Beneficiaries of the DACA program — the Obama-era initiative that offers legal status to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — are employed across various sectors of the economy, with one glaring omission: the federal government.
DACA recipients employed in the public sector are only allowed to work for state and local government, typically in education and public administration. Congress routinely passes spending laws that prohibit the federal government from hiring non-citizens who are not in the process of seeking citizenship, with extremely narrow exceptions. DACA recipients can work as federal interns or fellows if paid by third parties — for example, through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s Congressional Internship — but this workaround does not allow for permanent federal employment. In the country’s best interest, Congress should remove employment restrictions for qualified DACA recipients in the next appropriations package.
By and large, DACA recipients were raised and educated in this country. The U.S. has been the only home country most have ever known. Yet, they face punitive restrictions despite being unaware of the legal and political implications of their arrival to the U.S. as children. As of December 2020, more than 600,000 people have DACA status, and plenty of those want to work for their federal government.
Several House members introduced legislation that would remove employment barriers. A 2017 amendment to the Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill would have allowed DACA recipients to work any federal job. House bills introduced in 2016 and 2017 would have permitted them to work for Congress. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ), who authored the 2016 bill, recently re-introduced legislation with 55 co-sponsors in late March 2021.
Unfortunately, these bills lack bipartisan support. No Republican representatives co-sponsored Rep. Kirkpatrick’s 2016 bill. Critics argue that noncitizens should not further complicate the job market for citizens and that “illegal aliens” should not compete with Americans for taxpayer-funded jobs.
But these critiques willfully ignore reality. DACA recipients have both legal status in the U.S. and work authorization. The Migration Policy Institute estimated that as of 2017, almost 400,000 Dreamers were in the U.S. workforce and contribute to our country’s fiscal health. Using data from 2018, the Center for American Progress calculated that Dreamers pay $5.6 billion in federal and $3.1 billion in state and local taxes each year. But they do not benefit equally from the taxes they pay due to their precarious residency status.
The private sector is the primary employer of DACA recipients, similar to U.S. citizens. Many occupy roles in crucial industries heavily involved in government operations and management, like tech and finance. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, DACA recipients’ contributions to recovery efforts have been vital. Many are essential workers in health care, retail, manufacturing, transportation, sanitation and waste management, food service, and many other services keeping the economy afloat and the public safe.
Continuing to deny Dreamers from working key federal jobs may cost federal agencies qualified and essential talent. Specifically, the federal government lacks employees in its science agencies, which are suffering from brain drain. Many DACA recipients are pursuing higher education, preparing to be professionals in STEM, law, education, social work, and business. Expanding the applicant pool to DACA recipients would fill this gap for the continued progress of the government and the American public.
Letting DACA recipients work in federal occupations would bring exceptional talent to some of the country’s most significant roles. There is no better way to recognize that Dreamers care about this country and its gain than allowing the federal government to employ them.