DACA Recipients are Essential Workers and Part of the Front-line Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, as Supreme Court Decision Looms

Daniela Alulema
Center for Migration Studies

DACA Recipients are Essential Workers and Part of the Front-line Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, as Supreme Court Decision Looms

Recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program have long contributed to the US labor force, economy, and communities, and several are now on the front lines combating the outbreak of COVID-19 and working to prevent the spread of the virus and to support those affected by it. Based on estimates drawn from the 2018 American Community Survey Census data, CMS estimates[1] that the following numbers of DACA recipients work in essential industries across the country:

  • 43,500 DACA recipients work in the health care and social assistance industries, including 10,300 in hospitals and 2,000 in nursing care facilities.
  • 21,100 operate in transportation and warehousing, including 6,400 in warehousing and storage and 5,100 in truck transportation.
  • 32,800 are employed in retail trade, including 12,400 in supermarkets, 3,200 in pharmacies, and 5,200 in merchandise stores such as warehouse clubs.
  • 14,500 work in the manufacturing sector, which includes food and beverage, pharmaceutical, cleaning products, and medical equipment manufacturing.
  • 13,300 work in support and waste management services, including 10,100 who work in services to buildings and dwellings and 1,000 in waste management.

CMS estimates also indicate that 76,600 DACA recipients work in restaurants and other food services. While some restaurants continue to operate on a limited basis, many providing “curbside” service, it is difficult to estimate the number of DACA recipients who continue to toil in this sector. These figures, however, indicate that DACA recipients are deeply embedded in our society and are now in the front lines of the labor force responding to the pressing needs created by the virus.

During this difficult time, DACA recipients are also facing another source of anxiety and fear that goes beyond the current COVID-19 pandemic. In November 2019, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments to determine the legality of the Trump administration’s decision to rescind the DACA program. The court’s decision is expected before June 2020. As is well-known, DACA recipients are immigrants who arrived in the country before the age of 16 and have resided, studied, worked and made a home here. Under DACA, they have received a temporary work permit and protection from deportation for two-year periods. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reported that, as of September 30, 2019, there were 652,880 active DACA recipients. An unfavorable Supreme Court decision for DACA recipients would mean loss of their work permits, access to career and school opportunities, and the looming risk of deportation and possible family separation. The end of DACA would also directly impact 329,600 US citizen children whose parents are DACA recipients.[2]

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the adjudication and processing of immigration benefit applications has been further delayed.  On March 18, USCIS announced that it will temporarily suspend all in-person services, including biometrics appointments at Application Support Centers, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. At this writing, USCIS expects to re-open its offices on April 7, 2020. Given the imminent Supreme Court decision on the future of the DACA program, thousands of DACA recipients submitted renewal applications to ensure they will be protected from deportation and will be able to continue working legally in the near future. Part of the DACA renewal application is a biometrics appointment, which have now been delayed until further notice.  As a result, pending DACA applications have been brought to a standstill.  Although USCIS has not released its report for DACA applications for the first fiscal quarter of 2020, the outstanding number of DACA applications is presumed to be in the tens of thousands. In its September 2019 report, USCIS stated that it had 25,990 pending renewal applications.

Given the USCIS office closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the vital role DACA recipients fill in our labor force and communities, USCIS must consider extending the protection granted by the DACA program to those whose status ends in 2020. In addition, the administration – which has adopted many immigration-related restrictions in response to the crisis – should also extend the renewal application and adjudication period.  At a moment when immigrant households have been heavily impacted due to job losses, lack of access to health care, and in many cases, responding on the front lines to this crisis, our country must allow DACA recipients to support their families and communities to the best of their abilities and without additional fear of the future.

Update: On March 30, USCIS announced that it would reuse previously submitted biometrics in work authorization applications (I-765 form).


The author thanks Mike Nicholson for calculating the CMS estimates based on the 2018 American Community Survey.

[1] CMS calculated the estimates using the 2018 1-year ACS data. To arrive at these estimates, it randomly selected likely DACA recipients from the pool of 16- to 38-year-olds in 2018 who met the DACA eligibility criteria and combined it with USCIS administrative data from September 30, 2019 on recipients’ countries of origin.

[2] CMS estimates based on 2018 1-year American Community Survey (ACS) data.

March 30, 2020

Daniela Alulema