Research on Dreamers Contradicts Public Image

By Jessica M. Vaughan on August 31, 2017

Any day now, President Trump is expected to make a decision on what to do about the controversial (and illegal) Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which was launched by President Obama five years ago to give work permits and protection from deportation to illegal aliens who arrived as children and had lived here for five years — the so-called "Dreamers". Your guess is as good as mine on what he will do, but the reality is that only Congress can give authentic and permanent legal status to the Dreamers. Before they do, they should take the time to find out more about the characteristics of this population. As it turns out, the actual educational attainment and economic contributions of this group of illegal aliens does not quite match up with the public image that has been cultivated by amnesty activists and their supporters.

The federal government has disclosed very little about the DACA beneficiaries except for their countries of citizenship, states of residence, age, sex, and marital status (even though it collects much more information, including mode of entry, education, criminal history and English proficiency).

I have found only one source of credible, useful information for policymakers about the DACA population. It is an ongoing project of Harvard University researcher Roberto G. Gonzales, called the National UnDACAmented Research Project. There are important (self-acknowledged) caveats to the findings: The research is based on an online survey of just over 2,000 self-described DACA-eligible respondents and about 200 follow-up interviews. Gonzales believes that for a variety of reasons, the respondents are more educated and well-off than the DACA population as a whole.

Nevertheless, the findings are interesting. Here is a sample:

  • 73 percent of DACA recipients he surveyed live in a low-income household (defined as qualifying for free lunch in high school);
  • 22 percent have earned a degree from a four-year college or university;
  • 20 percent have dropped out of high school;*
  • 20 percent have no education beyond high school and no plans to attend college;
  • 59 percent obtained a new job with a DACA work permit, but only 45 percent increased their overall earnings; and
  • 36 percent have a parent who holds a bachelor's degree.

None of this is to suggest that these individuals should not be considered for an amnesty or legalization program, but to suggest that the arguments in favor of such a program are largely political rather than economic. Immigrants who are not highly educated and who are working in low-paying jobs are more likely to access welfare and other public assistance programs over the course of their lives. If Congress decides to enact an amnesty program, which I think is likely, then it would make sense from a fiscal standpoint to cut other forms of legal immigration, such as the chain migration categories, that also tend to strain our public coffers.

* This figure is quoted in a Gonzalez's report "Taking Giant Leaps Forward", but originates in a different study by Margie McHugh of the Migration Policy Institute, "Diploma, Please: Promoting Educational Attainment for DACA- and Potential DREAM Act-Eligible Youth". It refers to McHugh's estimate of DACA-eligible youth over age 19, not DACA beneficiaries.