Deferred Action
Undocumented UCLA students Alejandra Gutierrez (L) and Miriam Gonzales attend a workshop for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in Los Angeles, California, August 15, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

Friday marks two years since President Barack Obama used his executive authority to halt deportations for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. More than 600,000 immigrant youth have applied for deportation relief -- but hardly any eligible Chinese immigrants have sent in applications, according to a new report.

The Migration Policy Institute’s analysis on the two-year anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program notes that DACA has transformed the lives of many immigrants who grew up in the United States but lacked legal status. DACA shields many of these immigrants from deportation and allows them to apply for work permits.

According to the report, thousands of Asian immigrants, who make up roughly 11 percent of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, are eligible for DACA. China and Korea are among the top 10 origin countries for eligible applicants, although Mexico overwhelmingly tops the list. About 24 percent of eligible Koreans applied for DACA in the last two years. But there have been so few Chinese applicants that their numbers are negligible in government data sets.

Thanu Yakupitiyage, Communications Coordinator for the New York Immigration Coalition, said that among Asian-American communities, there is a stigma against revealing one’s undocumented status.

“Parents are really afraid of having their children come out as undocumented,” she said. “There’s also lack of information about what it would mean to have deferred action.”

That’s consistent with another report on DACA applicants released last year by the Center for American Progress. “Whereas Korean ethnic media have worked to raise awareness about DACA with an eye toward providing the information and resources necessary to facilitate the application process, Chinese ethnic media have not done so to a similar extent,” the report said, although it noted that as of last year, that trend was beginning to change.

But some advocates note that DACA is still a miniscule part of the picture for Chinese immigrant communities.

“The number of Chinese who are eligible for DACA is actually pretty small because of the requirements,” said Mae Lee, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association in New York City. “You might hear some people say that it’s because of stigma, or that there’s lack of information, or that some are waiting for comprehensive reform -- all of those things are true. But even if all those people came out to apply, it would never reach these very high numbers.”

To qualify for DACA, immigrants must prove they were under the age of 31 as of June 2012, arrived in the United States before their 16th birthday, have a clean criminal record and have enrolled or graduated from high school. Lee says many Chinese immigrants she met with missed the cutoff for eligibility.

Stanley Mark, a senior staff attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that most of the recently arrived Chinese immigrants are adults coming to work.

“The new kids on the block [in New York City] for the last 10 to 20 years have been Fujianese,” he said. “And their immigration pattern, according to my experience, is that they don’t come with young children.”

But, he added, many immigrants who have mixed status families -- in many cases, undocumented parents and DACA-eligible children -- are reluctant for their children to apply for the program.

“Some parents feel that from a family standpoint, they would not want their children to get DACA and then they get deported back. There is the question of: Who are the kids going to stay with if they get deported?” he said. “As a policy mater, DACA does not strengthen family unity.”

The U.S. Senate passed a bill on comprehensive immigration reform last year, but reform measures have stalled in the House of Representatives. This impasse prompted President Obama earlier this summer to announce that he will likely use his executive authority to pass immigration reform on his own -- and he is reportedly mulling over a decision to expand deferred action benefits to family members of DACA-eligible immigrants.

It would be a sweeping move that analysts say could affect some 5 million undocumented immigrants – nearly half of the U.S.’s undocumented population. But deferred action benefits are still temporary, requiring renewal every two years, and they still do not provide immigrants a legal pathway to citizenship. Moreover, any executive order Obama issues -- including DACA and any expansion of the program -- can eventually be overturned by the next president come 2016.