Calling out Republicans, Julián Castro of Texas said research shows that nearly every young immigrant at risk of losing federal protection from deportation is employed, in school or serving in the military.
According to an October 2017 web post, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary was generally urging the Republican-led Congress to change federal law by offering a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children or those who overstayed their visas.
The post on the conservative blog PJ Media says that in a conference call organized by an advocacy group, Castro specified that a "recent analysis" showed that 91 percent of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, sometimes called "Dreamers," are employed, in school or serving in the military. Critics, conversely, sometimes characterize the program as an illegal amnesty that harms the working class.
Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and 2020 Democratic presidential prospect, directed his call for DACA action at U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, as well as John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate majority whip, who, Castro said, "should make sure Congress passes a DREAM Act soon."
Castro, who joined the faculty of the University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in 2017, was otherwise quoted in the post criticizing President Donald Trump for declaring the month before that his administration would discontinue DACA, which President Barack Obama launched through a 2012 memo, unless Congress authorized a program by changing federal laws. In a September 2017 tweet, Trump said both that Congress should "legalize DACA" and that in the event of inaction, he’d "revisit this issue."
Castro cites online survey results
So, was Castro right about DACA recipients nearly all being in school, employed or in the military?
Castro, asked the basis of his claim, told Josh Baugh of the San Antonio Express-News by text that he drew his data points from an August 2017 web post by the left-leaning Center for American Progress about a national DACA survey.
That survey, we found, asked if DACA recipients had jobs or were in school. It didn’t ask if respondents were in the military.
The center’s post summarizing the results said Tom Wong, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, led the August 2017 survey of 3,063 DACA recipients. All told, the post says, the survey reached DACA recipients in 46 states including Texas, where 17 percent of respondents said they were living, according to the center’s separate post of the survey’s 22 questions and tallied results.
Let’s check on whether the results back up Castro’s claim before turning to the survey methodology and other efforts to gauge how DACA recipients spend their lives.
Asked if they were "currently employed," 91.4 percent answered affirmatively, according to the results, with 55.9 percent of those respondents saying they hadn’t been employed "before DACA." Another question asked if the respondent was currently in school; 44.9 percent responded affirmatively with 55 percent saying not, according to the results.
Wong told us by email that an additional sort of the "in school" and "currently employed" responses showed 97 percent of all respondents reporting being employed or enrolled in school — with 71.5 percent of those saying that they were in school reportedly pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher.
The center said in its post that the results drew on the largest sampling of DACA recipients to date. Some perspective: the 3,000-plus respondents would have amounted to about 4/10ths of 1 percent of some 690,000 active DACA recipients reported at about that time by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Wong conducted the survey in collaboration with the center and advocacy groups United We Dream and the National Immigration Law Center. At the survey’s release, that teaming drew criticism on the right-leaning Breitbart blog, where writer Neil Munro underscored an acknowledgment in the survey’s methodology section that "it is not possible to construct a valid margin of error" for the results because "there is no phone book of undocumented immigrants." Munro counted this as an admission that the data was unreliable.
In the same vein, we wondered how Wong’s team confirmed that respondents were signed up for DACA; best we could tell, beneficiaries are not revealed by the government.
By phone, Wong reaffirmed the methodology described in the center’s post about the survey including that the partnering entities recruited the recipients surveyed online. Specifically, Wong said, the partners sent a web link to the survey to individuals on their respective email lists, also employing Facebook ads to ensure that self-identified DACA recipients from all over the country could participate.
Recognizing that non-DACA recipients could potentially click through the survey, the researchers reported taking steps to eliminate bias and other factors that might skew the results.
In the write-up posted by the center, Wong and his co-authors said that to prevent people from submitting multiple responses, they used a survey platform that prevented an IP address from submitting multiple responses.
Wong said he used another tactic to stop people from gaming the study: Near the beginning of the survey, each respondent was asked to say at which age she or he came to the U.S. Close to the end, the survey requested the year the respondent came to the U.S. If the age provided toward the survey’s start matched the year offered later, the results stayed in. If off by more than a year, Wong said, he threw out the response. In the end, he said, the responses of 3,063 people were tallied--with approximately 6,000 respondents’ surveys getting set aside for one reason or another.
We asked Wong to provide more detail perhaps enabling us to confirm the percentages in the results. Wong told us by email that he hadn’t talked to the study’s outreach partners "about what data can and can’t be released." Wong also said he plans to write a book analyzing the first four years of his survey results, at which point the data he analyzes for the book will be made publicly available. "I know talk isn’t worth much, but I analyzed all of the data myself and stand by the results," Wong wrote.
Solid research, expert says
Castañeda’s answer: Yes. Wong and his colleagues "carried out a valid study on a hard-to-reach population," Castañeda said by email. "With more than three thousand respondents, this is an exceptionally large sample size." Castañeda further said that researchers cannot always calculate margins of error for "unknown populations" like homeless and undocumented people, adding that the authors "took a number of steps to avoid duplicates or dubious data."
Castañeda told us too that the study’s results appeared to be consistent with ethnographic research on DACA recipients and survey and interview research through 2016 by Roberto Gonzales, a Harvard University expert on immigration and social inequality, suggesting that DACA recipients made gains after getting that designation.
Wong and Gonzales each found DACA beneficiaries finding educational and career opportunities that had been closed to them before they entered the program. According to Gonzales’ study, posted by the center in June 2017, "DACA beneficiaries told the authors that they were able to match their education and training with work that was meaningful to them—‘an occupation that they could be proud of and that did not carry the stigma of ‘immigrant work.’ " Wong told us a result from his 2017 study stood out to him: 54.2 percent of respondents reported getting a job "that better fits my education and training."
In the Breitbart post critical of Wong’s work, Munro wrote that the study was "based on a skewed sample of relatively successful DACA illegals who were identified by advocacy groups."
To Munro’s point, 35.5 percent of respondents 25 and older reported having bachelor’s degrees or higher. Seemingly in contrast, Munro noted, an August 2017 Migration Policy Institute study found only 5 percent of the "immediately eligible DACA population" holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. The institute, a think tank that says it believes in the benefits of well-managed immigration, reached its "5 percent" figure by drawing on responses to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey.
Wong, asked about the possibly too-high education levels suggested by his results, pointed out that the 35.5 percent of survey-indicated DACA recipients with bachelor’s degrees came out only slightly greater than what’s lately shown for naturalized American citizens. According to bureau data from 2016, 35.2 percent of naturalized citizens — those who obtained citizenship after being born as non-citizens — reported having a bachelor’s, graduate or professional degree.
DACA recipients’ high education levels make sense, Wong said, because the program requires applicants to be currently in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a General Education Development (GED) certificate, or be an honorably discharged Coast Guard or military veteran.
"We’re actually requiring them to be more educated than the general population," Wong said, adding: "Now that the DACA population is getting older, we’re talking about a pretty sizable number of college-educated individuals who are just beginning to hit their strides in their careers."
Castañeda suggested by email that Wong’s survey provided more meaningful results than the MPI study, which was concerned with many more residents including individuals unlikely to seek DACA status. Castañeda wrote: "DACA recipients are by definition positively self-selected since they have to apply to the program, deal with the complex application process and requirements, and pay application fees."
We also asked Jessica Vaughan of the conservative-leaning Center for Immigration Studies to evaluate the survey cited by Castro.
By phone, Vaughan told us that she would not be surprised that DACA recipients participate in the labor force at high rates because for many, employment was likely "a motivating factor to apply for DACA." Vaughan speculated, though, that the survey overstated the employment and education rates of DACA recipients simply by being administered online and, she suggested, drawing from people with regular online access as well as individuals with the "time and inclination to fill out such a survey." It’s reasonable, she said, to suppose that the same people would be more likely employed and well-educated.
Castro said a "recent analysis" showed that 91 percent of DACA recipients are employed, in school or serving in the military.
Some 97 percent of respondents to an August 2017 online survey reported being employed or in school. However, the researchers asked no questions about military service.
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