New York’s DACA initiative for immigrants affirms importance of adult education

April 05, 2016

Results from a two-year, $18 million New York City Council initiative to serve young undocumented immigrants have wide-ranging implications for similar efforts in the future.   

Announced in the summer of 2013, the initiative was unprecedented in scope and ambition. It sought to reach undocumented immigrants who were potentially eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA)* and provide them with access to adult education services and reputable legal assistance. In the process, it funded a dramatic expansion of adult education class slots in New York City, creating approximately 6,000 new seats.

Findings from the initiative emphasize that adult education providers were crucial partners. Not only did adult education programs provide a safe space for potential DACA applicants to self-identify as eligible, they also helped to spark participiants’ interest and ability to pursue their broader educational and vocational aspirations, beyond attaining high school equivalency.

“From the outside, it’s easy to think of DACA simply as a legal services puzzle,” says Betsy Plum of the New York Immigration Coalition, one of the initiative partners. “The assumption is that if you just connect individuals to a reputable legal services provider and help them get a work permit [via DACA], their problems are solved. But what we found is that is not true – especially for the population we were trying to reach.”

That population, she says, was relatively older, more likely to have been out of school for some years, and to have acquired family and work responsibilities that made it harder for them to pursue education.

Using Data to Target Services

The New York initiative initially identified its target population by analyzing data on the city’s pool of potentially DACA-eligible individuals. The analysis estimated that there were 16,000 individuals who would be eligible for DACA if they met the program’s educational requirements. The results convinced initiative partners to go beyond traditional avenues of outreach and place special emphasis on reaching potential candidates who had never attended US schools, or who had dropped out.

(Nationally, analysis by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute shows that younger people are far more likely to have applied for DACA. Among the population of DACA-eligible individuals, an estimated 48% of those ages 15-19 have applied, compared to just 19% of those age 25 and older.  Other research has suggested that the youngest DACA recipients have an easier path to obtaining status, often because they learn about the program while they are still high school students. In contrast, locating and communicating with older DACA-eligible individuals – who may have been away from the classroom for years – has proven a tougher challenge.)

Who Was Served

New York’s initiative targeted individuals who were:

  • Undocumented immigrants aged 15 to 30 years as of June 15, 2012
  • Currently eligible for DACA or potentially eligible for DACA if they achieved school enrollment**

As noted above, the initiative placed a specific emphasis on reaching people who had dropped out of high school or who had never attended US schools.  

Understanding the Program Components

The initiative used a three-pronged approach: outreach, adult education, and legal services.

  • Outreach was carried out through community-based organizations that were distinct from traditional service providers, such as cultural organizations, financial literacy and empowerment organizations, and groups that worked with day laborers or restaurant workers. Each of these partners had long-established roots in immigrant communities, and was able to provide participants with referrals to legal services and/or adult education providers, as appropriate.
  • Adult Education partners were charged with enrolling interested individuals in qualifying educational programs. Importantly, adult educators were not asked to screen participants for DACA eligibility. Rather, they were given short multilingual videos describing DACA (developed by initiative partner NYIC) that they could show in the classroom, thus allowing students to self-identify and seek referrals to legal service providers.
  • Legal Services were provided by nonprofit legal service providers. These providers determined participants’ eligibility for DACA and assisted them in filing the necessary application paperwork. Funds from the initaitive were also available to help applicants pay the US government’s $465 DACA application fee. Approximately half of the 4,000 participants who received legal services successfully received DACA status, while more than 1,000 individuals turned out to qualify for other types of immigration status.

How it Was Funded

Funding for the initiative totalled approximately $18 million over a two-year period (FY 2014 and 2015).  Funds were allocated by New York City Council and distributed as follows:

  • $13.7 million to NYC Department of Youth & Community Development to subcontract to community-based organizations for outreach, legal, and adult education services 
  • $4.3 million to the City University of New York (CUNY) for direct provision of adult education services and professional development

Key Lessons

In total, the program provided educational services to 8,000 participants, and immigration legal services to 4,000 individuals. (The numbers are not mutually exclusive because some people received both services, while others only needed one type of assistance). Among those receiving legal help, 2,000 individuals successfully attained DACA status.

“The initiative really brought home that the episodic interaction model is not effective for this population,” says Plum of the NYIC. “You can’t just hold a one-time clinic or outreach event and expect people to get everything they need. You have to go for depth rather than scale.”

This type of a systemic approach is not only of value for DACA now, but also for other potential immigration intiatives in the future, says Plum. The Supreme Court is expected to rule this spring on the Obama administration’s proposed expansion of the DACA program and launch of a new Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program. Meanwhile, immigration reform legislation awaits a window of opportunity in Congress.

Any future program – whether executive or legislative – would likely affect a far greater number of immigrants. That reality makes advocates like Plum keenly aware of the “dry run” that DACA initiatives represent. She hopes that the lessons learned in New York will be applied nationally.

In particular, Plum says, adult education must be front and center. “Literacy providers are crucial because they see people repeatedly,” she explains. “They can build trust in the classroom over time.” Adult educators can also help participants to develop and pursue longer-term educational and career goals.

Additionally, Plum says, the design of the initiative reflected the fact that participants have different educational levels, schedules, and ultimate educational goals. A one-size-fits all class schedule would not have worked. Ensuring that providers had as much flexibility as feasible within systemic constraints to offer a variety of on-ramps for participants was crucial.

Prioritizing adult education equally alongside legal services can help to ensure that future cities embarking on immigration initiatives can achieve the greatest return on their investments, Plum adds.

“If the reason that a man hasn’t applied for DACA is that he can’t see how it will help him improve his economic circumstances or support his family, giving him access only to legal services isn’t going to fix that,” she explains. “The same goes for a woman who maybe has two kids and has been out of school for 10 years. Getting such individuals DACA is as much about getting them back in the classroom as anything else, and it requires understanding their priorities and articulating how adult education can help them achieve those goals.”

“It’s more than just getting a work permit. It’s about equipping people to pursue their aspirations,” says Plum.

For thousands of New Yorkers, the program accomplished just that.


*DACA status provides the recipient with temporary protection from deportation and a 2-year renewable work permit. Of the estimated 1.6 million potentially DACA-eligible individuals nationwide, approximately 700,000 have been granted the status to date.

** To see the full list of education and training programs that qualify a DACA applicant to be considered as “currently in school,” see Question 33 of the USCIS frequently asked questions document.