Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Spinning the Facts on DACA

In rescinding the Obama-era Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ selective use of facts leaves a misleading impression of the program:

  • Sessions described DACA recipients as “800,000 mostly-adult illegal aliens.” But only those brought to the U.S. as children are eligible for DACA. Most were under 7 years old when they arrived in the U.S., according to one study.
  • He also said DACA “contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border.” There were many reasons for the surge, but government reports indicate it was primarily due to violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
  • The attorney general also stressed the need to enforce immigration laws, saying failing to do so in the past has “put our nation at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism.” But those with felony and even some misdemeanor records are not eligible for DACA.

Sessions made his announcement Sept. 5 at the Department of Justice. Under the new policy, the Department of Homeland Security said it will no longer accept new DACA applications and will stop accepting renewal requests as of Oct. 5.

‘Mostly-Adult Illegal Aliens’

In his announcement, Sessions provided some background on the program, which was established by President Barack Obama in June 2012. Sessions said the program “essentially provided a legal status for recipients for a renewable two-year term, work authorization and other benefits, including participation in the social security program, to 800,000 mostly-adult illegal aliens.”

The White House, in a press release, described the DACA holders as “recipients [who] range from ages 15 to 36, with the overwhelming majority being of adult age.”

President Donald Trump, too, described the DACA beneficiaries as adults when he was asked about ending the program during an unrelated event at the White House. The president said “people think in terms of children, but they’re really young adults.”

The administration’s emphasis on the current age of most DACA holders ignores the fact that they arrived in the United States as children.

Yes, the vast majority of DACA holders are adults. The program, which is now in its fifth year, is open to those who were at least 15 years old but no more than 31 years old as of June 15, 2012. But to be eligible for the program, they also had to prove that they were under the age of 16 when they arrived in the United States and they had been living in the U.S. continuously since June 15, 2007.

Tom K. Wong, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, oversaw a national survey of 3,063 DACA holders last month and found that on average they were six and a half years old when they arrived in the U.S. Most of them — 54 percent– were under the age of 7 (see page 13).

The DACA program was instituted by Obama after Congress repeatedly failed to pass the so-called DREAM Act that would have created a path to citizenship for some brought to the United States as children.

‘Surge of Unaccompanied Minors’

Sessions also blamed the DACA program for the surge of unaccompanied minors who illegally crossed the Mexico border, beginning in fiscal year 2012, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Sessions, Sept. 5: The effect of this unilateral executive amnesty, among other things, contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences.

This is misleading.

It is true that there was a surge of unaccompanied children that caught the Obama administration off guard in fiscal 2012. The number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border peaked in fiscal 2014 at 68,541, dropping 42 percent to 39,970 in fiscal 2015 before rising again in fiscal year 2016 to 59,692.

But the children who crossed the border illegally were not eligible for DACA. As we said earlier, the criteria for DACA is continuous residence in the United States since June 15, 2007.

All the government reports on the subject that we could find said that misinformation about U.S. immigration policy may have driven some to cross the border illegally. But these reports cited multiple reasons for the surge, primarily violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in 2013 conducted a survey of 404 unaccompanied minors who illegally crossed into the U.S. since fiscal 2012. The U.N. survey found that 48 percent of the apprehended children “said they had experienced serious harm or had been threatened by organized criminal groups or state actors, and more than 20 percent had been subject to domestic abuse,” according to a July 3, 2014, report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

“It is not known if, and how, specific immigration policies may have influenced decisions to try to enter the United States unlawfully,” the CRS report said.

The Government Accountability Office also sought to determine the causes of the surge in a 2015 report. In that case, GAO surveyed nine federal officials stationed in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security and USAID. The federal officials used “various sources of information” to identify the causes of the surge, “ranging from conducting first-hand interviews to analyzing various statistical data.”

The nine officials “most commonly identified crime and violence and economic concerns as causes primarily responsible for the recent rapid increase” in unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. illegally, the GAO report said.

Five officials told GAO that misinformation about U.S. immigration policies spread by smugglers were “a primary cause.” The example given in the report was a failed congressional attempt to pass comprehensive immigration legislation that would have provided a path to citizenship for those living in the U.S. illegally.

Crime Risk?

In listing his reasons for rescinding DACA, Sessions also cited the need to enforce immigration laws “to ensure the safety and security of the American people.”

Sessions: We are a people of compassion and we are a people of law. But there is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws. Enforcing the law saves lives, protects communities and taxpayers, and prevents human suffering. Failure to enforce the laws in the past has put our nation at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism.

However, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, those who committed “a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, or three or more other misdemeanor offenses” are not eligible for DACA. Neither are those who pose a public safety threat, which “include, but are not limited to, gang membership, participation in criminal activities, or participation in activities that threaten the United States.”

Also, there is no evidence that DACA holders are more likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens.

As we wrote in February, numerous studies have found that immigrants do not commit crimes at a higher rate than non-immigrants. A recap of the literature on this topic can be found here. A 2013 study published in American Sociological Review confirmed that immigration is strongly associated with less violence in a neighborhood.

We take no position on the merits of DACA. But Sessions’ description of the program doesn’t tell the whole story, leaving a misleading impression about DACA holders and the impact that the program has had on illegal immigration and crime.

Clarification, March 26: We revised one sentence in this article to make clear – as we explained elsewhere in the original story – that those who committed a felony and some misdemeanors are not eligible for DACA. According to USCIS, someone could commit two non-significant misdemeanor offenses and still be eligible.  

Share the Facts
FactCheck.org rating logo FactCheck.org Rating:
Lacks Context
Those in the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program are "mostly-adult illegal aliens."
Department of Justice
Tuesday, September 5, 2017