When the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program began in 2012 there was a lot of hope that it would address the need for work authorization and relief from deportation of the DREAMers, young immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents as children. It is estimated that 1.3 million undocumented immigrants are immediately eligible with roughly 70,000 more becoming eligible each year through 2016.
During the first four months of the program, the Department of Homeland Security received an average of about 10,000 applications per week. So the program was off to a good start. The numbers applying dropped off substantially in 2013 and this year only about 2,000 applications per week are being received.
The total number of applications made over a little less than two years is 673,000. That is fewer than half the people believed to be eligible.
The problem of low enrollment does not appear to lie in the handling of the cases by Homeland Security. Of the 570,000 that have been decided, 96 percent have been granted. There are few immigration programs with as high a success rate.
So why have so few people applied for this program?
One answer is the high fee. The Homeland Security fee is $465, more than a week’s income for many applicants. The normal fee waiver process available for most other immigration application was explicitly suspended for those applying for DACA.
A second is high legal costs. Many immigration lawyers, hoping to cash-in on what they saw as a windfall, charged fees of more than $1,000 for a service that took roughly two hours to perform. Although those fees have come down a lot in the last year, they left the impression that this was an impossibly expensive process.
The third problem was marketing. Most articles about DACA showed photos of college kids in caps and gowns applying. This sent a message that this program was only for the highly educated. In fact, an immigrant in her late twenties enrolled in an ESL program as preparation for the high school equivalency diploma has the academic credentials necessary to apply for DACA.
A fourth problem is uncertainty. When he was running for president, Mitt Romney said that he would end the DACA program. Immigrants are very aware that this is a presidential program and that it could be ended by the next president.
The marketing problem is one that the New York Immigration Coalition has begun to address with a campaign to let folks as old as 32 who have not completed high school know that they can be eligible for DACA. The other problems need to be addressed by the government and by the immigration bar. On June 15 we will observe the second anniversary of the announcement of DACA by President Obama. This will be a good time for everyone to look at making it successful, affordable, and permanent.