Since former President Barack Obama first announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) on June 15, 2012, it has provided temporary relief from deportation as well as work authorization to more than 830,000 undocumented young people across the country.

From September 8 to November 5, 2021, the Center for American Progress, United We Dream, and the National Immigration Law Center—led by Tom K. Wong of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California, San Diego and CAP—fielded a national survey to further analyze the experiences of DACA recipients. 2021 marked the seventh consecutive year that these organizations have surveyed DACA recipients.

For this most recent study, the authors surveyed 1,021 DACA recipients across 40 states as well as Washington, D.C. This research, as with previous surveys, illustrates the significant contributions that DACA recipients are making to the U.S. economy and their communities, with approximately 9 out of every 10 respondents currently enrolled in school or employed. However, this year’s responses also show that amid the backdrop of continued uncertainty for DACA recipients and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the gains made possible through DACA are vulnerable.

Even with legal challenges threatening its future, DACA remains a critical lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people. The 2021 survey results make it abundantly clear why Congress must take immediate action to permanently protect DACA recipients—as well as people who have been unable to access the program due to the legal challenges—by providing them a pathway to citizenship.

DACA’s impact on employment

Temporary work authorization has been instrumental in helping DACA recipients participate more fully in the labor force. The data show that approximately 8 out of every 10 respondents—79.8 percent—are currently employed. Among respondents ages 25 and older, the employment rate jumps to 86.4 percent. The 2020 survey showed that 88.5 percent of all respondents were employed and that 89.1 percent of all respondents ages 25 and older were employed.

After receiving DACA:

43.8 percent of respondents moved to a job with better pay.

35.4 percent of respondents moved to a job with better working conditions.

34.3 percent of respondents moved to a job that “better fits [their] education and training.”

37 percent of respondents moved to a job that “better fits [their] long-term career goals.”

43.3 percent of respondents moved to a job with health insurance or other benefits. 12.9 percent of respondents obtained professional licenses after receiving DACA, a figure that increases to 15.7 percent for respondents ages 25 and older.

These percentages are lower than those reported in previous surveys, and there are several likely reasons this is the case. Primary among these are the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic downturn. Like all Americans, DACA recipients are grappling with the devastating health and economic impacts of the pandemic nearly two years after the first known U.S. cases. For example, 22.5 percent of respondents who are currently employed reported having either their work hours or their pay reduced due to the pandemic. Among respondents who are not currently employed or in school, 35.8 percent reported that they lost their job due to the pandemic.

The economic effects resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic may overshadow some of the economic gains and stability that have been hallmarks of DACA. For example, isolating the survey responses of those who lost their jobs during the pandemic shows that these individuals are:

12.7 percent less likely to report earning more money and becoming financially independent post-DACA.

11.8 percent less likely to report earning more money and helping their families financially post-DACA.

10.5 percent less likely to report earning more money and helping take care of an elderly parent or relative post-DACA.

12.7 percent less likely to report earning more money that helped them pay for medical expenses post-DACA.

11.1 percent less likely to report moving into better or improved housing post-DACA.

The pandemic, however, appears to be negatively affecting younger DACA recipients more acutely than older DACA recipients—mirroring the trend in the United States more broadly.

Young people have been among the hardest-hit segment of workers during the pandemic—facing acute unemployment, pay cuts, and commuting and housing stressors. This demographic includes many younger DACA recipients, who are facing their first working years in a labor market indelibly shaped by COVID-19. But all DACA recipients face the challenge that DACA not only confers nonpermanent status but also can be ended by the Department of Homeland Security or court order. This highlights the need for permanent status and citizenship in order to boost recipients’ economic prospects further.

Once again, this year’s survey results emphasize the importance of ensuring that undocumented immigrants have access to permanent protections.

The economic benefits of permanent status and citizenship

Economists have long researched the economic benefits that come with permanent legal status and citizenship. Studies of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) estimated that the last major federal effort to grant legal status and citizenship to undocumented immigrants increased their wages by 20 percent. Similar research looking at past iterations of the Dream Act concludes that the wage bump would be somewhere between 20 percent and 25 percent for those eligible. But these personal gains in wages and productivity, which reflect the increased investment in workers and human capital possible under the permanent nature of the protections, ripple beyond the individual. They lead to increased productivity more widely, an increased gross domestic product, and job creation—effects that reverberate throughout the U.S. economy as a whole
DACA’s impact on earnings

The 2021 survey, as well as data from years prior, makes clear that DACA has a positive and significant effect on wages. Respondents reported that their average hourly wage had more than doubled since they received DACA, from $10.94 to $22.90—a gain of 109.3 percent. These higher wages are not just important for recipients and their families but also for tax revenues and economic growth at the local, state, and federal levels. The data also show that respondents’ average annual earnings come out to approximately $52,700, while their median annual earnings total $47,000.

In addition, DACA has led to greater financial independence and security for recipients and their families:62.6 percent of respondents reported that their increased earnings have “helped [them] become financially independent.”

61.1 percent reported that their increased earnings have “helped [their] family financially.”

24.9 percent reported that their increased earnings have “helped [them] take care of an elderly parent or relative.”

Among respondents currently in school, 52.3 percent reported that their increased earnings helped pay for tuition, and among respondents with children, 37.8 percent reported that their increased earnings helped pay for child care expenses.

DACA’s impact on the economy

The financial independence DACA facilitates has enabled recipients to make large investments that bolster the economy. For example, 50.6 percent of respondents reported buying their first car after receiving DACA—a purchase that contributes to state revenue, as most states collect a percentage of the purchase price in sales tax, along with additional registration and title fees. This state revenue comes in addition to the safety benefits of licensing and insuring more drivers.

The data also show that 16.5 percent of respondents purchased their first home after receiving DACA. Among respondents ages 25 and older, this figure increases to 21.4 percent. Rates of car and home ownership have continued to increase across the seven years of DACA surveys. The broader positive economic effects of home purchases include increased job creation and the infusion of new spending in local communities.

These effects come on top of the combined $9.4 billion in federal, state, and local taxes paid annually by households with DACA recipients.

But the pandemic has affected wider economic indicators, such as housing payments, for many Americans, DACA recipients among them. Among homeowners, 22.9 percent of respondents reported difficulties paying their mortgage during the pandemic. Among nonhomeowners, 37.2 percent reported difficulties paying their rent, and 8.7 percent reported being threatened with eviction.

DACA’s impact on education

Overall, 31.8 percent of respondents are currently in school, a large majority—68 percent—of whom are pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher. When it comes to educational attainment, 44.7 percent of respondents currently not in school reported already having a bachelor’s degree or higher. Importantly, among those who are currently in school, a robust 60.3 percent said that because of DACA, “[They] pursued educational opportunities that [they] previously could not.”

These education results reflect the reality that DACA is a nearly decade-old program whose eligibility criteria have never been updated. Thus, those eligible for protections are now from ages 15 to 40, with 60 percent of recipients ages 26 or older. Young people turning 15 are no longer able to request first-time DACA protections upon reaching age eligibility.

The uncertainty of life with DACA

Despite the fact that DACA grants recipients temporary protection from deportation and makes recipients eligible for two-year work authorizations, recipients still face significant uncertainty in the United States given the ongoing uncertainty that DACA faces in the courts. Until undocumented communities can access a pathway to citizenship, this uncertainty will continue. To reflect this, the 2021 survey asked recipients a series of questions about their fears of deportation and being separated from their families.

DACA recipients could face widespread harm if they lost their status, including a high risk of potential detention, deportation, and family separation. An overwhelming 91.6 percent of respondents reported concerns about either their or their family’s physical safety, ability to access health care or education, food security, or risk of homelessness if they were deported to their respective countries of birth:

77.9 percent reported, “In my country of birth, I would be concerned about the physical safety of myself and my family.”

77.8 percent reported, “In my country of birth, I would be concerned about the quality of healthcare for myself and my family.”

71.4 percent reported, “In my country of birth, I would be concerned about the quality of education for myself and my family.”

60.1 percent reported, “In my country of birth, I would be concerned about food insecurity for myself and my family.”

40.2 percent reported, “In my country of birth, I would be concerned about homelessness for myself and my family.”

Strikingly, the average age of arrival to the United States among respondents is just 6.3 years old, and almost three-fourths—73 percent—reported not having any immediate family members who still live in their respective birth countries.

Deporting DACA recipients, therefore, would mean sending them to countries with which they are deeply unfamiliar. The survey also makes clear that deportation would jeopardize respondents’ physical safety, well-being, and livelihood.

The uncertainty surrounding the future of DACA itself also continues to weigh heavily on recipients’ minds. For example, 40.1 percent of respondents reported that at least once a day, they think about either being detained in an immigration detention facility or deported from the United States. An even greater percentage, 48.6 percent, reported that they think at least once a day about a family member being detained or deported.

Fear of family separation is particularly strong among DACA recipients who are parents. Among those with children, 68.8 percent reported that they think at least once a day about “being separated from [their] children because of deportation,” while 68.3 percent reported thinking at least once a day about “not being able to see [their] children grow up because of deportation.”

DACA continues to be mired in legal battles that threaten its future, and it is evident that deportation and family separation continue to be at the top of DACA recipients’ minds.

For years, DACA has protected hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants from deportation and allowed them to pursue their dreams in the United States. But DACA is not a permanent solution: Undocumented people need a path to citizenship to be fully secure in their homes and lives. This year’s survey results demonstrate that DACA is the floor, not the ceiling, of what immigrant youth need and deserve. It’s long overdue for Congress to act to ensure that immigrant youth—and all undocumented immigrants—can access necessary protections.

Tom K. Wong is a senior fellow for Immigration Policy at American Progress Claudia Flores is Associate Director, Policy and Strategy Ignacia Rodriguez Kmec Karen & Fierro Ruiz Nicole Prchal Svajlenka is Associate Director, Research.