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Happy Birthday DACA: Youths Say It Improved Immigrants' Lives

Young immigrants say they have had something of a rebirth because of DACA. They can work, drive, afford school and not fear deportation.
Image: Young people wait in line to enter the o
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. US authorities began taking applications for deferred deportations from undocumented immigrants brought here as children, an initiative that could benefit up to 1.7 million people, as long lines of applicants, many who have long feared separation from their families and deportation from the country they've always considered home, formed outside consulates, advocacy offices and law firms. AFP PHOTO / Frederic J. BROWNFREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GettyImagesFREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP - Getty Images

Young immigrants who two years ago lived with the possibility they could be shuttled out of the country at a moment’s notice, celebrated on Friday the action by President Barack Obama that, by their own accounting, changed their lives.

Friday marked the day two years ago when young immigrants could first apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA. It granted young immigrants who met specific critiera the chance to apply for what is essentially a temporary reprieve from deportation or the threat of it.

About 587,000 young immigrants have received DACA during the two years since Obama authorized the deferrals. A little more than 20,000 were denied DACA. The Migration Policy Institute estimates about 55 percent of 1.2 million youths who meet the program’s criteria have applied.

“One of the happiest days of my life is when I applied for DACA,” Hugo Sanabria of Florida said in a news release issued by PICO National Network, a faith-based group that supports immigration reform. “From that day on, my days got easier. I was finally able to get a job and started taking more classes and living without the fear of getting deported."

DACA, which is good for two years but renewable, is one of the most significant actions by Obama on immigration. Another is the more than 2 million deportations that have occurred on his watch and drawn heavy protest from the young immigrants. Efforts to get an immigration reform bill through Congress were thwarted by House Republicans.

Obama’s action came about after years of political organizing by young immigrants, who co-opted the term DREAMers to refer to themselves. The name comes from the DREAM Act, which has been the moniker for several bills over the years that sought to legalize the youths.

A survey of 1,400 young immigrants found that about a quarter had become more politically involved since DACA was made available.

Although two-thirds say DACA status allayed their fears of apprehension and deportation, an equal proportion still have some anxiety because their family and friends still can be deported, according to the survey conducted for and by United We Dream and by Professor Tom Wong of the University of San Diego.

Young immigrants who have been able to obtain DACA have gone on to lend a hand to other young people to help them through the application process.

Own the Dream, a UWD initiative, has held application events that have been attended by 39,083 people, the group reported. Most of those helped are teens “aging in” to DACA eligibility and who have lived in the U.S. more than a decade, according to the group’s report issued Friday.

Myrna Orozco, an Own the Dream leader, said DREAMers are excited to show that DACA works. “But as we celebrate, we’re reminded of those in our community who are still under the imminent threat of deportation,” she said.

The group organized clinics and workshops to help other immigrants apply for DACA and provide legal help they may not be able to afford. It also has devised an online interview tool to help young immigrants find out if they are eligible for DACA.

MPI said the program has had mixed results because hundreds of thousands of immigrants youth have not come forward to apply, some thwarted by education requirements or the $465 application cost.

Obama has been considering additional administrative reforms and many groups have pushed him to extend a similar reprieve to the parents of DREAMers and of U.S. citizen children and other adult immigrants.

Before leaving for the summer, House Republicans voted to effectively end DACA, blaming it for drawing some 60,000 unaccompanied children and more than 50,000 families to the U.S. border since last October.

The possibility of Obama expanding deportation referrals also has drawn pushback from critics. Many of the GOP have said such a move would be an overreach of his authority, although many experts disagree.

"DACA ... confers work permits, Social Security numbers, driver's licenses, documents allowing foreign travel, eligibility for Earned Income Tax Credit, affirmative action preferences and more. It's an actual "amnesty," green card-lite, if you will," Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for tougher immigration enforcement and laws, wrote in an opinion piece published in the National Review.