Opinion

Three Questions: Prof. Rodrigo Canales on the Broken Promise of DACA

Since the Obama administration launched the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012, as many as 800,000 young people have come out of legal limbo to be able to work and pursue an education. But the policy has also become a lightning rod in the immigration debate, and is facing cancellation. Yale SOM’s Rodrigo Canales answered questions about what the policy has meant for DACA recipients and the benefits of immigration to the U.S. economy.


1. What has been the impact of the DACA policy on the lives of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children since it was instituted by the Obama administration?

It is hard to overstate the impact that the program had on these individuals. It is important to remember that many of these kids only learned that they were not legally American relatively late in their lives, sometimes only because they became old enough to drive or because they started thinking about college. These kids, for the most part, talk like, feel like, think like, behave like, and hang out with Americans. DACA was a turning point for them. It made them visible, it legitimized their existence, it granted the group institutional “oxygen” so they could organize and mobilize. Most important, it gave them, for the first time in their lives, a glimmer of hope that the future that they had been promised (if you work hard, stay focused, and avoid trouble you can accomplish great things) could actually be within reach. It is worth emphasizing that the program also has very tangible results for them: more than 90% of those in school* have reported that they have been able to pursue educational opportunities that they otherwise would not have been able to think of. Sixty percent have reported being able to earn more money, making their families more stable financially. They reported an average wage increase of 69% (and 84% for those older than 25), and 56% report that they moved to a job with better conditions. These are substantial effects.

* Note that Latino dropout rates are at a historic low (10%) and that Hispanics are enrolling in college at similar rates as whites, at around 47% (and now at higher rates than blacks).

2. How do the people in this group affect the economy? Was there a measurable economic effect from DACA itself?

The impact seems to have been substantial. We know, for example, that Latinos are providing the largest amount of first-generation college graduates in the country (and have been doing so for a while). Hispanics are now enrolling in college at the same rate as whites; surely some of this was helped by DACA (see point above about how many of them are pursuing educational opportunities not otherwise available to them). More than 90% of DACA recipients are currently employed. As mentioned above, close to 70% of them have moved to better jobs, and around 54% report moving to a job that better fits their skills and training. A large percentage of them have become homeowners. It is important to remember that people from immigrant families in general and Latinos in particular tend to start businesses at much higher rates than the rest of the population—and the same is true for DACA recipients. Eight percent of DACA recipients older than 25 have started businesses since receiving DACA.

And a critical point is that—as has been shown in research over and over again—these immigrant families are actually much less prone to commit crimes and in fact make communities safer.

Put differently, DACA recipients are more entrepreneurial, resilient, hardworking, education-focused, and committed to the American economy than anyone else. And we should add a critical label: they are trusting of the American government. We should never forget that these individuals had to voluntarily give all their information to the U.S. government and they had to pay a significant registration fee. It is a betrayal of enormous magnitude to now use that information to go after them.

3. Do you think there's a consensus in the U.S. that DACA should be made permanent by statute? If so, what are the barriers to that happening?

I always worry about the word “consensus,” especially at the current moment in American politics. There seems to be less resistance to the population affected by DACA than to other immigrant groups. But there is also a lot of double-sided and contradictory discourse. The White House, for example, framed the cancellation of the program as a way to push for more robust and permanent legislation—but at the same time has been seeking to strengthen deportation capabilities against DACA recipients. We hear a lot of vocal support for Dreamers, but I wonder what certain groups are going to try to extract as concessions for “allowing” them to stay in the U.S. In the end, it is quite unclear whether the overall balance of political horse trading would make sense at this time, given the rarified political climate and the uncertainty of what is coming in the next few years. That it is even a conversation, however, is probably what is most surprising of all. The human, ethical implications of truncating such a large number of lives—after they chose to trust the U.S. government—are enormous. It is an open, careless betrayal of human decency of a magnitude (and senselessness) that I could not have imagined was within the capability of the American system.

Note: you can find some of the results I talk about on the Center for American Progress website.

Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior