If you want to quickly start an intense debate, a decent way to do it is by bringing up immigration policy. There’s no shortage of strong feelings or opinions.
While most of what is out there is speculation, what we could use more of is hard data, numbers about immigration that help us make up our minds in an educated way. And that’s what University of Delaware researcher Emily Battaglia offers with a recent study on the economic impacts of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.
Battaglia, an assistant professor of economics at the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, discovered in her research on data from 2005 to 2018 that the policy better known as DACA does not seem to have a negative impact on jobs or income. In fact, it might even improve the economic climate. Her work published in March in the Journal of Urban Economics.
The DACA immigration policy came from the pen of then-President Barack Obama in 2012. His executive order allowed certain people brought to the country illegally as children to apply for protection from deportation and get legal working status. (It’s not the same as the DREAM Act, which also deals with immigrants in similar circumstances. The DREAM Act was an effort to address the problem legislatively that began in 2001 and never came to fruition.)
Obama’s move was an effort to take some kind of action despite the lack of partisan consensus.
“The president was facing growing pressure from Latino leaders and Democrats who warned that because of his harsh immigration enforcement, his support was lagging among Latinos who could be crucial voters in his race for re-election,” the New York Times reported in its coverage at the time.
In the years since, one criticism of DACA has been that it could cost native-born Americans jobs. Battaglia notes in her paper that Republicans sent a letter to Obama in 2012 expressing just that concern, worried that it was poor timing because of struggles with the economy.
This criticism was one of the rationales for President Donald Trump to overturn the order in 2017. At least he tried to. It was the beginning of a court battle that continues until now, with a Texas judge ruling in 2021 that Obama had overstepped his authority.
For now, the program has been allowed to continue, but officials can’t process new applications. Battaglia noted that DACA only applies to a certain segment of the population anyway, because of its outdated requirements for participation, like requiring that people must have lived continuously in the U.S. since 2007. As an order for a particular time, it hasn’t aged the same way as a legislative solution might have.
One reason Battaglia was interested in studying the topic came from her life prior to becoming an economist. “I was a high school math teacher in San Antonio, Texas,” she said. “So I worked a lot with students that were a part of the undocumented population.”
To examine the economic impacts of DACA, Battaglia had a vast data set: Census data from around the United States, combined with the order’s long track record. Some parts of the country were home to much higher numbers of young people eligible for DACA – she gave Texas and California as examples – and other regions, like in the northeast, had far fewer. That provided a test tube of sorts, allowing her to compare the impacts from statistical analysis of the different regions.
A number of people have researched DACA’s impact on the recipients, but Battaglia’s work comes from a different angle, focusing on those immigrants who aren’t eligible and citizens as well. She also took a different analytical approach than some previous investigations, both in method and in the categories she studied, she explained.
“The main takeaway from the research is that DACA did not have a negative impact for natives in the labor market,” Battaglia said, which undercuts one of the main arguments against the program. In fact, the policy seemed to increase the number of citizens with jobs, including pulling people out of unemployment, she found.
Battaglia also did not find a negative effect on immigrants who were not eligible for DACA.
Since her study focuses on the numbers, it’s beyond the scope of the research to explain why DACA had the impact it did. Battaglia suggested it could have brought economic benefits by moving immigrant employees into jobs that were a better fit, thus improving productivity and profits, which would then have a ripple effect on the job market. Or perhaps immigrants earning better wages spent more, increasing demand and helping the economy that way. Some sectors could have seen lower wages as a result of DACA, with other sectors increasing wages, canceling each other out. It could be several such factors working together.
That’s part of the problem with studying immigration and the economy, especially at the same time. They’re massive, complex subjects with many nuances, like why immigrants came, where they settled, how long they have been here, and what else is going on in the economy. The literature, as you might expect, is somewhat mixed, which can be an indicator that more study is needed.
“Papers find different effects across a variety of different policies or natural experiments. So I think it’s not something that’s like an open and shut question.There’s definitely more research that can happen there,” Battaglia says.
And be careful how you use her numbers. Battaglia warned that her work doesn’t apply broadly to all immigration, especially newcomers to the country. Rather, it focuses on a specific slice of long-term residents who had new opportunities open up because of the policy.
“I would be very cautious of taking my study and trying to extrapolate it to something more long term, like the DREAM Act,” she said. However, she noted in her paper that researchers might be able to build on her methods to study long-term immigration.
While DACA is a decade-old policy, the executive order is still very much part of the national conversation, not only because of the ongoing court battles but because of the quest to find immigration solutions. Battaglia’s research gives policymakers hard data as they consider those solutions.