Roberto G. Gonzales is an assistant professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of “Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America.”
No one has to wonder about the enormous consequences of the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday to let stand a lower-court ruling blocking President Obama’s plan to protect from deportation millions of undocumented immigrants who are parents of citizens or permanent residents. All you have to do is look at how much the smaller program it was modeled on has accomplished and multiply.
A little more than four years ago, the Obama administration announced a new and life-changing program that allowed young immigrants the opportunity to apply for deportation relief and the ability to work legally in the United States. Close to 730,000 young people have taken giant steps toward the American mainstream as a result of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and have, in turn, contributed significantly to American society.
Shortly after the implementation of DACA, my team at Harvard launched a national study to understand how these young immigrants were experiencing their new status, reaching nearly 2,700 “DACAmented” young adults. The findings from the survey pointed overwhelmingly to the program’s positive impact on their lives. DACA beneficiaries were becoming part of the U.S. mainstream. Many had obtained new jobs and paid internships and had increased their earnings. Some had also started building credit by opening bank accounts and obtaining credit cards. All states now permit DACA beneficiaries to have driver’s licenses, and many beneficiaries have acquired them. As a result, the nation’s roads have fewer unlicensed and uninsured drivers. And through new work and school opportunities, a significant share reported obtaining health care since receiving DACA.
We recently followed up the original survey with in-depth interviews with more than 500 beneficiaries. Sitting on living room couches, in student centers on college campuses, and in beneficiaries’ offices, we listened to their stories. By this time, most of our respondents had benefited from DACA for more than two years, and many of them had already gone through the renewal process. The young people we spoke to became emotional when describing their new outlooks on life. A 22-year-old community college student who moved to Phoenix with her family when she was 3 told us, “I don’t know where I would be right now without DACA. I feel it saved my life.” A 21-year-old engineering student from Chicago told us, “It’s just being able to identify yourself as someone. Because before you were just undocumented and that was it. You literally had no privileges whatsoever. But now it’s just being able to say, ‘I am someone. I have DACA.’ ”
DACA has broadened educational and work opportunities for hundreds of thousands of young people. With DACA, these U.S. residents improved their access to public universities, trade schools and additional scholarship opportunities. And with work authorization, college-going DACA beneficiaries were better able to meet their tuition needs while balancing work and school responsibilities. In the workforce, they experienced newfound access to more stable jobs with higher pay, better benefits and less stressful working conditions. These better jobs are good not just for DACA beneficiaries but also for the U.S. economy more generally, as higher wages stimulate economic growth and greater tax revenue. And many DACA beneficiaries are also filling critical labor force needs in growth sectors, such as health care.
But DACA beneficiaries do not live in isolation. They belong to families and communities in dire need of relief.
Thursday’s ruling denying immigration relief to their parents, other family members and neighbors, many with deep ties to the United States, will have significant ramifications for them and the broader American public. Without these measures, states stand to lose billions of dollars in earnings and in state and local tax revenue. Many immigrants who would have qualified for the program have made tremendous investments in education, job training and relevant experience. Their wasted talent is a huge loss for our nation.
Now, more than ever, the United States needs immigration reform to bring immigrants and their families out of the shadows, to recognize their deep community connections and economic contributions, and to build a strong American society.