come.

Deferred action and the DREAM Act

Because the current Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy is an administrative act of discretion, however, its impact is limited. A report released this month by the Center for American Progress and the Partnership for a New American Economy, for example, estimated that passing the more permanent DREAM Act—the ultimate legislative solution for these immigrant youth—would add a total of $329 billion to the American economy by 2030. This economic boost would occur because adjusting the legal status of young people to permanent residents leads to higher earnings and subsequently creates a ripple effect throughout the economy.

The fact that deferred-action recipients receive only temporary work authorization obviously limits them from reaching their full potential for long-term economic contributions. But what cannot be denied is that bringing these aspiring Americans off the economic sidelines and into the formal economy will provide a substantial economic and fiscal boost. They will make more money, spend more money, and contribute more to the tax rolls. It is now in Congress’s hands to maximize that economic opportunity—and our collective self-interest—by accelerating this process and according these young immigrants permanent legal status.

Maria Fernanda: A case study

For the first time, these aspiring Americans will be able to fully participate within the society they have been living and working in for years. Maria Fernanda Cabello is one such DREAMer: Maria Fernanda was born in Mexico and migrated with her family to Texas out of economic necessity when she was 12. Having graduated fifth in her Houston high school class, today she is a senior at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, majoring in political science.

She has been an activist for the DREAM Act since her freshman year of college and was in Washington, D.C., for an activist training in August when the first applications for deferred action were accepted. She was among the more than 11,000 Texas youth to apply to the program within the first month of its existence. Maria Fernanda has received deferred action and a work permit, but she believes her work is far from over. “I want to help communities know that they have to be active in whatever is happening—to vote, to get active,” she said in an interview with Campus Progress. “Now that I have my work permit, it is just a reminder that my parents still drive to work without a driver’s license and are at risk,” she continued.

Maria Fernanda considers the United States to be her home and now she, along with the more than 4,500 other deferred-action recipients, is one step closer to the American Dream. Take a look at where other deferred-action applicants came from.


In this close election year, conventional wisdom predicted that people would be hesitant to hand evidence of their unauthorized status over to the yet-to-be determined next administration. But people such as Maria Fernanda have defied this notion. The 13,000 DREAMers who gathered at Chicago’s Navy Pier on August 15—the first day applications could be submitted—to get advice on filing their deferred-action paperwork signaled that the program was off to a good start.

With nearly one-fifth of potential applicants applying so quickly—even in such a tenuous political climate—we can expect that after the November elections, the number of applicants will continue to rise. If the Department of Homeland Security continues to efficiently review and adjudicate the requests that are filed, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy could be one of the most successful immigration policies of our time. If Congress pays attention and takes legislative action to offer a more permanent solution, the success of this program will demonstrate that incorporating law-abiding undocumented immigrants into the economic fold is a win for America.

Marshall Fitz is the Director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress. Patrick Oakford is a Research Assistant with the Economic Policy team at the Center. Ann Garcia is a Research and Policy Associate with the Immigration team at the Center.

* This figure is the number of people legalized under the Immigration Reform and Control Act’s main 245A legalization provision. It excludes the approximately 1.1 millionundocumented immigrants who sought and were admitted for temporary and then permanent residence under a provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 for special agriculture workers. Because these workers had to have been in the United States for 90 days in each of the three years preceding the 1986 legalization—compared to the full five years that other Immigration Reform and Control Act applicants had to be present in the country prior to the 1986 legalization—we feel that using only the figures under the main 245A legalization provision best serves as a comparator to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

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Marshall Fitz

Senior Fellow

Patrick Oakford

Senior Policy Analyst

Ann Garcia

Policy Analyst