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Young Immigrants After DACA: Clear Benefits Despite Obstacles

Young people wait in line to enter the offices of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) on August 15, 2012 in Los Angeles, California, on the first day of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP - Getty Images

Young immigrant adults who are able to remain in the U.S. through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program have been able to rapidly integrate into the economy and their communities, according to preliminary findings from a national survey. Yet access to higher education remains elusive due to many states' laws, and most live in constant fear that their loved ones will be deported.

"As a policy that offers the ability for undocumented young adults some widened access, it is has been very successful," said Roberto G. Gonzalez, of Harvard University, who is directing a 5-year study of 2,684 DACA-eligible young adults. "These young people are getting new jobs, getting paid internships, getting driver's licenses, opening bank accounts and applying for credit cards. These are tangible aspects of the American dream," added Gonzalez.

Over 2300 of those taking part in the survey got deferred deportation. The study found about six-in-ten undocumented young adults were able to get a job, over half opened a bank account and 57 percent obtained a driver's license. Almost 67 percent of those surveyed were currently employed.

Yet 42 percent of young immigrant adults surveyed "stopped out" of college, and the researchers believe it is correlated to the costs of higher education. Undocumented students cannot legally receive federal financial aid, and many states do not allow undocumented students access to in-state tuition nor state aid.

"Unfortunately DACA does not address the post secondary education issue, because it's not a form of legal immigration status," said Gonzalez.

Under the Obama administration's June 2012 directive, an undocumented immigrant who is under 31, can prove that he or she was brought to the U.S. before the age of 16 and meets certain requirements can apply for deferred action. If approved, it allows an undocumented young adult to work and study in the U.S. without fear of deportation for two years. It can be renewed after that.

It is estimated that over 2 million immigrants without legal status came to the U.S. as children.

Most of those those surveyed worried less about deportation and were less afraid of law enforcement after receiving deferred action. Yet 76 percent said they worried "some to all of the time" about their loved ones and almost six-in-ten were nervous "some to all of the time." Almost seventy percent of DACA recipients knew someone who has been deported, including 7 percent whose parents have been removed from the country.

The study found community organizations have a large role in helping young undocumented adults. DACA recipients who participated in immigrant rights organizations were more likely to get a new job, increase their earnings and obtain an internship, as well as benefit from social networks.

The next stage of this study, which is being funded by the MacArthur Foundation, will focus on in-depth interviews in diverse states such as California, Texas, Arizona and Illinois, to see the impact of different localities on deferred action.

Gonzalez stresses that there is diversity among the deferred action recipients surveyed. Despite the fact that 42 percent of DACA young adults stopped going to college, 36 percent of those surveyed have a college degree and almost 35 percent have some college.

"If DACA helps young people find on ramps to school, that would be a huge success," said Gonzalez.