When Lena Martinez walks across the stage at Lenoir-Rhyne University to receive her baccalaureate diploma on May 17, her achievement will become another data point in an argument that’s been waged for more than a decade, in Congress and in living rooms across this country.
The argument has centered on the question, “What to do with the several million people, mostly Hispanic, whose parents brought them to this country when they were little, who have grown up here, and who now have no legal immigration status?” Martinez, 21, has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival status, or DACA, President Obama’s answer to the question, created in 2012 by executive order, after Congress failed several times to pass legislation on the subject.
She’s one of about 800,000 people nationwide with the status, including about 100,000 in Appalachia, meaning she has permission to work, can obtain a driver’s license, and generally live life out of the shadows. Her status expires in January of next year, unless Congress creates a pathway to legalizing DACA recipients before President Trump’s imposed deadline of March 5.
What does this decision mean for Appalachia? President Trump recently told reporters he had learned, in his first year in office, that he had to govern “with heart,” and think of how “millions of people are affected” by immigration policy. If he were to think in “purely economic” terms, he said, “it would be so simple.” The suggestion was that deporting DACA recipients just makes sense economically.
But during DACA’s six-year history, as the small but vocal “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” lobby has continued to clamor for deportation, a growing number of academics and think tanks have done research, offering data that go beyond anecdotes. What we now know suggests that if Congress doesn’t move, and hundreds of thousands either go back into the shadows, or are deported, the national and regional economies where they live will take a big hit, in the short and long run – including billions of dollars in projected losses to Appalachian states.
This is because the hundreds of thousands of young people like Lena Martinez “punch above their weight for their age cohort,” according to Tom Wong, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, and author of the largest and most recent survey of DACA recipients. “They are more successful because they’ve internalized the idea that the better they do, the better it will be for the continuation of the program. Education is a core component … and they’re essentially picking up tools that we need for the 21st century workforce.”
Wong’s findings include that DACA recipients older than 25 hold bachelor’s degrees or higher in greater numbers – 35.5 percent – than the general population – 34.2 percent. Zeroing in on the share who hold bachelor’s degrees alone, the gap is even greater: 27.3 percent versus 21.3 percent.
But it’s not just degrees that set them apart. After receiving DACA status, slightly more than half of the 800,000 young people like Martinez got their first jobs. More than two-thirds got better-paying jobs. Eighty percent got their driver’s licenses. Sixty percent opened bank accounts. Nearly two-thirds got their first credit cards, and a similar share bought their first cars. Also, nearly one in four who were older than 25 bought homes, and about one in 12 started their own businesses.
What happens to all that if DACA ends? “The economic consequences of removing DACA are more than just the inverse of the benefits,” Wong says. “These people are just hitting their strides in their relationships, their families, and careers. (If DACA ends) every bit of maturing begins to unravel downstream.” If you lose your driver’s license, you may wind up losing your job, says Wong. If you lose your job, you’re no longer able to pay for tuition, or your car, or your house.”
In smaller economies – local, state, and regional – that impact will be felt more. “A larger economy can absorb exogenous shocks,” Wong says. “For a smaller economy, with fewer people, it’s harder.”
One estimate puts the loss in gross domestic product to 10 Appalachian states at $4.5 billion per year – with nearly two thirds of that loss occurring in North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia. Another report estimates annual losses of $107 million in state and local taxes to the Appalachian region if DACA is permanently repealed – at a time when most of those same states are experiencing revenue shortfalls.
Anna Baumann, senior policy analyst at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, says that the earning power and tax contributions of DACA recipients in her state are “either on par or surpassing native-born Kentuckians.” Underscoring survey data that shows the average age DACA recipients arrive to the U.S. is six years old, she adds, “the idea that they’re stealing jobs from Kentuckians is false. They’re Kentuckians; it’s the only home they’ve known.”
If Congress doesn’t resolve the status of these young people, changes in earning power will also lead to changes in behavior, for them and their families – which, according to research, likely include U.S. citizens. (In Wong’s survey, nearly three-fourths of respondents had U.S. citizen spouses, children or siblings.) This is not as easy to estimate, as, say, changes in GDP, says Nicole Svajlenka, senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy research and advocacy organization. “If it changes the lives of siblings, children and parents, it’s much harder to measure,” she says. In any case, if DACA is removed, including family members it will add up to millions affected, economically and otherwise.
In the meantime, as Congress dithers about DACA’s future, Martinez continues to display many of the traits identified by surveys and other research on DACA recipients. She graduated St. Stephen’s High School in Hickory with a 3.8 GPA, which helped convince Lenoir-Rhyne to help her family pay part of the school’s hefty tuition fees with private scholarships. (She has covered the rest with private and bank loans.) At Lenoir-Rhyne, she has entered the Broyhill Institute for Leadership, an invitation-only program where students “are expected to use their leadership skills responsibly and ethically in order to make a positive difference in the world.” This year, she has been named to the Mortar Board National College Senior Honor Society, a century-old organization whose past members include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
As with many of her peers, since receiving DACA status in 2012, she’s been able to obtain a driver’s license, buy a car and pay for car insurance, mostly with money she earns at jobs she gets when not in school. She’s developed her passion in life, photography and video, by basically serving as a crew member for her father, Carlos, who earns extra money shooting quinceaneras, weddings, baptisms and other events, mostly in Hickory’s Hispanic community, which has nearly doubled in Lena’s lifetime, while the city’s population of 40,000-plus has only increased about 8 percent.
She also has the entrepreneurial spirit seen in some of her peers, and is currently developing a website to launch her own freelance career, offering photography, video and graphic design. If she’s able to stay in the U.S., her plans are to graduate, stay around Hickory another year or so to save up money, and then strike off on her own to California –where she wants to pursue a graduate degree in film and video at Columbia College Hollywood, in Tarzana, California. After that, her dream is to shoot music videos for the performers she loves – Pitbull, Bruno Mars, and artists from the Mexican genre known as banda.
She feels prepared to take on the highly-competitive entertainment business because of the strengths she has developed as an immigrant, and as a DACA recipient. “I am different from many of the people I meet who are my age,” she says. “I didn’t have much handed to me. The whole pathway to get to this point was not easy.”
Emma Sellers, director of multicultural affairs at Lenoir-Rhyne, has seen Martinez’s determination since the Martinez family first toured the campus in April 2014. The school had named Sellers to the newly-created position the year before, in part to reach out to Hispanic students, even if undocumented, or with DACA status. Lenoir-Rhyne, like other private colleges in Appalachia, had seen that the white, non-Hispanic college-age population was declining, while several states in the region were leading the country in Hispanic population growth.
“She was very quiet when I saw her with her family,” Sellers recalls. “Now I know why – she’s very methodical; that’s how she learns.” Initially, she says, Lena would ask her, “‘What can I do? What is Lenoir-Rhyne going to do? I don’t have papers–can I be a doctor, or a lawyer?’” With time, she says, “The fear of, ‘What can I do?’ has gone away. She’s embracing opportunities. She’s become a leader, a mentor – until about six months ago, when everything changed. The fear came back.”
The college official is dumbfounded by President Trump’s decision to end DACA, leaving the fate of its recipients in the hands of Congress. “If you think about it,” Sellers says, “to have DACA, you have to be almost perfect. You can’t even get a speeding ticket. Our DACA students are some of our best. Why would we treat them this way?”
Lena has spoken with her parents about what they would do if she, or either or both of her parents, neither of whom has legal immigration status, are deported. The three of them, plus Lena’s two younger, U.S.-born sisters, Lina and Karla, would all go back to Cuernavaca, Mexico. “It would be best for us to remain together,” she says.
For Svajlenka, of the Center for American Progress, this would not just change the Martinez’s lives, and affect the thousands in Hickory who have come to know the family through their work in photography and video–it would also amount to a waste of public and private dollars.
“We’ve invested in her K-12 education. And from her university experience, we know people see something in this woman. They want her to join the workforce. They see promise in her. It would be a big loss to the university, to the field she’s working toward.”
Sellers says that most of the students with DACA status at her school have healthcare-related majors, as well as arts, design, psychology, sociology and business. Survey data shows that nearly one in four DACA students is interested in healthcare, with education, social services and computers or math rounding out the top four majors. These fields of study reflect the U.S. economy’s needs, now and in the near future.
Not only that, changing demographics in the U.S. point to a change: the U.S. will be what’s known as majority minority by mid-century, according to the census. “In a few years, the majority of people will be people of color,” notes Sellers. “If we export hundreds of thousands who have been earning degrees all these years, how stupid is that? We’ll lose all this expertise!”
Lena Martinez hopes that doesn’t come to pass. She still has something to prove. “In the future, I could show, through the struggle, that I can do it – despite the odds.” She’s also pulling for the hundreds of thousands like her. “DACA people are different – because of their motivation. People may tell them, ‘You can’t do it. You don’t have status.’ But they didn’t let that stop them. They found a way, to do what seemed impossible. It’s like my parents say, ‘It doesn’t stop here. It can’t end here.’”
Timothy Pratt (@TimothyJPratt) is a journalist based in the Atlanta area. He has written for The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian, and many other publications.
All photos by Jesse Pratt Lopez.