They touched off a political debate that has roiled American politics for years and even briefly shut down the entire federal government last month. But for all their political impact, in a country where demographics are computed, compounded, sliced and diced on practically an hourly basis, the young undocumented immigrants with DACA status live like phantoms in a statistical haze.
“We really know very little about them,” says Jessica Vaughan, directory of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors less immigration. “For a group that’s been at the center of so much controversy, we have hardly any idea of their educational and economic attainment.”
DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a status that allows undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children before 2007 to keep living and working here without fear of deportation.
DACA has been controversial since its inception — President Obama created it in 2012 through executive order rather than getting Congress to make it a law — and President Trump’s vow to abolish it next month triggered a brief shutdown of the federal government. This past week, the president’s chief of staff, John Kelly, stirred outrage among some when he suggested that those who were eligible for DACA but didn’t sign up were “too lazy” to get off the couch. On Wednesday Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi commandeered the House floor for eight straight hours, the longest speech in the chamber in a century, seeking to have their status resolved as part of the latest spending plan.
Another political flashpoint is approaching, with DACA set to expire on March 5 unless President Trump and Congress can work out a compromise. Democrats have accused the president of holding the immigrants “hostage” to his desire to get Congress pay for a wall on the border with Mexico and curb legal immigration. As the controversy heats up, some supporters try to idealize DACA recipients as model citizens, while some opponents try to demonize them.
But there’s little statistical evidence to support either side. The U.S. government doesn’t collect much data on DACA recipients, and private research has met with limited success. “This is a hard-to-reach population,” says Roberto G. Gonzales, a Harvard education professor whose five-year study of 2,684 young DACA-eligible immigrants is generally considered the most extensive research project on the subject.
“Many of our traditional measures to get a representative sample don’t work well on this. It’s very difficult to do. I’m confident in our research, but you can’t extrapolate it to the entire DACA population. What we say is, it’s a very good snapshot of our sample of 2,684 people. And that’s all it is.”
Because a few hundred of those people, though they were eligible for DACA, never got around to obtaining the status, the real sample of recipients is a bit less than 2,400 — a tiny percentage of the 690,000 or so immigrants who actually have their DACA papers.
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