Expert Commentary

DACA, the DREAM Act and undocumented immigrants: A primer for journalists

This explainer helps journalists understand what DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is and how the program impacts local communities and undocumented immigrants.


On Sept. 5, 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security began phasing out a program that gives undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children a two-year reprieve from deportation. The federal government immediately stopped accepting new requests for DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump challenged Congress to make immigration reforms within the next six months, before work permits begin to expire for those who were granted DACA. Between 2012 and early 2017, the federal government approved nearly 800,000 DACA requests as well as hundreds of thousands of requests to renew a DACA upon its expiration.

As journalists cover this topic, they should understand what DACA is, what the research says about it and how it differs from the DREAM Act, formally known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. Below, we offer some guidance.

What is DACA?

President Barack Obama created the DACA program through executive order in June 2012. This program overview from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offers details about who qualifies, what protections are offered and work authorization. It’s worth noting that receiving DACA does not confer lawful immigration status or provide a path to conditional or permanent residency or citizenship.

Here are some helpful resources:

  • This report from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services shows the number of people who requested and were granted or denied DACA between 2012 and 2017.
  • This Q&A from the Department of Homeland Security provides a breakdown of how many work permits will expire in 2017, 2018 and 2019 for individuals with DACA.
  • This 2017 letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions explains his reasons for recommending the DACA program be phased out.
  • This Q&A from the U.S. Department of Education offers information about financial aid for undocumented students. A number of DACA recipients are college students or want to remain in the country to attend college or a trade school.

What is the DREAM Act?

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act was first introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2001. Despite revisions, it has repeatedly failed to make it through Congress. This legislation would create a process through which undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and meet certain other criteria could become conditional residents and, eventually, permanent residents.

The most recent version of the bill, filed in July 2017, has nine co-sponsors — six Democrats and three Republicans.

What does the research say?

In recent years, scholars have examined the DACA program’s impact on local communities as well as undocumented immigrants and their families. Below, we have gathered a sampling of published academic research on the subject. We also have included research related to DACA and political and social activism.


Short-term benefits to undocumented adults

“Becoming DACAmented: Assessing the Short-Term Benefits of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)”
Gonzales, Roberto G.; Terriquez, Veronica; Ruszczyk, Stephen P. American Behavioral Scientist, 2014. DOI: 10.1177/0002764214550288.

Abstract: “In response to political pressure, President Obama authorized the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012, giving qualified undocumented young people access to relief from deportation, renewable work permits, and temporary Social Security numbers. This policy opened up access to new jobs, higher earnings, driver’s licenses, health care, and banking. Using data from a national sample of DACA beneficiaries (N = 2,381), this article investigates variations in how undocumented young adults benefit from DACA. Our findings suggest that, at least in the short term, DACA has reduced some of the challenges that undocumented young adults must overcome to achieve economic and social incorporation. However, those with higher levels of education and access to greater family and community resources appear to have benefited the most. As such, our study provides new insights into how social policy interacts with other stratification processes to shape diverging pathways of incorporation among the general pool of undocumented immigrants.”


Health impacts 

“Health Consequences of the U.S. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Immigration Program: A Quasi-Experimental Study”
Venkataramani, Atheendar S.; et al. The Lancet, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/S2468-2667(17)30047-6.

Summary: “In this quasi-experimental study of Hispanic adults in the U.S.A., we found that exposure to the DACA program led to meaningful reductions in symptoms of psychological distress among DACA-eligible individuals. The effects on mental health were large and clinically significant, with the DACA program significantly reducing the odds of individuals reporting moderate or worse psychological distress. We did not find any improvements in self-reported overall health, which was consistent with the fact that the population was relatively young (mean age <40 years in all groups) and therefore generally in good physical health.”

“Coming of Age on the Margins: Mental Health and Wellbeing among Latino Immigrant Young Adults Eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)”
Siemons, Rachel; et al. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 2017. DOI 10.1007/s10903-016-0354-x.

Abstract: “Undocumented immigrant young adults growing up in the United States face significant challenges. For those qualified, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program’s protections may alleviate stressors, with implications for their mental health and wellbeing (MHWB). We conducted nine focus groups with 61 DACA-eligible Latinos (ages 18–31) in California to investigate their health needs. Participants reported MHWB as their greatest health concern and viewed DACA as beneficial through increasing access to opportunities and promoting belonging and peer support. Participants found that DACA also introduced unanticipated challenges, including greater adult responsibilities and a new precarious identity. Thus, immigration policies such as DACA may influence undocumented young adults’ MHWB in expected and unexpected ways. Research into the impacts of policy changes on young immigrants’ MHWB can guide stakeholders to better address this population’s health needs. MHWB implications include the need to reduce fear of deportation and increase access to services.”


Economic impact


“Do Human Capital Decisions Respond to the Returns to Education? Evidence from DACA”
Kuka, Elira; Shenhav, Na’ama; Shih, Kevin. National Bureau of Economic Research working paper No. 24315, February 2018.

Abstract: “This paper studies the human capital responses to a large shock in the returns to education for undocumented youth. We obtain variation in the benefits of schooling from the enactment of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy in 2012, which provides work authorization and deferral from deportation for high school educated youth. We implement a difference-in-differences design by comparing DACA eligible to non-eligible individuals over time, and we find that DACA had a significant impact on the investment decisions of undocumented youth. High school graduation rates increased by 15 percent while teenage births declined by 45 percent. Further, we find that college attendance increased by 25 percent among women, suggesting that DACA raised aspirations for education above and beyond qualifying for legal status. We find that the same individuals who acquire more schooling also work more (at the same time), counter to the typical intuition that these behaviors are mutually exclusive, indicating that the program generated a large boost in productivity.”

“The Effects of DACAmentation: The Impact of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on Unauthorized Immigrants”
Pope, Nolan G. Journal of Public Economics, November 2016. DOI: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.2016.08.014.

Abstract: “As the largest immigration policy in 25 years, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) made deportation relief and work authorization available to 1.7 million unauthorized immigrants. This paper looks at how DACA affects DACA-eligible immigrants’ labor market outcomes. I use a difference-in-differences design for unauthorized immigrants near the criteria cutoffs for DACA eligibility. I find DACA increases the likelihood of working by increasing labor force participation and decreasing the unemployment rate for DACA-eligible immigrants. I also find DACA increases the income of unauthorized immigrants in the bottom of the income distribution. I find little evidence that DACA affects the likelihood of attending school. Using these estimates, DACA moved 50,000 to 75,000 unauthorized immigrants into employment. If the effects of Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) are similar to DACA, then DAPA could potentially move over 250,000 unauthorized immigrants into employment.”


State responses 

“Navigating DACA in Hospitable and Hostile States: State Responses and Access to Membership in the Wake of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”
Cebulko, Kara; Silver, Alexis. American Behavioral Scientist, 2016. DOI: 10.1177/0002764216664942.

Abstract: “This study examines the ways in which liminally legal young immigrants respond to shifting policies that either legitimize or delegitimize their presence within state and national boundaries. Borne out of two larger studies that rely on ethnographic and in-depth interview data in Massachusetts and North Carolina, we primarily focus on longitudinal interviews with individuals responding to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). We examine the ways in which federal and state policies interact to affect access to membership for young adult immigrants in states with very different political climates. In Massachusetts, young adults felt more legitimacy and were more optimistic in their abilities to redirect their life pathways after DACA. In contrast, in the more hostile environment of North Carolina, state policies continued to impede mobility pathways and differentiate previously undocumented youth as outsiders even after the passage of DACA. Instead of characterizing the transition to adulthood for liminally legal youth as a unidirectional transition to exclusion, we emphasize the interactive influence of state- and federal-level policies and illustrate how incorporation can occur on multiple levels and even in opposite directions simultaneously. Moreover, we discuss how hostile policies in one state appear to reverberate outward, suggesting spillover effects for respondents in other states.”


DACA and civic engagement, activism

“Participation in Black Lives Matter and deferred action for childhood arrivals: Modern activism among Black and Latino college students”
Hope, Elan C.; Keels, Micere; Durkee, Myles I. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 2016. DOI: 10.1037/dhe0000032.

Abstract: “Political activism is one way racially/ethnically marginalized youth can combat institutional discrimination and seek legislative change toward equality and justice. In the current study, we examine participation in #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) and advocacy for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) as political activism popular among youth. Participants were 533 Black and Latino college students. We found that both Black and Latino students reported more involvement in BLM than DACA. There were no gender differences in participation for Black students, but Latina women reported greater participation in BLM and DACA than Latino men. We also tested whether demographic characteristics, racial/ethnic microaggressions, and political efficacy predict BLM and DACA involvement. For Black students, prior political activism predicted involvement in BLM and DACA and immigration status predicted DACA involvement. For Latino students, more experiences of racial/ethnic microaggressions predicted involvement in BLM and DACA and political efficacy predicted DACA involvement. Findings highlight rates of participation in modern sociopolitical movements and expand our understanding of how psychological factors may differentially promote activism for Black and Latino college students.”

“The Role of Campus Support, Undocumented Identity, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on Civic Engagement for Latinx Undocumented Undergraduates”
Katsiaficas, Dalal; Volpe, Vanessa; Raza, Syeda S.; Garcia, Yuliana. Child Development, 2017. DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12933.

Abstract: “This study examined civic engagement in a sample of 790 undocumented Latinx undergraduates (aged 18–30). The relations between social supports (campus safe spaces and peer support) and civic engagement and whether a strong sense of undocumented identity mediated this relation were examined. Competing statistical models examined the role of participants’ status (whether or not they received temporary protection from deportation with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals [DACA]) in this mediational process. Results revealed that having a strong identification with being undocumented mediated the role of social supports on civic engagement in the overall sample, and that this process was specifically important for those with DACA status. The intersection of policies such as DACA and the lived experiences of Latinx undocumented college students are discussed.” 

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