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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

Survey Finds ‘Dreamers’ Are Politically Engaged And Benefitting From Temporary Legal Status

Photo by Nick Blumberg

Deborah Robles, a "documented DREAMer" and organizer with the Arizona DREAM Act Coalition, addresses the crowd before they head into the governor's office.

A nationwide survey finds many undocumented immigrants are getting their first jobs and driver's licenses since getting temporary legal status under an Obama administration program.

Young immigrants who have been granted temporary legal status under an Obama administration program are getting their first jobs, first cars and first credit cards, according to a nationwide survey of undocumented youth, often referred to as “dreamers.”

Results of the survey also suggest that most young immigrants living in the U.S. illegally don’t identify strongly with either major political party, a finding that the study author says should be encouraging to Republicans.

“This emerging constituency is more up for grabs politically than previously thought,” said Tom Wong, the University of California San Diego political scientist who authored the survey.

The survey was completed online by nearly 1,500 dreamers in 42 states and Washington D.C.

It found that 70 percent of respondents got their first job or moved to a new job after receiving two-year legal status under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.

Twenty percent reported buying their first car and 37 percent reported getting their first credit card. Wong said the car purchases hint at the economic potential of expanding DACA to include more immigrants — which some advocacy groups have called for — or passing immigration reform.

“This one result is a microcosm of that potentially positive economic impact,” Wong said.

The survey was commissioned by the United We Dream network, the largest national network of immigrant youth, and Unbound Philanthropy, a pro-immigrant foundation. It was administered online via a peer-to-peer referral technique and augmented by Facebook ads urging undocumented youth to take the survey.

The new survey provides fodder for the debate over immigration reform. The Republican Party is split on the issue, with some leaders arguing that creating a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants would alienate the party’s conservative base and create an army of new liberal-leaning voters.

Just less than half of respondents to the DACA survey identified as Democrat, while 44 percent identified as Independent or other. Just 2 percent identified as Republican.

Results were similar in a recent Pew Research Center poll of so-called Millennials (aged 18 to 33). Nearly half of non-white respondents said they were political independents, and 9 percent identified as Republican.

Even if dreamers don’t get a path to citizenship, Wong said, “they are still a formidable political bloc, not so much at the voting booth but in different forms of advocacy.”

In recent months, groups like United We Dream have pushed President Barack Obama to exercise executive authority to limit deportations. In April, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced that his department would review its deportation policies with an eye toward making them more humane.

Respondents to the DACA survey also appear to be more politically engaged than average voters. More than 40 percent said they had participated in a political rally or demonstration, whereas just 6 percent of voters surveyed in a 2012 national election study said they had done so.

Plus, 55 percent of dreamers surveyed said they felt they could affect what government does, and 88 percent said they felt they could “stop unjust deportations” by organizing.

“Their undocumented status politicizes them,” Wong said.

That appears to be the case with Abril Rodriguez, a 27-year-old DACA recipient in San Diego. She said her political activism started with rallies and protests on immigration issues, but then branched out to education matters and healthcare.

“It just bleeds to different things because of immigration status,” she said of her civic engagement.

Since getting DACA status, the UC San Diego student has gotten her driver’s license and a job doing outreach about the state's healthcare exchange, Covered California.

The federal government began granting deportation relief to undocumented youth (age 30 or younger) under the DACA program in 2012. Applicants must show they came to the U.S. before they turned 16, have attended school here or served in the military and have no serious criminal record.

As of March 2014, 550,000 immigrants have been granted DACA relief. Nearly 30 percent of them reside in California.

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