DACA Did Not Cause the Surge in Unaccompanied Children

In June, 2012 the Obama Administration announced that it had authored a memo deferring the deportation of unauthorized immigrant childhood arrivals in the United States, a program known as deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA).  The memo directed then Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to practice prosecutorial discretion toward a small number of unauthorized immigrants who fulfilled a specific set of characteristics.  In essence, some unauthorized immigrants who had come to the United States as children were able to legally stay and work–at least temporarily. 

Did DACA Cause the UAC Surge?

Some politicians contend that DACA is primarily responsible for the surge in unaccompanied child (UAC) migrants across the border in recent years.  A recent House Appropriations Committee one-pager stated that, “The dire situation on our Southern border has been exacerbated by the President’s current immigration policies.”  Proponents of this theory argue that DACA sent a message to Central Americans that if they came as children then the U.S. government would legalize them, thus giving a large incentive for them to come in the first place.  Few facts of the unaccompanied children (UAC) surge are consistent with the theory that DACA caused the surge.

First, the surge in UAC began long before the June 15, 2012 announcement of DACA.  It is true that DACA had been discussed in late May 2012 but the surge was underway by that time.  From October 2011 through March 2012, there was a 93 percent increase in UAC apprehensions over the same period in Fiscal Year 2011.  Texas Governor Rick Perry warned President Obama about the rapid increase in UAC at the border in early May 2012 – more than a full month before DACA was announced.  In early June 2012, Mexico was detaining twice as many Central American children as in 2011.  The surge in unaccompanied children (UAC) began before DACA was announced.

Second, the children coming now are not legally able to apply for DACA.  A recipient of DACA has to have resided in the United States continuously from June 15, 2007 to June 15, 2012, a requirement that excludes the unaccompanied children coming now.   

Third, if DACA was such an incentive for UAC to come from Central America, why are so few Nicaraguan children coming?  They would benefit in the same way as unaccompanied children from El Salvdaor, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The lack of Nicaraguans points to other causes of the surge.

The timing, legal exclusion of the UAC from DACA, and lack of Nicaraguans indicate that DACA was not a primary cause of the surge.  Of the 404 UAC interviewed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees since 2011, only 9 mentioned that U.S. laws influenced their decision to come to the United States.  Other American laws could have influenced the unaccompanied children to come but DACA is not the main culprit.           

Details on DACA

The DACA beneficiaries, at the time of the memo, would have to fulfill all of these requirements to have their deportations deferred:

  • Under the age of 31,
  • Arrived to the United States before reaching their 16th birthday,
  • Entered the United States without inspection or overstayed a visa prior to June 15, 2012,
  • Continuously resided in the United States from June 15, 2007 to the time of the memo,
  • Physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, as well as at the time of requesting deferred action from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS),
  • Been in school at the time of application, or have already graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, or have obtained a general education development (GED) certificate, or are an honorably discharged veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard or the U.S. Armed Forces
  • Not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

Beneficiaries of DACA were also allowed to apply for employment authorization according to the Code of Federal Regulations.  There is a debate amongst legal scholars over whether the administration’s grant of deferred action was legal.  Those who argue that DACA was illegal contend that the President overstepped his constitutional authority to defer the deportation of some unauthorized immigrants.  Those who argue that DACA was legal point to the general power of the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to defer enforcement action.  They argue that the Supreme Court has ruled that decisions to initiate or terminate enforcement proceedings fall within the authority of the Executive – an enforcement power used since the early 1970s.  Here is more of their argument.  This disagreement has not been settled.     

By the end of September, 2013, 580,000 requests for DACA were accepted by the U.S. government and 514,800, or 89 percent, were approved.  Seventy-six percent of the requests came from Mexicans.  Twenty-nine percent of the requests were filed from California, 16 percent from Texas, and 6 percent from Illinois.