Why Congress needs to pass an imperfect, temporary extension for DACA

Supporters of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program are seen during a press conference on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 to mark the tenth anniversary of the program.
Greg Nash
Supporters of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program are seen during a press conference on Wednesday, June 15, 2022 to mark the tenth anniversary of the program.

A decade ago, the U.S. began accepting applications from young immigrants for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Hundreds of thousands of teens and young adults who came to the U.S. as children without legal status lined up to apply. Now, roughly 610,000 DACA recipients still rely on two-year extensions to live and work in the only country they know — all  while the program itself is challenged again in the courts. Without timely congressional intervention that provides interim protection, Dreamers might start being deported.

Last month, a three-judge panel in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans heard oral arguments led by the Texas attorney general, who argued that the DACA program exceeded executive authority and cost Texas hundreds of millions of dollars. Conversely, the U.S. Justice Department defended the program, fighting an uphill battle against a federal judge in Texas ruling one year ago declaring DACA illegal. In the interim, current DACA recipients are still allowed to apply for renewals, but new applicants are out of luck. Regardless of the Fifth Circuit’s outcome (expected this fall), it will be appealed to the Supreme Court, which could rule by the summer of 2023.

There is little doubt that SCOTUS will refrain from terminating the DACA program, which quickly creates a scenario where hundreds of thousands of eligible DACA recipients are left without legal status. For current DACA recipients, they’ll likely have until the expiration of their extension — less than two years — before they lose legal status too.

Today’s Dreamers are professionals, parents, homeowners, and prominent members of their communities. Still, their future is more precarious than ever. The potential expulsion of this population would have devastating and lasting economic, financial, familial, and societal repercussions.

Terminating the work authorization for employed DACA recipients will have enormously negative consequences that ripple throughout the country and all sectors of the economy. The American Action Forum finds DACA recipients contribute nearly $42 billion to annual GDP and have a net positive fiscal impact of $3.4 billion annually. 

There are also implications for families. More than a quarter of DACA recipients are married, and more than one-third have children. Ninety-nine percent of those children are U.S. citizens. And 75,000 DACA recipients have mortgages. 

In light of these facts, where is Congress? Despite DACA recipients enjoying bipartisan support among Republican and Democratic lawmakers and their constituents, codifying the program has remained politically out of reach. With a packed legislative calendar and a widening gulf between parties on how to secure the border, hammering out a robust immigration package is off the table this Congress. 

And still, candidates — from the far-right to progressives — are campaigning on immigration messages. For years, Democrats have campaigned on protecting Dreamers, promising significant returns on providing permanent legal status, not only for the DACA-eligible populations but also their parents. By promising quixotic outcomes to Dreamers, Democrats have effectively cut off potential negotiations with the (admittedly limited) cadre of Republicans who could coalesce aroundputting this issue behind them.

And it’s true that many Republicans also support the legalization of Dreamers who arrived as children. But they have been hampered by strategic moves by anti-immigration proponents who insist on drastic changes to asylum and overhauls to other legal immigration provisions. 

The less-than-ideal option now is for lawmakers to acknowledge the political realities and refocus their efforts on reducing the harm associated with the pending termination of DACA, the implications to workers and employers, and the enormous negative repercussions for families, businesses, and communities. 

Crowding the narrow solution to include larger populations, parents, the border, or asylum is a recipe for disaster and ultimate inaction. Rather, by the end of the year, Congress must focus on passing a narrow, temporary extension of legal status and work authorization for current DACA recipients and the growing number of applicants the district court blocked from processing their applications.

This solution is admittedly unsatisfying, imperfect, and temporary. But with court decisions looming and Republican leadership refusing to help Dreamers in the next Congress, a flawed bill is better than no bill. 

We must stop playing roulette with people’s lives and their children’s futures and hope this solution will open the door to negotiations on permanent status in light of a pending Supreme Court decision. Moreover, it should spur future conversations that address the myriad immigration issues desperately in need of reform. Postponing these crucial conversations may seem ineffectual, but it’s the most significant action Congress can realistically administer this year,  given political, legal, and policy realities. 

We need action to preserve the ability of Dreamers to work and live in the U.S. The only deal lawmakers, advocates, and Dreamers should be encouraging is the one that can pass. Anything less, at this point, is political malpractice. 

Kristie De Peña, Niskanen’s vice president for policy and director of immigration and Matthew La Corte, government affairs manager for immigration policy.

Tags DACA DACA lawsuit Immigration reform

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