The attorneys general of 10 states have threatened to sue the federal government if President Trump does not rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program by September 5. DACA allows for qualifying illegal aliens who came to the country as minors to receive two-year stays of deportation and the ability to receive paperwork that allows them to attend universities, obtain driver's licenses, and secure work permits. The program is one of former President Barack Obama's most controversial and impactful immigration orders.
Observers have watched the administration's moves in recent days, trying to predict what President Trump will decide to do. The president, according to insiders, must decide to either keep his campaign promise to rescind the program or indulge in his sympathy for the thousands of "dreamers" whose status in the country would immediately change.
As the drama surrounding the impending decision grows, media outlets and advocacy groups have begun a campaign of publishing and discussing certain "trends" associated with DACA recipients since the program's unveiling in June 2012. The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank founded by staffers of Clinton and Obama, has blasted out a number of tweets and publications regarding DACA in the days leading up to September 5 that have thrown around shocking statistics on DACA's effectiveness. Advocates and pundits have accepted and quoted these numbers as bona fide truth without digging into their source. That is where the problem arises: The sources of these numbers have serious methodological problems.
The Center for American Progress' tweets cite their own survey conducted by Tom K. Wong, entitled "DACA Recipients' Economic and Educational Gains Continue to Grow", and list six impressive claims, purporting to show the economic impact of DACA recipients:
- 69 percent moved to a job with better pay;
- 90 percent received their first driver's license or state ID;
- 65 percent purchased their first car;
- 5 percent started their own business;
- Recipients saw their average wage increase by 69 percent; and
- 16 percent purchased their first home.
These are certainly impressive numbers. But given the methodology and collection of the sample, they are misleading and do not really illustrate the true economic impact that DACA recipients have had on the country.
The data that Wong collected came from an online questionnaire administered by the Center for American Progress, United We Dream, and the National Immigration Law Center between August 1, 2017, and August 20, 2017. The questionnaire was "opt-in", which means that individuals chose to participate in the survey of their own volition, eradicating the chance for a random sample typically required of mainstream academic research. In describing opt-in internet surveys, the National Council on Public Polls said that "there is a consensus that many web-based surveys are completely unreliable. Indeed, to describe them as 'polls' is to misuse that term."
The authors of the study used measures to prevent ballot-stuffing (more than one response per person) and spoiled ballots (responses from people who are not actually DACA recipients.) The researchers did this to protect the validity of their responses, but it only muddied the waters.
To prevent ballot-stuffing, respondents could only use one IP address to respond to one survey. While this would seemingly root out most people from responding multiple times, it by no means guarantees that someone could not submit multiple responses. An individual with access to a laptop, cell phone, library, and school computer could submit a survey four different times. Because the researchers asked for no personal information or identification, there is no way of determining if one person submitted four separate responses. Less likely, but certainly possible, an activist using a program such as Tor (which scrambles your IP address every time you use it) could submit literally hundreds of responses.
To prevent spoiled ballots, the authors "used a unique validation test for undocumented status. The survey asked multiple questions about each respondent's migratory history. The survey asked these questions at different times and in different sections of the questionnaire. If there was agreement in the answers such that there was consistency regarding the respondent's migratory history, the respondent was kept in the pool of respondents." This means that someone taking the questionnaire could simply have created an imaginative and consistent migration story that would pass verification, regardless of their actual immigration status. There should be a pool of respondents who failed this test, but the author does not disclose how many respondents could not pass verification.
The three organizations selected the initial respondents, which means that the researchers were using individuals who had personal ties to the outcome of this study and understood the implication of their responses. That is to say the researchers and the organizations knew many of the respondents personally.
In addition to this group, the researchers used Facebook ads to recruit respondents outside of the networks of the partner organizations. That's right: Facebook ads. By polling their own network of engaged DACA youth and Facebook, the researchers were able to gather 3,063 surveys.
- 69 percent moved to a job with better pay. This result could really mean anything. Generally, as people mature and gain more job experience, they can expect better pay. A college-aged worker with more years in the job market is going to be making more than a high school-aged colleague. Additionally, a peer-reviewed study by Roberto G. Gonzales contradicts this information. Gonzales' study featured a truly random sample of DACA recipients. In that study, only 45 percent of respondents said that they had experienced any increased earnings following their DACA status.
- 90 percent received their first driver's license or state ID. This is also contradicted by Gonzales' data, in which only 57 percent of respondents received a license.
- 65 percent purchased their first car. This is not surprising given the general age range of DACA recipients, and says nothing about their experience in the United States as a result of DACA. According to a study released by Hofstra University, over 90 percent of American households own cars.
- 5 percent started their own business. There is no way of authenticating this number and the researchers do not provide their definition of owning a business. However, this is not overly remarkable given that only about 10 percent of American workers own a business, according to a study from the National Poverty Center. Among minorities, only 5.1 percent of black workers own their own business and only 7.5 percent of Latino workers own their own business. This 5 percent figure is not remarkable in and of itself.
- Recipients saw their average wage increase by 69 percent. This is a recycling of the first point. In fact, the questions are the same on the survey: "Got a job with better pay" and "I have been able to earn more money", respectively. This gives the reader no new information.
- 16 percent purchased their first home. In recent surveys, roughly 33 percent of Americans under the age of 35 have purchased homes, which makes the 16 percent figure look either roughly accurate to current trends or drastically behind current trends.
Needless to say, these results are either not all that impressive or require further digging to determine what their actual impact really is. This is, of course, assuming that these numbers are representative of DACA recipients. Given the discussion of the methodology at the beginning of this blog post, there is good reason to believe that these numbers should raise suspicion.
The statistics cited by the Center for American Progress, the Washington Times, the Cato Institute, the New York Times, and CNN come from a flawed study that is neither peer-reviewed nor accurate. The methodology, sample collection, and conclusions are suspicious at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.
While the DACA debate is unlikely to end soon, even should President Trump come to a decision on September 5, the statistics provided in some oft-quoted sources demand closer scrutiny.