Immigration Program Fails To Attract Eligible Applicants
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
We've heard a lot about the Obama administration's program to legalize the so-called DREAMers. It gives teens and young adults who arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16 a chance at temporary legal status. They can get a Social Security number and protection from deportation. But most who are eligible haven't applied, and as Alexandra Starr reports, advocates are trying to change that.
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: On a July Sunday morning, hundreds of Latino immigrants crowd into a school in Brooklyn, New York. The Mexican consulate is handing out IDs and families are lining up to obtain them.
There's a stealth reason for this event too. Melanie Reyes works at the New York Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group based in Manhattan. She's scanning the crowd from the back of the room. Among all these moms and dads and children, she's trying to pick out undocumented immigrants who might be in their late 20s.
MELANIE REYES: You see a lot of young people here. We go up to people who may look the part in terms of their age and just start conversations.
STARR: Specifically, she wants to find people who are born before June 15, 1982. That would potentially make them eligible for President Obama's Deferred Action for Early Childhood Arrivals program or DACA. If they are older than that, they can't apply.
REYES: This population has no - they just really don't know that they qualify.
STARR: That was the case for Veronica, someone Reyes plucked out of a crowd. Veronica asked to be identified by just her first name because she's undocumented. She was born in Mexico and attended school in the United States until she dropped out in the ninth grade. She says the major reason she left was because she didn't have papers.
VERONICA: I just didn't care anymore. I was like, if, you know, if I can't go to college and all that stuff, what do I need the diploma for? I tried looking for jobs and it was just like Social Security, Social Security, so I kind of gave up.
STARR: Veronica is 28, so she meets the age cutoff for DACA. And enrolling in the program would really change her situation because it would give her a Social Security number she could use to apply for jobs. And she knew about DACA. She just didn't think she was eligible.
VERONICA: I had heard about the reform and everything, but I thought because I didn't graduate and - then I wouldn't be qualified.
STARR: There are a lot of people in Veronica's situation. Hiro Yoshikawa is a professor at New York University. He says part of the issue is that people confuse DACA with the DREAM Act. That legislation would have provided a path to citizenship for certain young undocumented immigrants. That's something DACA doesn't do. But the DREAM Act never passed Congress. And it was mostly for those who are college-bound.
HIRO YOSHIKAWA: I think some members of the DACA-eligible group, and these might include, let's say, a stay-at-home mom with very young kids, they have seen the DREAMers, the activists who are well on their way towards a college education as being not me.
STARR: DACA is for them, though, because the president's program doesn't require applicants to have a high school diploma. As a result, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that more than 300,000 people qualify for DACA who would not have qualified for the DREAM Act. Critics say DACA is way too expansive.
MARK KRIKORIAN: The people who benefit from DACA get an irrevocable amnesty.
STARR: That's Mark Krikorian, president of the Center on Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration. As he points out, DACA doesn't just provide people with a Social Security number but also protection from deportation. DACA grantees do have to re-apply every two years to maintain their status. But Krikorian predicts that once those benefits are bestowed, they won't be taken away.
KRIKORIAN: It's only nominally temporary. Everybody knows it's permanent.
STARR: Something about DACA is that it does seem to change the incentives around education. Part of DACA's requirements for applicants who haven't graduated from high school is that they have to start working towards high school equivalency. And that's getting people like Veronica back into the classroom. She'll be starting a GED program later this summer. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in New York.
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