What Do We Really Know About DACA Recipients? Not Enough

Amnesty for young undocumented immigrants would undercut the rule of law

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Lance Izumi, Opinion Contributor
—Photo: Foundation for California Community Colleges
Lance Izumi is a Koret senior fellow in education studies and senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank. He is a regular opinion contributor to where he trades views with Bruce Fuller, on the other side of the political aisle. Read Bruce Fuller's response to this essay.

In February, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling gave a temporary reprieve to the roughly 700,000 individuals who are active recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the Trump administration planned to end on March 5. Going forward, however, how the United States will ultimately handle DACA recipients remains murky, as a legal challenge to the decision to end the program works its way through the court system. While this leaves legislators scrambling to figure out how to address this program that affects the lives of many young people and the education systems that serve them, it also raises questions for the nation’s rule of law.

Last summer, The New York Times presented inspiring first-person accounts of dozens of DACA recipients, including many students. One of the many stories shared was that of Libbing Barrera. A high school student in New York, Barrera shares the many challenges she faced growing up in the United States, including facing homelessness and even at times living off found change.

“I’ve spent endless nights doing homework,” she writes, “and keeping my grades up so I can get into college.” She writes that she battled racism, anxiety, and depression, but that DACA opened many doors for her. One cannot feel anything but sympathy for this young person when she writes, “I am not a criminal. I am not a drug dealer. I am a good person who is simply trying to get an education.”

I absolutely believe Libbing. Yet, not all DACA recipients are like Libbing. Some have been charged with serious crimes.

Two years after receiving protected DACA status in 2013, the 19-year-old Emmanuel Jesus Rangel-Hernandez was charged with four counts of murder in North Carolina. One of the murder victims was Mirjana Puhar, a former contestant on the television show “America’s Next Top Model” who had herself immigrated to the United States following the Kosovo War.

"Indeed, while many of the DACA recipients arrived as innocent children, going through the K-12 system as students, it is not clear what happens once they come of age."

Rangel-Hernandez had been facing a deportation order years earlier following a drug possession charge, but was given a reprieve when he was granted DACA status. His name, however, was listed in a federal database for known gang members, which then-U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service director Leon Rodriguez admitted should have stopped Rangel-Hernandez’s DACA application from being approved.

In the immediate aftermath of the revelations in the Rangel-Hernandez case, federal authorities found 13 other cases in the same federal crime database of people who were erroneously approved for DACA and protected from deportation.

So who are DACA recipients? Are they Libbing Barrera or are they Emmanuel Jesus Rangel-Hernandez? It turns out that it’s not easy to answer such questions.

“Very little is know of the characteristics of the DACA population,” noted Jessica Vaughan, policy director for the Center for Immigration Studies—a Washington-based think tank that supports lower immigration—in her October 2017 testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

Indeed, while many of the DACA recipients arrived as innocent children and came up through the K-12 system as students, it is not clear what happens once they come of age.

Between 2013 and 2017, more than 2,100 DACA recipients lost their status because of criminal activity, Vaughn reported in her Senate testimony. And while that is a small percentage of the total DACA population, she said that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services figures probably underreport the actual criminal activities of DACA recipients: “The low eligibility standards, which explicitly allowed some people with criminal records to obtain DACA, together with the inadequate screening of applications and failure to ensure thorough review of databases, virtually guaranteed that mistakes were made in granting DACA benefits to individuals who turned out to be criminals.” And, she pointed out that there was no requirement in the DACA process to interview applicants or to routinely or randomly verify applicants’ documents.

What should be done, given the less-than-complete set of facts we have about DACA recipients?

The Trump White House has previously thrown its support behind a bill by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., that would grant temporary legal status to DACA recipients, while, among other things, increasing enforcement of visa violations, making it easier to remove gang members and criminals, and hiring more Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection officers.

For my part, I am conflicted. I truly sympathize with Libbing Barrera and her fellow DACA recipients who are “simply trying to get an education,” but it’s hardly clear cut. A porous DACA vetting process could lead to people with dubious backgrounds slipping through.

The rule of law hinges on the respect people have for laws and their enforcement. As an example, the American Bar Association’s Division for Public Education notes that if people ignored traffic laws and signals, the police officers would quickly be overwhelmed, leaving the streets dangerous and chaotic.

“The rule of law functions because most of us agree that it is important to observe the law,” the ABA observes, “even if a police officer is not present to enforce it.”

More Opinion

Giving blanket amnesty to DACA recipients undercuts the rule of law. It says that some laws were OK to break. It says that the lives of some people—past and future crime victims, for instance—are less important than the lives of people like Libbing Barrera.

The chaos we have seen for years at our borders, with law enforcement often overwhelmed, is a macro-version of the ABA’s traffic example. To the extent that a DACA amnesty could encourage more immigration lawbreaking, it would further erode the respect for the rule of law. That would hurt everyone living in America, not just 700,000 young people.

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