What you need to know about DACA and tech (FAQ)

The Trump administration kills off the Obama program that cut undocumented children some slack. Tech execs are angry. Here’s why.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read
Activists Across US Rally In Support Of DACA

Demonstrators in Washington, DC, block traffic Tuesday during a rally in support of DACA after the Trump administration announced an end to the program.  

Zach Gibson / Getty Images

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on Tuesday an end to DACA, and the tech industry is fuming.

A number of tech execs have fiercely defended the program, which gave 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children a chance to work and study without fear of deportation. So what is DACA and why are tech executives speaking out against its demise? Read on as we put Tuesday's news in context.  

What is DACA?

President Barack Obama established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012 by executive action. It grants people who immigrated illegally as children to the US temporary protection from deportation and gives them permits to work legally in the US. The permits must be renewed every two years. It's estimated that 1.3 million people are eligible for DACA. About 800,000 people have registered with the program.

To qualify for DACA, immigrants must have been in the US before 2007 and have been 15 or younger when they arrived. They also had to be younger than 31 when DACA was created in June 2012. There are other requirements for qualifying: They cannot have a criminal record and they must be enrolled in high school or have a high school diploma or equivalent.

As of Tuesday, permits are no longer available to new applicants. People already enrolled in the program can stay and work in the US until their permits expire. If their permits expire on or before March 5, 2018, they can reapply for another two-year DACA permit before Oct. 5. For those whose DACA permits expire after March 5, they're out of luck unless Congress acts.

Why did the Trump administration end DACA?

As part of his strong stance against illegal immigration, President Donald Trump made a campaign promise in 2016 to eliminate DACA. Also, attorneys general from 10 states -- Arkansas, Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and West Virginia -- had threatened to sue the federal government if Trump did not rescind the order.

Sessions said in Tuesday's press conference that the program represented an overreach of executive power and that Congress, not the president, should enact immigration reform. He said the existing policy was vulnerable to legal and constitutional challenges and that the Justice Department couldn't defend the previous administration's "disrespect for the legislative process."

"If we were to keep the Obama administration's executive amnesty policy, the likeliest outcome is that it would be enjoined," he said. As a result, "the Department of Justice has advised the president and the Department of Homeland Security that DHS should begin an orderly, lawful wind-down, including the cancellation of the memo that authorized this program."

Why hasn't Congress already passed legislation?

Congress has tried for 15 years to find a solution to this issue. In 2001, Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, introduced the Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act -- otherwise known as the DREAM Act -- to provide a path to citizenship to children who'd grown up in the US after coming here illegally with their parents.

These children became known as Dreamers.

The legislation didn't pass in 2001, and subsequent attempts to pass it have stalled. In 2012, Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, to protect Dreamers.

Even as DACA was created, Democrats hoped Congress would pass a broader immigration package that would include a path to citizenship for Dreamers. In 2013, the Senate passed such a bill, but the House of Representatives never acted on it.  

Since then, the divide between Democrats and Republicans on immigration has widened. So DACA, which was designed as a placeholder, became a more permanent policy.

What are tech companies saying?

Large technology companies have gotten more involved politically on immigration issues since 2013 when Congress failed to adopt comprehensive immigration reform. Tech companies see immigrants as an important part of American workforce. That group includes Dreamers.

As a result, the tech industry, along with immigrant advocates, has worked to protect DACA recipients. A collection of tech's biggest names, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Uber CTO Thuan Pham, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and more than 300 others, signed a joint letter last week to Trump, as well as to Senate and House leaders, urging them to protect Dreamers.

"Dreamers are vital to the future of our companies and our economy. With them, we grow and create jobs. They are part of why we will continue to have a global competitive advantage," the letter reads.

Several tech leaders have also issued statements of their own. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post last week called Dreamers the "future of our country and our economy."

Following the Justice Department's announcement Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook expressed his frustration in an email to Apple employees.

"I am deeply dismayed that 800,000 Americans -- including more than 250 of our Apple coworkers -- may soon find themselves cast out of the only country they've ever called home," Cook wrote.

Why do they care so much about this?

It's hard to estimate how many DACA recipients actually work in tech. But a report issued by Fwd.us, an immigration advocacy group founded by Zuckerberg, found that 91 percent of DACA recipients are employed. Ending the program would result in roughly 30,000 individuals each month losing their eligibility to work.

A study by the Center for American Progress, meanwhile, estimated that the loss of all DACA workers would reduce US gross domestic product by $433 billion over the next 10 years.

That doesn't show directly what the effect would be on the tech sector, given that not every DACA recipient is employed in technology. But given that most DACA recipients are in their early to mid-20s, according to an August survey published by Tom Wong of UC San Diego, it's safe to say that many of them are just starting their careers.

A 2015 study by the Institute for Immigration, Globalization and Education at the University of California showed that one-third of undocumented immigrants were majors in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or STEM. But this estimate does not break down how many people majoring in STEM are DACA recipients. Also, some DACA recipients do not continue their education into college.

Could tech companies with Dreamers on staff get them new work visas?  

It's not that simple. Immigration experts say the main challenge for people who have been undocumented in the US is that they accrue penalties the longer they've been here unlawfully. What's more, in order to make their immigration status "right" they often are required to leave the country until the paperwork is sorted out. And because they have lived in the US illegally, they can be barred from re-entering the US based on these penalties. For instance, living in the US unlawfully for six months would trigger a three-year ban against re-entering the US. And if you've lived in the US illegally for a year or more, you're barred from coming back to the US for 10 years.  Of course, every situation is different, which is why anyone in this predicament should seek the advice of an immigration attorney.

Can tech companies influence Congress on this issue?

The Justice Department has given Congress six months to come up with legislation to fix this problem. But given the history of the DREAM Act and other attempts to pass a law protecting children of undocumented immigrants, it's hard to be optimistic that the legislators can pull something together in the next six months. That said, there are already efforts in the House and the Senate to draft legislation.

It's also hard to say whether the tech industry's involvement in this fight will sway Congress. I'll explore this issue later this week. Stay tuned. 

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