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For U.S. immigrants, arriving younger is better

Undocumented students at UCLA in Los Angeles prepare paperwork for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program on Aug. 15, 2012. President Barack Obama's administration announced on June 15 it would relax deportation rules so that many young illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children can stay in the country and work. The changes went into effect on Wednesday.


The Obama administration has offered a temporary reprieve from deportation for up to 1.76 million immigrants who came to the United States as children. Whatever the immediate merits of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, it signals a much broader principle that all countries receiving immigrants should recognize: children experience migration differently than adults, and public policy can create both great opportunity and great risks for their long-run capacity to become independent and successful adults.

The DACA initiative was announced earlier this year, but it is only now, with the release of the detailed eligibility criteria, that millions of young people, some of whom have been raised almost all their lives in the United States, are finding out if they qualify to shed their status as illegal immigrants, if only for a two-year period.

The policy offers a reprieve from deportation and an authorization to work for individuals who came to the U.S. as illegal immigrants before the age of 16, and had not turned 31 by June 15 of this year. But there are other conditions that have to be met: in addition to not having brushes with the law, potential beneficiaries must either currently be in school or be a high school graduate.

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According to Jeanne Batalova and Michelle Mittelstadt of the Migration Policy Institute, almost three-quarters of the 1.76 million migrants originated in Mexico and Central America.

About 800,000 children and youth are potential beneficiaries, and the DACA education requirement gives them a very strong incentive to stay in school and graduate.

The high school dropout rate is notoriously high in the U.S. to begin with, but particularly so among migrant children from Mexico.

Children of Hispanic origin face all sorts of challenges in successfully completing high school, some of which have to do with the way they are treated by U.S. society, job markets and the school system. This is clear from the experience of Puerto Ricans, who are not strictly speaking immigrants at all, and are likely to have some exposure to English before coming to the mainland.

But the dropout rates of Mexicans is striking even if Puerto Ricans are used as a base case. More than half of the children arriving after the age of 10 from Mexico will be high school dropouts, the proportion increasing with each subsequent year and reaching 70 per cent for those arriving as 15 year olds.

Arriving younger is better. Those coming to the U.S. from other Latin American countries illustrates a common pattern: age at arrival does not matter until roughly the age of 9 or 10, thereafter the chances of dropping out of high school rise steadily.

This age threshold matters because it is associated with the capacity to fluently learn a new language, and with making a series of social transitions, particularly during the teen years, that lead to high school graduation, and ultimately success as an adult.

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In this sense it is little wonder that particularly high-risk groups – those most likely to drop-out of high school, to then have a tenuous link to a job, and to be more likely to join a gang and commit a felony or misdemeanor – are boys from a non-English background who came to the country as young teenagers.

There is much to be applauded in the Obama administration's recognition that child migrants need special treatment, but these patterns suggest a temporary reprieve will offer an incentive to stay in school only for a fraction of potential beneficiaries.

At the same time the eligibility criteria will leave important groups disenfranchised. Those who have already dropped out are most likely to have had the deck stacked against them by virtue of the simple fact that they arrived as young teens and faced bigger challenges learning English.

Miles Corak is a professor of economics with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. A more detailed version of this post is available at

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About the Author
Professor of economics

Miles Corak is a professor of economics with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. More


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