When Dina Barriere was 15, she was in the process of applying for a driving permit like most kids her age. Unlike her peers, however, Barriere didn’t have a Social Security number.
“My mom finally convinced me not to turn in the form after two days,” Barriere says. “That’s when I realized I was different. I felt excluded. It was like being told that I had never existed.”
Barriere, 22, first came to the United States from El Salvador at the age of 3. She went back for about a year, when she was 9, and then came back to the United States for good in October 2000, when she was 10 years old. She’s been living with her mother, stepfather and two younger siblings in Richmond for the past 12 years, unaware she was an illegal immigrant.
Like other young people who were brought to the United States as children, Barriere is technically barred from working, driving or going to school, even though her younger siblings, ages 11 and 15, and both U.S.-born, are granted all these rights.
“I found it so weird that my siblings existed and were defined by nine numbers, and I wasn’t,” she says.
Barriere qualifies for President Barack Obama’s “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) program, a policy enacted in June that allows illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children to obtain a work permit, a valid Social Security number and a contingent promise of deferred action with regard to deportation. DACA does not provide a path to lawful permanent resident status, U.S. citizenship or legal immigration status.
Barriere attends the City College of San Francisco (CCSF), where she studies International Development. Unlike most colleges, CCSF does not require its students to provide a social security number in order to register for classes, but Barriere still hopes to transfer to UC-Berkeley.
An advocate for undocumented students in several capacities, Barriere serves as the steering representative of the Bay Area branch of the California DREAM Network. She also serves as a volunteer for VIDA, a resource center that raises awareness among the CCSF community about the struggles and needs of undocumented students. Networks like VIDA have been hosting workshops for the past few months to provide undocumented students with information about the deferred action policy.
The government began accepting DACA requests on Aug. 15. As many as 1.7 million immigrants, 30 years old and younger who have lived continuously in the United States for five years, could benefit from the program, according to Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. The largest number of potential applicants—460,000—is in California.
Like many others who are eligible, Barriere is in the process of working on her application. The application requires proof of continuous residence for the five years preceding June 15, 2012, and for some, that means providing documentation for every month of that time— church documents, immunization records and school transcripts could all be used. Others might have to use something as small as a debit card transaction to prove their presence on that day.
A barrier for many is the application fee of $465. In order to raise the money for her application fee, Barriere has been working at a UC-Berkeley concession stand that offers to cover the fee in exchange for time spent volunteering. Perhaps in part because of the cost, the number of applications sent in so far is a small fraction of the estimated number of those eligible for the program. In the three weeks that the government has been accepting applications for deferred action, roughly 40,000 individuals have applied; official numbers will be released later this week.
The application does not require consultation with an attorney, but applicants are encouraged to seek legal advice because applicants are submitting almost all of their personal information to the Department of Homeland Security. If an application is denied, there is no appeals process, as well as no motions to reopen a case and no motions to reconsider the decision.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has stated that he would overturn DACA with a long-term solution, though he has not specified what this would be. More recently Romney has taken a tough stance on illegal immigration.
Santa Clara County, however, has taken a more lenient stance when it comes to illegal immigration. Law enforcement officials such as District Attorney Jeff Rosen and Sheriff Laurie Smith both have publicly stated their opposition to deporting illegal immigrants charged with non-violent crimes.
DACA could have an unexpected effect other than just providing better job opportunities for undocumented youth, according to Stanford doctoral candidate Scott Baker. In a recent study, Baker found that the policy might lead to a drop in overall crime—up to 50,000 fewer crimes per year nationwide, he says.
A fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Stanford Department of Economics, Baker suggests that the deferred action policy is similar to the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Act.
The IRCA, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, offered a path to legal status for certain undocumented agricultural workers and immigrants who had been continuously present in the United States since 1982.
It also imposed sanctions for employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers and increased enforcement at U.S. borders.
Of the estimated 3.2 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States in 1986, more than 3 million applied to the program and almost 90 percent of applicants were eventually granted legal status. In the years that followed the legislation, Baker found a decrease of 2 to 3 percent in crime per capita. Baker acknowledges that the current scope of deferred action is much more limited, but he insists that there are enough similarities to expect that the policy will lead to a reduction in crime.
One huge difference between the two pieces of legislation Baker compares is that DACA does not actually grant people a path to citizenship, while the IRCA did. “The effect that the deferred action policy will have on crime does depend on [eligible applicants’] perceptions,” he says. “If they think it’s only temporary, the effect won’t be as great.”
Another big difference between the two pieces of legislation is that the vast majority of people affected by deferred action are in school and between the ages of 15 and 30.
In other words, most of these people are DREAMers—young people in pursuit of higher education for whom the United States is the only country they’ve ever called home. This is a very different demographic than agricultural workers who came to the United States in the 1980s for temporary stays.
The increase in labor-market opportunities is by far the closest parallel between the IRCA and the deferred action policy, and according to Baker, it might be one of the largest drivers of a reduction in crime.