Laissez-Passer publish regular blog posts, opinion articles, and reports on international mobility and migration.  

 DACA: The Impact of Uncertainty 

Written by: Jennifer Samson-billet

The future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a U.S. A immigration policy, remains uncertain. Initially, this status offered stability and hope to approximately 800,000 undocumented youth, providing an indefinite delay to deportation, and the subsequent legal rights of education, employment, international travel, among others, enabling recipients to join their peers in university, enter the formal economy, establish families and livelihoods. However, under the Trump administration, DACA was repealed on September 5, 2017, and has been contested in the courts and Congress ever since. Now the future of the program and the future of nearly 800,000 DACA recipients is uncertain as possible revocation of protection and enforced deportation becomes a growing threat.

By way of background, to obtain DACA status, an applicant must meet specific criteria. For example, an applicant must have arrived in the United States before they were 16 years old, resided in the U.S. continuously since June 2007, and must have been younger than 31 years old and undocumented when the DACA program began in 2012. While current DACA recipients can continue to renew their status every two years to obtain documentation protecting their rights in the United States, their futures remain in jeopardy as the future of the program is contested. Additionally, those who are first-time applicants are unable to apply for DACA benefits. Understanding the limitations of the program is difficult due to the volatile legal standing of the program and the broad discretion of government agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in interrupting current DACA rules.  Subsequently, the threat of deportation, even for DACA recipients, is a reality. Many misdemeanor crimes, such as shoplifting or driving without a license, that previously would not have been a deportable offense, are now up to the discretion of enforcement agencies. Already, several DACA recipients have been deported for these reasons. Many others have been dubiously detained for much less. 

The impact of this uncertainty permeates into DACA recipients' lives and threatens to destabilize not only their right to reside in the United States but their lives as they know it. This uncertainty creates a barrier to human capital, achievement, and the pursuit of happiness — further, arbitrary arrest and deportation risk violating human rights. As committed DACA recipients are to contributing and participating in the American economy and society, the border that defines the territory of the United States also seeks to demarcate and stratify their opportunities. This border is more fluid than a territorial line and creates personal and pervasive duress in nearly every facet of their lives. 

While DACA occasionally resurfaces in national news, it has largely fallen out of focus. It is crucial to address the reality of DACA recipients and the daily tribulations they experience in a comprehensive manner, one which is rarely provided. While DACA waits for a policy solution or the support of the Supreme Court, the outcomes of a fractured DACA policy need to be acknowledged. This fracturing, in which DACA survives but is threatened on a daily basis and rights are restricted through the discretion of enforcement officers, banks, employers, and higher education admissions. This paper will seek to explore the impact of this uncertainty. 

Recently in February, Selene Saavedra Roman, a DACA recipient, and Texas-based flight attendant was detained by ICE for six weeks after returning abroad from a flight with her employer, Mesa Airlines. International travel is prohibited under new DACA guidelines.  Yet, her employer gave her clearance to fly as a flight attendant with Mesa Airlines to Mexico, even after Ms. Saavedra Roman voiced her concern and preference to avoid international travel. As mentioned previously, the new rules of DACA are confusing, which adds to the uncertainty of the status: in some cases, neither DACA recipients nor employers understand the current rules. Due to a misunderstanding of the policy, Selene Saavedra Roman experienced six weeks of detainment in ICE custody and severe disruption of life. Even after her release from custody, she fears deportation. According to her lawyer, while in custody, ICE requested that the government rescind her DACA status, which would have made deportation even more likely.

While work permits are still offered to DACA recipients, due to the uncertainty of the program, the restriction on international travel, and the growing controversy and partisan nature of the program, DACA recipients face increasing employment discrimination. Several lawsuits have been filed to stop this discrimination and are currently working their way through the legal system. They argue that while DACA recipients presented valid work permits to prospective employers, recruiters denied their applications by stating that they only hired U.S. citizens or immigrants with green cards. Some recruiters argued that they would not accept temporary work permits, or would only employ those who had legal authorization to work without restrictions on employment type, duration, or location. So far, the lawsuits have received the support of the courts as judges have denied efforts of employers dismissing the case, employers have sought settlements, and as judges rule in favor of DACA recipients.  It is likely that more DACA recipients face employment discrimination, that is not represented in the lawsuit, according to the Mexican American Legal Defence and Education Fund, a group filing several anti-discrimination lawsuits.

The legal battle for rights and recognition continues in the realm of higher education. Three states, Georgia, Indiana, and Arizona have formally passed legislation that restricts the rights of DACA recipients by barring them from qualifying for in-state tuition. Even further, three states, including Georgia, South Carolina, and Arizona, have gone so far as to bar DACA recipients from enrolling in top public universities. Recently, in March 2019, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an admission ban in Georgia by stating that DACA recipients do not qualify for admission at certain Georgian universities since they are not lawfully present. By making access to higher education more expensive, or in instances, downright unobtainable, DACA recipients are further excluded from achieving economic self-sufficiency or social mobility, especially since higher education in the United States has traditionally been seen as the method to advance in these categories. According to a 2017 Center for American Progress study surveying DACA recipients, 94% said that DACA allowed them to pursue educational opportunities that otherwise, would not have been possible. The high cost of tuition and housing are examples of existing barriers to higher education. Restrictive legislation only serves to increase this barrier, to the detriment of DACA recipients and their communities. 

Furthermore, restrictions on DACA recipients' higher educational attainment is likely to have additional implications on their employment eligibility and the economy at-large. For instance, the former Georgian governor, Nathan Deal, declared that "by 2020, more than 60 percent of job openings in Georgia will require some form of postsecondary education. To meet this demand, we must increase the number of students graduating with postsecondary degrees." Yet, without postsecondary degrees, DACA recipients who reside in Georgia will become more and more unqualified as employers raise their educational requirements. At the same time, Georgia, which happens to be a state with one of the fastest growing population of undocumented migrants, will be ignoring a large part of their community. According to a 2015 report by the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, policies that disqualify undocumented migrants from in-state tuition rates have contributed to a loss of $10 million in tax revenue annually. The fiscal impact of these laws permeates beyond the border, and well beyond the individual suffering of DACA recipients: it impacts their families, their communities, and the nation as a whole. 

Home Mortgages
While the Department of Housing and Urban Development has publicly assured that Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage policy still includes DACA recipients, in reality, mortgage lenders are denying DACA recipients' FHA loans. According to a new Housing Wire investigation published in March 2019, dozens of mortgage lenders have publicly detailed that DACA recipients are not eligible for FHA mortgages. FHA mortgages provide the lowest financial hurdle for qualification as they allow a low down payment and sub-optimal credit scores. These mortgages are typically easier to obtain than conventional mortgages and are essential benefits to low to moderate income perspective home-buyers seeking to purchase a house. The implication being, home ownership is a crucial way Americans build wealth, as it enables asset growth and financial security. As DACA recipients are removed from this market, economic and social disparities will likely rise. 

Mortgage lenders argue that DACA recipients are not eligible for FHA loans due to the reconsideration of their status under the Trump administration. According to the Connecticut Housing Finance Agency and as echoed by several other mortgage lenders around the country, "FHA now stipulates that Non-Permanent Resident Alien Guidelines require lawful residence for FHA loans. Although Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigrants are in the United States legally, under the new administration, they are not considered to have lawful residency." As a result, "DACA applicants will not be eligible for first or second mortgage loan financing approval in any CHFA mortgage loan product, conventional or government." The uncertainty of the legal status of DACA is seen to contribute to mortgage lenders ability to interpret "lawful residence" as they see fit.

Mental Health
In total, the looming threat of deportation, discrimination from employment, education, banks, and other opportunities, creates an extreme experience of uncertainty and fear. This reality, in which DACA recipients' rights are restricted on a daily basis, and their existence in the United States hangs in the balance, perversely contributes to the deteriorating mental health of DACA recipients. While the formulation of DACA provided an improvement to mental health according to a 2016 U.S. National Health Interview, its subsequent upheaval has done the opposite. While official data has not yet detailed the exact impact of this uncertainty, it is speculated by mental health professionals as divesting, with severe implications for DACA recipients, their families, communities, and the nation as a whole. 

While nearly 800,000 DACA recipients live in an anxious state of flux as the policy is threatened, many others live in constant fear of deportation without any protective law to provide a similar scheme of deferred action. The International Migration Policy Institute claims that in 2018, the participation rate in DACA was only 54%. Subsequently, the protections provided by DACA fail to reach nearly 600,000 other eligible applicants. These people have no avenue to seek protection as first-time applications for DACA are not currently accepted by the government. Further, a staggering 3.6 million may qualify for broader legislation that recognizes all childhood arrivals who arrived up until most recently, eliminating the restrictive eligibility requirements of DACA. As millions of people struggle to sustain their livelihoods in legal limbo, the need for policy solutions, such as legal pathways to citizenship, grows. Even so, previous attempts to provide a legal path, such as the Dream Act or the American Hope Act, have failed to garner enough political support.  Current efforts to even reinstitute full DACA protections squanders in government debate and court litigation. Yet it is morally imperative to implement policy solutions. This environment of instability and confusion creates personal and pervasive duress in nearly every facet of their lives, threatening rights, stymying futures, and undercutting the values of the United States. 

Jennifer Samson-Billet

Visa Policy Monitor

Laissez-Passer Migration Policy and Research Team 

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