Congress must pass the Dream Act to protect young Oklahomans and our economy

DACA recipient and Teacher for America corps member Marissa Molina (Source)

Visit the Dream Act Toolkit website and urge your legislators to pass the Dream Act.

President Trump recently announced his plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program by the start of next March. DACA, created by executive order by President Obama in 2012, protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation. Many of these young immigrants, commonly known as “dreamers”, came to this country at such a young age that they don’t remember living anywhere else.

In Oklahoma, 6,865 initial DACA applications have been approved as of March 2017, about 75 percent of the eligible population. The plan to end DACA puts the legal status of these Oklahomans and almost 800,000 young people across the country up in the air, jeopardizing their ability to work and live in the U.S. Even more troubling, the federal government now has a great deal of information about the people who submitted applications. This information that the government attained by promising protection from deportation could potentially be used to make it easier to find and deport them.

The negative reaction to the decision has been loud and bipartisan, for good reason. Not only would ending DACA be cruel towards hard-working people who did not choose to immigrate to the United States, it’s also terrible economic policy, targeting young workers, parents, and caretakers that the country needs. Congress can and should pass legislation to ensure that DACA recipients remain protected from deportation and, even better, are allowed a path to full citizenship.

DACA recipients are model non-citizens

DACA allows immigrants brought to the United States without authorization before age 16 to apply for protection from deportation. If their application is accepted, they receive a work permit that is good for two years and can be renewed.

The people affected by the end of DACA are teens and young adults who had to meet a long list of criteria in order to qualify. Most have little or no memory of living outside of this country. About two in three applicants were ten years old or younger when they arrived in the U.S., and about 3 in 10 were under six years old, according to a 2013 Brookings study.

Enrolling in DACA has afforded those children some basic opportunities that were previously denied to them, like going to college and obtaining formal employment. Survey after survey has shown that a majority of recipients secured a new job and/or increased their earnings after being accepted into the program. Many DACA recipients have children of their own; these children could face being raised without the economic and emotional support of at least one parent if DACA is terminated.

DACA is great for the economy and has wide support

Because DACA recipients are young, likely to be working, and ineligible for federal benefits like Social Security or SNAP, they provide huge value to the economy at little to no cost to the government. As Baby Boomers across the country age out of the workforce, America is becoming more dependent on the tax dollars of young people to fund seniors’ benefits — a gap that DACA recipients fill perfectly. Losing these workers would mean real economic drawbacks. The loss of DACA workers in Oklahoma alone would reduce the state’s GDP by about $344 million per year, according to a report from the Center for American Progress.

Among the public, there is wide, bipartisan support for the goals of the program, with majorities of Democrats and Republicans saying it is important for children who came illegally as children to remain and apply for legal status. Business leaders are also supportive of the program; the president of Microsoft considers preserving DACA more important even than federal tax reform. Leaders in Oklahoma have testified on how DACA recipients are a benefit to our communities. Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Aurora Lora spoke out against the decision to end DACA, citing the dreamers’ “incredible contributions to our schools, workplaces and communities.”

Elected Republicans, too, have acknowledged the need to act. Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford called for Congressional action on immigration reform and expressed disappointment with Trump’s decision, saying, “We as Americans do not hold children legally accountable for the actions of their parents.” House Speaker Paul Ryan urged Congress “to find consensus on a permanent legislative solution that includes ensuring that those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute as a valued part of this great country.”

The ball is in Congress’s court now, and the clock is ticking. No one would gain from ending DACA without a replacement, while hundreds of thousands of our neighbors would be forced back into the shadows at enormous cost to our economy. Legislation called the Dream Act would make protections for these young people permanent and allow them a path to citizenship; it has been introduced several times in Congress but not yet passed. With this new deadline for the end of DACA, it’s important to urge lawmakers to pass the Dream Act quickly and secure their future.

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Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

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