In today’s Wall Street Journal, there is a fascinating report by Alicia A. Caldwell on how DACA recipients are preparing for the possibility that their deportation relief will expire come March, thus leaving them vulnerable to removal. She delves into two individual stories in detail: that of a 30-year-old rapid-response nurse at Stanford Medical Center who settled in the U.S. at the age of eleven, when his parents decided to overstay their tourist visa, and a 24-year-old Teach for America volunteer, who moved to the U.S. at age eight. Both young men are highly sympathetic and highly educated. In considering his options, the first of the two young men profiled, Eli Oh, a native of South Korea, weighs the pros and cons of moving to Canada or Australia, where he’d have to seek recertification, or South Korea, where he’d be subject to compulsory military service. The second, Eric Kwak, a recent Berkeley graduate and also a native of South Korea, contemplates moving back to Los Angeles to further his studies.
One hesitates to comment on individual circumstances. I’m sure that there’s a lot to the lives of both Oh and Kwak that wasn’t captured in Caldwell’s piece. But two things did occur to me.
The first is that it’s not clear to me that Oh and Kwak are representative of the wider DACA population. South Korea is one of the world’s richest countries, and its GDP per capita (PPP) has grown considerably since both Oh and Kwak moved to the U.S. The latest data from the World Bank pegs South Korea’s 2016 GDP per capita at $35,750, or 29th in the world. Over the next few years, South Korea is expected to overtake France by this metric. Indeed, South Korea is now so wealthy that it is currently in the midst of a fraught conversation regarding how much it should relax its own migration restrictions, which are extremely stringent, to address anxieties about its aging population, which is expected to start shrinking in the 2020s. It’s not clear to me that South Korea needs to increase inward migration, but I’ll leave that aside for now. What stands out is that South Korea long ago passed the income thresholds at which emigration levels start to decline. That’s part of why South Korean natives represent an extremely small share of the unauthorized immigrant population.
The Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that is generally supportive of high immigration levels and regularizing long-settled unauthorized immigrants, estimates that as of 2010-14 there were 198,000 unauthorized Korean immigrants out of a total unauthorized immigrant population of 11 million, or 2 percent of the total. MPI also estimates that 52,000 unauthorized immigrants from Korea were eligible for DACA, and that by the end of September 2016, 7,693 had applied for it and 7,069 petitions were approved. If we go with 690,000 as the number of DACA recipients to date, i.e., those who’ve applied for and received protection, people of South Korean origin represent about 1 percent of the of DACA recipients. MPI has also issued a detailed profile of the DACA-eligible population — which is distinct, to be clear, from the population that has actually applied for and received DACA protection. MPI estimates that approximately 32 percent of the DACA-eligible between 15 and 32 had at least some college experience (5 percent had completed a degree) as compared to 54 percent of the total U.S. population in the same age range (18 percent of whom had completed a degree).
We should be cautious about these numbers, as the DACA-eligible population between 15 and 32 might be substantially younger than the total U.S. population in that age range (e.g., the U.S. might have more 31-year-olds in that range while the DACA-eligible might have more 16-year-olds), but given the obstacles to educational attainment for unauthorized youth and the low household incomes of unauthorized-immigrant households, it’s reasonable to say that the DACA population is somewhat less educated than the total U.S. population. Oh, with a postgraduate degree, and Kwak, who might be headed for one, stand out in their level of educational attainment. But the Journal doesn’t really give us a sense of this — the article cites a study from the Center for American Progress, which finds that 45 percent of DACA recipients were enrolled in high school, college, or graduate school, but that still doesn’t give us much context.
Which leads me to my second observation, which is that while there’s been a lot of discussion of the fallout of DACA expiration for DACA recipients and for the U.S., there’s been less discussion of the potential impact on countries of origin. Roughly 548,000 DACA recipients are from Mexico. One suspects that while 7,000 DACA returnees wouldn’t make much of a difference for South Korea, over half a million DACA returnees would have an enormous impact on Mexico. Needless to say, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which this entire population uproots itself. But we have seen a small influx of Mexican returnees, and it’s interesting to contemplate what might happen if it were to grow considerably. In March 2017, Sam Quinones wrote a provocative essay for Foreign Policy that touched on this question. I was particularly struck by the following passage:
Instead of ruing the Trump administration’s ongoing deportation of more Mexicans, the country ought to start the hard work now of reincorporating them into the country. Many will come with new skills learned on the job in the United States. They will have seen new ways of doing things, global citizens now and no longer the teenage campesinos (peasant farmers) they were when they left. Regardless of how much money they sent home, the loss of these dynamic and hard-working people to the United States was far more damaging to Mexico than the loss of territory in the mid-1800s, though it is the latter lesson that is taught in Mexican schools.
At the moment, this is almost a taboo sentiment, as it posits that a large-scale return migration would be something other than a disaster for the world. And it’s easy to see why. Though I support more stringent immigration enforcement, I’m sympathetic to the idea of an amnesty, provided it is accompanied by reforms designed to make our immigration system more selective and skills-based. But Quinones’s provocation merits serious consideration: Despite its many advantages, growth in Mexico has been unimpressive when compared to other middle-income countries, in part due to a relative dearth of managerial and entrepreneurial talent. One wonders if an infusion of young bilingual adults could, as Quinones suggests, help break Mexico out of its rut, and help create a more balanced North America.
Or, alternatively, perhaps DACA returnees will be more akin to the U.S.-born individuals who emigrated to Canada to avoid serving in the Vietnam War, many of whom have since become mainstays of the Canadian Left. History works in funny ways.