Following President Donald Trump’s decision to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive amnesty program earlier this month, journalists produced a torrent of stories about sympathetic figures who now find themselves in legal limbo.
Many of the reports were long on stirring anecdotes about individuals but didn’t reveal much about the characteristics of DACA recipients, or “Dreamers,” as a group.
While compelling, the anecdotal reports feed misconceptions about the average DACA recipient’s level of education, contribution to the U.S. economy, and criminal behavior. Neither side of the debate is immune from this: Amnesty advocates focus on the Dreamers who are set to become doctors and scientists, while opponents highlight examples where DACA recipients have gone on to join criminal gangs.
An examination of available data paints a much more nuanced picture of the Dreamers, a large subset of the illegal immigrant population ranging from high school sophomores to 35-year-old parents.
Much of the reporting on DACA recipients has focused on those who are on the cusp of going to college, already enrolled or recent graduates. This portrays Dreamers as a highly educated segment of the U.S. population, but the reality is quite different.
In an ongoing study called the National UnDACAmented Research Project, Harvard researcher Roberto G. Gonzalez has surveyed more than 2,000 self-identified DACA recipients about their education levels. He found that 22 percent have earned a bachelor’s degree, compared to about 32 percent of all Americans who hold a bachelor’s degree, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Gonzalez also found that 21 percent of DACA recipients have dropped out of high school, far above the national dropout rate of 5.9 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Educational attainment worsens when the profile is expanded to include the entire group of illegal immigrants that would have been eligible for DACA. The New American Economy, a nonpartisan immigration reform group, analyzed 2013 – 2015 American Community Survey (ACS) data and found that 17 percent of 1.3 million DACA-eligible immigrants have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Harvard’s Gonzalez, who supports DACA as a way for illegal immigrants to become productive members of society, concedes that media portrayals tend to overstate the educational attainment of Dreamers as a whole.
“Much of what we know from research and the media is from the experiences of politically and socially active young people with advanced levels of education,” Gonazalez said in statement released by the liberal Center for American Progress in July. “But our research shows that DACA’s impact has been arguably most felt by those who, because of their immigration status, discontinued their schooling too early. Of the hundreds we have interviewed, many are returning to GED programs, workforce development, certificate programs, and college campuses.”
Since Trump’s decision on DACA, many articles and studies have focused on the potential economic losses that would follow if the Trump administration were to hypothetically deport all Dreamers.
Pro-DACA groups have made two general economic arguments in favor of amnesty: Dreamers are too large a segment of the workforce to get rid of, and they don’t take jobs from native-born workers.
It is undoubtedly true that Dreamers boost the overall size of the American economy. Deporting the 790,000 current DACA recipients by 2020 would reduce the labor force by 740,000 workers and cut aggregate GDP by $72 billion, according to a study by the pro-amnesty American Action Forum (AAF).
When put in relative terms, however, the economic impact of removing Dreamers appears less significant. The labor force would shrink by 0.5 percent and aggregate gross domestic product (GDP) would be 0.4 percent smaller, according to the AAF report.
As Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) research director Steve Camarota notes, however, studies like the AAF report aren’t particularly illuminating because they don’t say anything about what deporting Dreamers would do to per capita GDP. Using aggregate GDP as a metric for economic impact is a strawman, Camarota told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“If DACA recipients weren’t here, the economy might be a little smaller, but there’s no evidence that natives would be poorer, or that natives would have lower incomes or per capita GDP,” he said. “All that that matters is per capita GDP, and this study says nothing about it.”
The other pro-DACA economic argument is that Dreamers do not displace native-born American workers, especially low-skilled and minority workers.
In an analysis for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, reporter Tracy Jan compiled quotes from DACA supporters who argue that amnesty for Dreamers would have no negative effect on the U.S. labor market. Jackie Varas, director of immigration and trade policy at AAF, told Jan that Dreamers don’t take jobs away from low-wage U.S. workers because they fill different niches in the labor market.
“Many DACA recipients are also more skilled than other immigrants because they possess a college education, so they don’t compete with low-skilled Americans,” she said.
Though the Wonkblog article doesn’t say it, immigration policy experts are far from unanimous in that assessment. Independent public policy analyst Jason Richwine argues that DACA recipients should not be considered a high-skill group, pointing to their lower-than-average educational attainment.
Richwine also notes that Dreamers tend to work in low-wage occupations such as food service, retail sales and administrative support, putting them in competition with U.S. citizens.
“The idea that they are not competing with less-educated natives, as the advocates in the Wonkblog article claim, is unlikely,” Richwine wrote Monday in a blog post for CIS.
It is true, as Jan says, that there is not a fixed number of jobs U.S. economy, and giving work permits to a certain number of Dreamers doesn’t mean taking an equal quantity of jobs from employed American citizens.
However, numerous studies have shown that immigration can harm specific segments of the labor force. A comprehensive study by the National Academies of Science (NAS) found that prior immigrants and low-skill natives, especially African-Americans, are hardest hit.
“While many studies conclude that, economy-wide, the impact of immigration on average wages and employment is small, a high degree of consensus exists that specific groups are more vulnerable than others to inflows of new immigrants,” the NAS report said.
DACA supporters say Dreamers are no more likely to commit crimes than U.S citizens, and data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) shows that claim to be true.
To be eligible for DACA status, applicants cannot have “a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, or three or more other misdemeanor offenses,” according to USCIS guidelines. While exceptions can be made on a case-by-case basis, those granted DACA status usually have clean criminal records.
This is reflected in the relatively low number of Dreamers who’ve had their status revoked due to criminal activity. Since DACA was implemented in 2012, a total of 2,139 program recipients have lost their status because of criminal behavior, about 0.3 percent of all Dreamers.
USCIS does not require a criminal conviction to pull deferred status — gang affiliation or an arrest can trigger cancellation — so the number of DACA recipients convicted of a crime is almost certainly less than the number who’ve lost their status.
A handful of high-profile murders committed by DACA recipients notwithstanding, as a whole, the is no evidence that Dreamers have a higher degree of criminality that native-born U.S. citizens in the same age group.
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