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Immigration Program Fails To Attract Eligible Applicants

The Mexican Consulate processes IDs at an area school. The New York Immigration Coalition goes to events like this one to find immigrants who are eligible for DACA.
Melanie Reyes
The New York Immigration Coalition
The Mexican Consulate processes IDs at an area school. The New York Immigration Coalition goes to events like this one to find immigrants who are eligible for DACA.

Teenagers and young adults who arrived in the U.S. illegally before they turned 16 have a chance at temporary legal status. A government program — the Deferred Action for Early Childhood arrivals program — gives them a Social Security number and protection from deportation.

But most who are eligible haven't applied. And advocates such as Melanie Reyes are trying to change that.

On a Sunday morning in July in the back of a school in Brooklyn, N.Y., Reyes scans a crowd. At this particular gathering, the Mexican Consulate is handing out IDs to families. Among all these moms and dads and children, Reyes tries to pick out undocumented immigrants who might be in their late 20s.

"You see a lot of young people here," says Reyes, who works for the New York Immigration Coalition. "We go up to people who may look the part in terms of their age, and just start conversations."

Specifically, she wants to find people who were born before June 15, 1982. That would potentially make them eligible for DACA. If they are older than that, they can't apply.

"This population, they just really don't know that they qualify," she says.

That was the case for Veronica, someone Reyes plucked out of a crowd. Veronica asked to be identified by just her first name, because she's undocumented. She was born in Mexico and attended school in the United States, until she dropped out in ninth grade. The major reason Veronica left school, she says, was that she didn't have papers.

"I just didn't care anymore. I was like, 'If I couldn't go to college and all of that stuff, what did I need the diploma for?' "she said. "I tried looking for jobs and it was just, Social Security, Social Security. So I kind of gave up."

Veronica is 28, so she meets the age cutoff for DACA. And enrolling in the program would really change her situation because it would give her a Social Security number she could use to apply for jobs.

She knew about DACA. She just didn't think she was eligible.

"I had heard about the reform and everything," Veronica says, "but I thought because I didn't graduate, then I wouldn't be qualified."

There are a lot of people in Veronica's situation. Part of the issue is that people confuse DACA with the DREAM Act, says Hiro Yoshikawa, a professor at New York University. That legislation would have provided a path to citizenship for certain young undocumented immigrants. That's something DACA doesn't do.

But the DREAM Act never passed Congress. And it was mostly for those who were college-bound.

"I think some members of the DACA-eligible group, and these might include let's say a stay-at-home mom with very young kids, they have seen the DREAMers, the activists, who are well on their way towards a college education, as being 'not me,' " Yoshikawa says.

DACA is for this group, though, because the president's program doesn't require applicants to have a high school diploma. As a result, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that more than 300,000 people qualify for DACA who would not have qualified for the DREAM Act.

But critics, like Mark Krikorian, say DACA is too expansive.

"The people who benefit from DACA get an irrevocable amnesty," he says.

Kirkorian is president of the Center on Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration. And as he points out, DACA doesn't just provide people with a Social Security number but also with protection from deportation.

DACA grantees do have to reapply every two years to maintain their status, but Krikorian predicts that once those benefits are bestowed, they won't be taken away.

"It's only nominally temporary," he says. "Everyone knows it's permanent."

DACA does seem to change the incentives around education. For applicants who haven't graduated from high school, DACA requires that they start working toward high school equivalency. And that's getting people like Veronica, who left high school after ninth grade, back into the classroom. She'll be starting a GED program later this summer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alexandra Starr
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