STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Lessons learned from DACA, three years in

Three years ago this month, a new federal program got underway that’s since affected the lives of more than half a million young Americans – thousands of whom live in Michigan.

The program came with a characteristically bureaucratic acronym. And, like many things done by the federal government, it’s been controversial.

The program is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. 

Maybe it didn’t have a huge impact on your life at the time. But Liz Balck Monsma remembers how it affected hers.  

"It was a crazy time, three years ago," she says, "when we were just trying to get as many kids screened and processed as possible."

Balck Monsma is an attorney with Justice for Our Neighbors West Michigan. It’s an agency that helps immigrants with legal issues.

DACA was created to help people who came to the U.S. as kids. Those who were approved for the program basically get a reprieve on being deported for two years. And they get a work visa.

An estimated 1.6 million young people are eligible. But, three years in, fewer than half that number have actually signed up.

" ... he didn't use his real name, he doesn't have pay stubs, and he didn't go to school. So, yes he lived in the U.S. since he was 13, but he just doesn't have a lot of proof of that."

Balck Monsma says the explanation for why more haven’t signed up is kind of complicated. She tells me the story of one client, who would be eligible for DACA, but doesn’t have the paperwork to prove it.  

"Because when he came when he was 13 to the U.S., he just immediately started working," BalckMonsma says. "And so he didn’t use his real name, he doesn’t have pay stubs, and he didn’t go to school. So, yes he lived in the U.S. since he was 13, but he just doesn’t have a lot of proof of that."

Another hang-up might be the cost of signing up for DACA. The program is funded entirely by fees charged to the people signing up. For DACA, the cost is $465 per person.

"There’s really no surveys or other reliable information that would let us know for how many people the fee is a really significant burden or, if it’s the reason that they haven’t come forward to apply," says Margie McHugh, director of the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. She says it’s likely the fee has some effect, especially for families who have more than one child who could apply for DACA. But how much of an effect we don’t know.

People in the program also have to be re-up every two years. And 17 percent of those approved at the start of the program still haven’t done that. Again, explanations for that are tough to come by.

But navigating any part of the U.S. immigration system isn’t easy.

Liz BalckMonsma points out that people who have access to good information and money have a decent shot. Those who don’t, don’t.

"DACA has been another experiment to show how unjust our immigration system is," she says.

The Obama administration wants to take the idea behind DACA even further, by making it available to more young people, and adding protections for immigrant parents whose children are U.S. citizens. Those plans are currently on hold because of a court challenge. But if they go forward, a lot more people could use a lot more help navigating the system.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.