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DACA: Updates and Options for Dreamers

This November, the United States Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on the case that will decide the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.[1] This program, established through executive action, has offered a temporary reprieve from removal (deportation) to nearly 800,000 students and young professionals raised in the United States.[2] While the program protects a generation categorically denied opportunity to gain legal status,[3] it is very limited in scope. Remarkably, DACA does not confer any immigration status itself nor offer a separate pathway to any other status including permanent residency.[4]

The idea that someone can be present in the United States without legal status while not unlawfully present is confusing – not only to the general public, but apparently to the Supreme Court. In oral argument for U.S. v. Texas, Chief Justice John Roberts wondered, “I’m sorry, that just so I get that right… Lawfully present does not mean that you’re legally present.”[5] Justice Samuel Alito also asked, “[H]ow can it be lawful to work here but not lawful to be here?”[6] If members of this nation’s highest court struggle with this concept, it is no wonder there is confusion surrounding DACA.

DACA: Benefits and Limitations

The DACA recipients, or “Dreamers,”[*] are in legal limbo: allowed to work in the United States, but with no legal status. DACA recipients are permitted to continue their education, and receive a social security number.[7] In some states, recipients can also apply for a driver’s license.[8] DACA also offers a reprieve from accruing “unlawful presence,” a legal term for time spent in the United States without status as an adult, which can lead to future bars to reentry to the US.[9] However, the deferred action program does not, on its own basis, allow its recipients to apply for a separate status.[10] DACA protections expire every two years, and require subsequent renewal applications.[11]

It is no wonder that Dreamers have been called “the best and brightest young people.”[12] The DACA protections only extend to a group of educated youth that have never been convicted of most categories of crimes.[13] To qualify, an applicant must have arrived to the country under the age of sixteen, attend school or have completed their education, and be under the age of thirty, among other requirements.[14] By the nature of the program, recipients arrived as children and therefore may not have a connection to their country of birth. As a result, many Dreamers are attending universities, building careers, and living their lives in the United States without a guarantee that they can obtain legal status to stay permanently.

DACA is Unique Only in its Limited Scope

Deferred action is a commonly used exercise of prosecutorial discretion.[15] As with many other government actions, officials set enforcement priorities to manage limited resources. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security can grant deferred action on an individual basis at any time.[16] The Dreamers’ immigration standing is also not unique, because, as Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito learned, many foreign nationals in the US can work legally but do not have legal status. This includes applicants for adjustment of status to permanent residence, and foreign nationals of countries granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS).[17] Applicants for political asylum are also permitted to work legally in the US after a certain time period while awaiting a final decision on their applications.[18]

The DACA program is part of a long history of executive actions related to immigration. In 1961, the Kennedy Administration established a program to give immigrant visas to Cuban refugees, as well as provide financial help, medical care, and other resettlement services.[19] The program benefitted around one million Cuban Americans.[20] Subsequently, when an influx of both Cubans and Haitians arrived on Florida shores in 1980, most were discretionarily admitted to the country.[21] Several years later, President Reagan announced that immigration standards for 200,000 undocumented Nicaraguans would be eased, and directed the immigration service to “encourage and expedite” their work authorizations.[22] After the 1986 immigration reform bill offered a pathway to residence to many undocumented families, around 100,000 children of those families were shielded from deportation by executive action.[23] In 1990, former President Bush expanded the program by creating an application process for undocumented individuals to stay in the United States and receive work permits.[24] Two consecutive administrations also expanded the TPS status of thousands of Salvadorans and Nicaraguans until they were offered a pathway to permanent residency by law.[25] Within this context, DACA is much less beneficial to eligible foreign nationals than other major executive actions on immigration, because it provides no pathway to any other immigration status and certainly not permanent residence.

The DACA program was designed as a solution to a problem created by more recent changes to immigration law, which were promoted by many of the same immigration restrictionists that now oppose DACA. For most of American history, migrants from Mexico and other countries travelled back and forth across the border for work in the United States, but maintained a primary residence in their home countries.[26] Migration consisted of seasonal flows from Mexico corresponding to the need for agricultural and railroad workers.[27] There was often no need to stay permanently, so workers returned home in the winter.[28] As a result, families often stayed in Central America instead of relocating to the U.S.[29]

During the second half of the 20th century, U.S. law made it difficult to legally migrate from Central America.[30] As a result, it became risky to travel across the border and entire families settled undocumented.[31] While DACA did not fix this legal status discrepancy, it allowed the children of these families to stay and continue their education and careers.

Recent Changes to the DACA Program

In 2017, the Trump Administration attempted to end the DACA program.[32] After several lawsuits were filed to challenge the termination of DACA, injunctions were issued to order the Department of Homeland Security to continue to process DACA renewals and employment authorizations, but the government could refuse new applications.[33] The pending litigation challenges whether the Trump administration acted with proper authority in attempting to end the program, and whether the Court has the authority to review the administration’s decision.[34]

Even if the Supreme Court upholds the Trump Administration’s decision to end the DACA program, there remains a chance that Congress will act to protect Dreamers. An amendment to immigration law would render the pending case moot and take precedence over any Department of Homeland Security administrative decision. Although at least ten iterations of the bill have been introduced, none have passed.[35] This year, the House passed the American Dream and Promise Act which would grant DACA recipients permanent, statutory protections.[36] However, the bill still has to pass the hurdle of a favorable Senate vote.[37]

The situation of Dreamers is that of legal purgatory – with the door shut to legal status and very few options to leave the United States and return with a visa. Legislative action has been stalled for decades and now a conservative Court is poised to hear the case in the coming weeks. Dreamers and activists alike hope the Court will see DACA as a rational response to protect 800,000 young people from the legal conundrum created by U.S. immigration law.

Options for the Future

With the future of the DACA program uncertain, many Dreamers and employers are assessing their options. The following section is an overview of considerations for DACA recipients, who are in a unique and challenging legal position. With each type of visa, there are exceptions and complicating factors, such as criminal convictions, that may affect eligibility. Although immigration law permits waivers of certain conditions, waivers are granted only in narrow circumstances. As a result, each individual should discuss their unique situation with an experienced immigration attorney.

Immigrant Visa Petitions.

There are several types of immigrant visas available for individuals wishing to become permanent residents, including primarily (1) immediate relative petitions, (2) family-based petitions, and (3) employment-based petitions.[38] The first category can be filed by a U.S. citizen spouse, parent, or an adult child (over the age of twenty-one).[39] The second two types of immigrant visas, based on family and employment, each have different subcategories and are subject to numerical annual limits.[40]

Even if a DACA recipient can qualify for an immigrant visa, there are unique issues that may prevent many from receiving the green card. There are two avenues to receive permanent residency: consular processing at a U.S. Consular Post abroad; and adjustment of status while present in the United States.

Adjustment of Status. Whether a DACA recipient can adjust their immigration status to permanent resident depends on the time spent in the United States without legal status, the manner of U.S. entry, and the type of immigration sponsor. As a general rule, Dreamers cannot adjust status with a family-based petition because it requires continuous lawful status.[41] Employment-based petitions are only available if the individual has less than 180 days of unlawful presence.[42] Thankfully, the immediate relative petition allows adjustment to those who have been undocumented for many years.[43] However, like all petitions, the immediate relative petition requires lawful entry to the United States with either a visa or a travel authorization document.[44] Dreamers who marry a U.S. citizen may have other options even without lawful entry, but will want to seek the advice of an immigration attorney.

Consular Processing. The alternative to adjustment of status is applying for an immigrant visa and interviewing at a U.S. embassy. Most DACA recipients will face challenges in this method, as well. Beginning at age eighteen, any person who has spent over 180 days without legal status faces a three year bar to reentry to the United States.[45] This bar increases to ten years after one year of unlawful presence.[46] Therefore, leaving the country for an interview at a U.S. embassy is a practical impossibility for many recipients who have accrued unlawful presence before approval under DACA.

Non-Immigrant Visa Petitions.

There are numerous types of temporary visas. The F-1 student visa, the O-1 extraordinary ability visa, H-1B work visa, and the B visas for tourism and business are all examples.[47] Most DACA recipients face one fundamental challenge to receiving any of these visas: a grant of a temporary status while living in the U.S. requires an existing, valid underlying status. DACA does not confer any non-immigrant status for this purpose.

Thus, Dreamers seeking a temporary visa are in a similar position as those hoping to receive a green card through consular processing. The process requires leaving the United States and reentering with a visa, a path complicated by three-year and ten-year statutory bars. If available, Dreamers may want to pursue a position abroad with their company. In addition, individuals who are eligible may want to consider whether they qualify for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which would confer the ability to apply for other temporary statuses.

Humanitarian Petitions.

It is worth noting that there are a few pathways in immigration law for humanitarian-based relief, including the special immigrant juvenile visa, asylum, and visas available for survivors of crimes and domestic abuse.[48] These options may present a pathway to permanent residency for DACA recipients, but only for those that qualify and receive a favorable exercise of discretion.

In summary, individuals temporarily protected under DACA should consider alternatives in the coming months before the Supreme Court’s decision. Though the pathway to permanent residency is narrow, there may be a few options available to stay continuously or to work abroad and return after a few years. The most important step is to continue to renew DACA in the meantime. Finally, it is important to consult with an experienced immigration attorney to help navigate the available options.

[*] The name “Dreamers” originated from the name of the legislative act, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, originally introduced in 2001.


[1] See DHS v. Regents of the Univ. of Calif., 139 S.Ct. 2779 (2019). The case was consolidated with two other lawsuits, Batalla Vidal v. Nielsen and NAACP v. Trump, with oral arguments set for November 12, 2019 and decision expected around June 2020. DACA Litigation Timeline, Nat’l Immigration Law Center, https://www.nilc.org/issues/daca/daca-litigation-timeline/ (Last updated Sep. 28, 2019).

[2] Gustavo Lopez & Jens Manuel Krogstad, Key Facts about Unauthorized Immigrants Enrolled in DACA, Pew Research Cent. (Sep. 25, 2017), https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/25/key-facts-about-unauthorized-immigrants-enrolled-in-daca/.

[3] See Dara Lind, Why Ending DACA is so Unprecedented, Vox (Sep. 5, 2017), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/9/5/16236116/daca-history (noting DACA protects individuals largely without legal pathways to permanent residency).

[4] See U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion with Respect to Individuals Who Came to the United States as Children 3 (2012), https://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/s1-exercising-prosecutorial-discretion-individuals-who-came-to-us-as-children.pdfSee also Frequently Asked Questions, Nat’l Immigration Law Center https://www.nilc.org/issues/daca/faqdeferredactionyouth/ (Last updated Dec. 16, 2016).

[5] Transcript of Oral Argument at 28, United States v. Texas, 136 S.Ct. 2271 (2016) (No. 15-674).

[6] Transcript of Oral Argument at 28, United States v. Texas, 136 S.Ct. 2271 (2016) (No. 15-674).

[7] DACA, Immigration Legal Resource Center, https://www.ilrc.org/daca, (Last visited Oct. 18, 2019).

[8] Immigration Legal Resource Center, Preparing for the Future 15 (2019), https://www.ilrc.org/preparing-future-understanding-rights-and-options-daca-recipients.

[9] Unlawful Presence and Bars to Admissibility, USCIS, https://www.uscis.gov/legal-resources/unlawful-presence-and-bars-admissi... (Last visited Oct. 18, 2019); Understanding Unlawful Presence Under INA § 212(a)(9)(B) and Waivers of Unlawful Presence, Immigrant Legal resource Center 3 (2019), https://www.ilrc.org/sites/default/files/resources/understanding_unlawful_presence_march_2019.pdf.

[10] See U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion with Respect to Individuals Who Came to the United States as Children 1 (2012), https://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/s1-exercising-prosecutorial-discretion-individuals-who-came-to-us-as-children.pdf (“This memorandum confers no substantive right, immigration status or pathway to citizenship.”).

[11] See Id.; The Dream Act, DACA, and Other Policies Designed to Protect Dreamers, American Immigration Council 3 (2019), https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/sites/default/files/research/the_dream_act_daca_and_other_policies_designed_to_protect_dreamers.pdf.

[12] Get the Facts on the DREAM Act, The White House President Barack Obama (Dec. 1, 2010), https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2010/12/01/get-facts-dream-actSee also The Dreamers Are a Good Part of America’s Future, The Wall Street Journal (July 25, 2017), https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-dreamers-are-a-good-part-of-americas-future-1501002274Power to the Doers and Dreamers, Unleashing the Best and Brightest, Int’l Business Times (Aug. 16, 2010), https://www.ibtimes.com/power-doers-dreamers-unleashing-best-brightest-193274; Gabrielle Levy, Obama: Trump’s DACA Decision ‘Cast a Shadow’ of Deportation Over ‘Best and Brightest’ U.S. News (Sep. 5, 2017), https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2017-09-05/obama-trumps-daca-decision-cast-a-shadow-of-deportation-over-best-and-brightest.

[13] U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion with Respect to Individuals Who Came to the United States as Children 1 (2012), https://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/s1-exercising-prosecutorial-discretion-individuals-who-came-to-us-as-children.pdf.

[14] Id.

[15] See Shoba S. Wadhia, The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Law, 9 Conn. Pub. L. J. 243, 246 (2010)

[16] Id.

[17]Employment Authorization Document, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, https://www.uscis.gov/greencard/employment-authorization-document (Last updated Apr. 5, 2018).

[18] Id.

[19] See Larry Nackerud et al., The End of the Cuban Contradiction in U.S. Refugee Policy, 33 Int’l Migration Rev. 176, 177 (1999); See also Drew Desilver, Executive Actions on Immigration Have a Long History, Pew Research Center (Nov. 4, 2014), https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/11/21/executive-actions-on-immigration-have-long-history/.

[20] See Larry Nackerud et al., The End of the Cuban Contradiction in U.S. Refugee Policy, 33 Int’l Migration Rev. 176, 177 (1999)

[21] See Drew Desilver, Executive Actions on Immigration Have a Long History, Pew Research Center (Nov. 4, 2014), https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/11/21/executive-actions-on-immigration-have-long-history/; See also Julio Capo, The White House Used This Moment as Proof the U.S. Should Cut Immigration, It’s Real History is More Complicated, Time (Aug. 4, 2017), https://time.com/4888381/immigration-act-mariel-boatlift-history/.

[22] Immigration Rules Are Eased for Nicaraguan Exiles in the U.S., New York Times (July 9, 1987), https://www.nytimes.com/1987/07/09/world/immigration-rules-are-eased-for-nicaraguan-exiles-in-us.html.

[23] Am. Immigration Council, Reagan-Bush Family Fairness (Dec. 2014), https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/sites/default/files/research/reagan_bush_family_fairness_final_0.pdf.

[24] Id.

[25] See Drew Desilver, Executive Actions on Immigration Have a Long History, Pew Research Center (Nov. 4, 2014), https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/11/21/executive-actions-on-immigration-have-long-history/; See also Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, 8 C.F.R. § 240.60 (2014).

[26] See Dara Lind, Why Ending DACA is so Unprecedented, Vox (Sep. 5, 2017), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/9/5/16236116/daca-history (noting DACA protects individuals largely without legal pathways to permanent residency); See also Douglas Massey & Karen Pren, Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy 38 Population and Dev. Review 1-3 (2012), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1728-4457.2012.00470.x.; Marc Rosenblum & Kate Brick, US Migration and Policy and Mexican/Central American Migration Flows 1-3 (2011)

[27] Marc Rosenblum & Kate Brick, US Migration and Policy and Mexican/Central American Migration Flows 3 (2011).

[28] Id.

[29] See Dara Lind, Why Ending DACA is so Unprecedented, Vox (Sep. 5, 2017), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/9/5/16236116/daca-history

[30] See Douglas Massey & Karen Pren, Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy 38 Population & Dev. Rev. 1-3 (2012), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/j.1728-4457.2012.00470.x; Marc Rosenblum & Kate Brick, US Migration and Policy and Mexican/Central American Migration Flows 1-3 (2011).

[31] See Dara Lind, Why Ending DACA is so Unprecedented, Vox (Sep. 5, 2017), https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/9/5/16236116/daca-history.

[32] Michael Shear & Julie Davis, Trump Moves to End DACA and Calls on Congress to Act, New York Times (Sep. 5, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/05/us/politics/trump-daca-dreamers-immigration.html.

[33] See DACA Litigation Timeline, Nat’l Immigrant Justice Cent., https://www.nilc.org/issues/daca/daca-litigation-timeline/ (Last Updated Sep. 28, 2019); See also Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. DHS, 908 F.3d 476 (9th Cir. 2018).

[34] Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. DHS, 908 F.3d 476 (9th Cir. 2018).

[35] Id.

[36] American Dream and Promise Act of 2019, 116th Congress, H.R.6 https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/6.

[37] See Alan Gomez and Ledyard King, House Passes Bill to Protect 'Dreamers', but Faces Long Odds in Republican-led Senate, U.S.A. Today (Jun. 4, 2019), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/06/04/house-passes-bill-dreamers-tps-but-senate-unlikely/1337753001/; Natalie Andrews & Andrew Duehren, House Passes Bill Aimed at Protecting Immigrants Brought Illegally to the U.S. as Children, Wall Street Journal (Jun. 4, 2019), https://www.wsj.com/articles/house-passes-bill-aimed-at-protecting-immigrants-brought-illegally-to-u-s-as-children-11559689659.

[38] See 8. U.S.C. § 1151 (2018).

[39] See 8. U.S.C. § 1151(b)(2)(A)(i) (2018).

[40] See 8. U.S.C. § 1151 (2018).

[41] See 8 C.F.R. §245.1(b)(6) (2018).

[42] Applicability of Section 245(k) to Certain Employment-Based Adjustment of Status Applications, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (July 14, 2008), https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/Laws/Memoranda/Static_Files_Memoranda/Archives%201998-2008/2008/245%28k%29_14jul08.pdf.

[43] See 8 C.F.R. §245.1(b)(6) (2018).

[44] See 8 C.F.R. §245.1(b)(3) (2018).

[45] See 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(9)(b) (2018).

[46] See 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(9)(b) (2018).

[47] See 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(15) (2018).

[48] See Humanitarian, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services https://www.uscis.gov/humanitarian (Last visited Nov. 1, 2019). For additional resources, see Humanitarian Protection, Am. Immigration Council https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/topics/humanitarian-protection (Last visited Nov. 1, 2019).

Authored by Lauren Watford

©1994-2020 Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C. All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume IX, Number 316


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We’ve earned our national and international reputation for excellence and innovation, and our Immigration Practice attorneys serve as trusted business advisors for top-tier companies with offices throughout the world.

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