After studying Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients for seven years, Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Roberto Gonzales has seen, through their eyes, all the good and bad of the landmark immigration policy.
Every story is different, and while DACA recipients have been grateful for the program, according to Gonzales, some of them are much more high-achieving than others. A key reason, he said, for the success among some DACA recipients is support — from teachers, mentors, counselors, and others — and last month he found himself encouraging Greater Boston residents to create this support for young immigrants in their own communities.
As part of his research Gonzales led a seven-year study interviewing thousands of undocumented young people who have qualified for deferred action from deportation since DACA took effect.
“I found that the difference was, the high achievers could name three or more mentors,” Gonzales said at a community lecture and discussion at the Harvard Ed Portal in Allston. “Mentors who were there for them at crucial times in their lives.”
He encouraged audience members to think about what they can do, directly or indirectly, to help create a supportive environment for undocumented children and adolescents.
“If immigration reform is not going to happen this year, and people have urgent needs, who will it be to meet those needs?” he said. “We [community members] have the opportunity to pitch in.”
Gonzales is a national expert on undocumented youth and young adults. The paper on DACA-eligible young people is his second long-term study following undocumented residents who were brought to the U.S. as children; previously, he followed 150 undocumented young adults for 12 years. The DACA study consisted of a survey with 2,684 undocumented young people from 42 countries and follow up-interviews with nearly 500 DACA beneficiaries living in six U.S. cities. Study participants were all eligible for protected status under the policy enacted in 2012 by then-President Barack Obama.
Gonzales presented some of the study’s key findings as part of a faculty speaker series at the Ed Portal.
He found that many DACA recipients felt a greater sense of identity and agency, and much less fear and stress, after receiving their DACA status, and quoted one interviewee as saying, “I finally feel like I’m part of the U.S., like I’m no longer living in the shadows.” They eventually began to increase their earnings, obtain credit and driver’s licenses, and feel more like typical Americans, Gonzales said.
For all these reasons, he continued, “DACA is probably the most successful immigrant integration policy reform in the last two to three decades.”
At the same time, the policy has clear limitations. Gonzales illustrated some of these through the story of a young woman called Esperanza whom he met during his previous study. She enrolled in a public university in California in 2002, but struggled to find work after graduation because she was undocumented. By the time she was protected under DACA, she had been working in the service industry for more than a decade and was no longer a competitive candidate for jobs in her field of study.