DACA Helps Young People Realize the Promise of the American Dream

Nancy Villa, a DACA recipient, stands in front of Harold Washington College in Chicago, on November 17, 2016.

In 2013, Rosa Velazquez, age 30, testified before Congress about her mother’s “hardworking hands.” Velazquez’s mother is an unauthorized immigrant from Mexico who developed carpal tunnel syndrome due to her many years of work in an Arkansas poultry processing plant. It was because of those hardworking hands that Velazquez, herself an unauthorized immigrant who came to the United States as a child, was able to pursue two master’s degrees. As she explained to the House Judiciary Committee, her mother’s hands “are the foundation on which this country was built.”

The experiences of Velazquez and her mother are not unique. Millions of immigrants have come to the United States throughout its 240-year history in hopes of providing better lives for themselves and their children. Just about every family in the United States today has a story about an immigrant ancestor—be it a parent, grandparent, great grandparent, or beyond—who came to this country; made sacrifices; and worked long, hard hours so that their children could become teachers, doctors, lawyers, business people, civil servants, or other professionals. In many ways, this is the story of the American dream.

DACA recipients reflect the American dream

Lost in the morass of today’s immigration debate is the fact that the American dream of our ancestors continues at pace today. This can be seen clearly in the stories and experiences of the more than 741,000 young people who have received a temporary reprieve from deportation and a work permit as a result of the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, initiative.

Today, there are an estimated 7 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. workforce. According to an analysis performed earlier this year by the Center for American Progress, the largest share of these workers—nearly one in five—are employed in the leisure and hospitality industry, including in food service, housekeeping, and janitorial jobs. Nearly 16 percent are employed in construction, and 5 percent work in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting, making up a disproportionately large share of that small industry’s workforce. A much smaller percentage of all unauthorized workers are employed in fields such as the educational and health services industry and financial activities—at just more than 7 percent and 2 percent, respectively. Think of these unauthorized workers as the parents of Velazquez.

By contrast, the profile of DACA recipients in the workforce looks quite different, far more similar to Velazquez. By definition, DACAmented individuals came to the United States at a young age and received some or all of their education in this country. According to a nationwide survey of DACA recipients by Tom K. Wong, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego; United We Dream; the National Immigration Law Center; and the Center for American Progress, more than one in five DACAmented individuals who are currently employed work in the educational and health services industry, and 4.1 percent are employed in financial activities. Only 5.2 percent are employed in leisure and hospitality, 3.3 percent are employed in construction, and less than 1 percent work in agriculture.

DACA has allowed these individuals to get better jobs, achieve higher levels of education, and support themselves and their families. More than half of recipients have bought cars, and 12 percent have bought houses—another marker of the American dream.

Ending DACA closes the door on a shared future

Unfortunately, all of this progress is under threat: Throughout his campaign, President-elect Donald Trump promised to end President Barack Obama’s administrative actions on immigration, including DACA. Although he recently promised to “work something out” for DACA recipients that will “make people happy and proud,” President-elect Trump has yet to provide any details and has fallen short of committing to preserve DACA. Ending the program—whether done all at once on day one of his presidency or by denying renewals and allowing work authorizations and protections to expire day by day—would mean pulling the rug out from under these individuals and their families. Doing so would squander not only the hard work of these young people and the sacrifices of their parents but also the educational investments that communities across the country have already made—even as these investments are beginning to pay off. Moreover, ending DACA and kicking these recipients out of the workforce would cost the nation $433.4 billion in lost gross domestic product over a decade.

Lisette Candia Diaz, a DACAmented graduate of Harvard University, recently explained her fear of losing DACA in The Washington Post: “I’m scared of seeing the life I’ve built, the life I’ve planned for, disappear with the swish of a pen,” she wrote. Reflecting on the sacrifices that were made to give her this opportunity, Diaz, similar to Velazquez, wrote about “the blood that covered my dad’s hands after his long shifts.” With a Harvard education, Diaz stands ready to pursue her dreams. But all of that now stands in limbo as she awaits what the president-elect might do.

DACAmented individuals today are getting an education, earning higher wages, and becoming civically engaged in important ways that strengthen their communities and U.S. democracy. Their successes are the result of their own hard work and dedication, but in the greatest traditions of this country, they are also the result of sacrifices made by those who came before them. Just last week, Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced the BRIDGE, or Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy, Act to protect recipients and DACA-eligible youth and allow them to continue working legally for three years. While this bill falls short of a permanent legislative pathway to status, it is an important first step. Continuing DACA and building upon the initiative’s successes will move this country forward and reaffirm the promise of the American dream. Stripping protections from hundreds of thousands of young people simply closes the door on our own shared future.

Tom Jawetz is the Vice President of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress.