The Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program began in 2012 due to an executive order signed by President Obama. DACA recognizes that people who entered the country as children had no control over their circumstances, nor did they have a way to legally gain citizenship at a later date. Before DACA, these individuals were vulnerable to deportation due to their status as undocumented immigrants, despite having few or no memories of their country of origin. They also were unable to obtain a driver’s license or financial aid due to not having a Social Security number.
By enrolling in the DACA program, which costs $495 every two years, childhood immigrants who meet specific residency requirements and pass a background check can obtain some of the benefits of citizenship, including work authorization.
The DACA program seems to have the approval of many Americans, with a 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center showing that 73% believe DACA recipients should be granted legal citizenship. However, some states and cities are safer for DACA recipients than others. Specifically, some locations have been dubbed “sanctuary” cities or states due to the local government’s refusal to submit the names of undocumented but law-abiding immigrants to U.S. Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
We dug even deeper to find the safest states for DACA recipients, considering data such as the hate crimes related to race/ethnicity, overall crime rates, poverty rates and in-state tuition or financial aid opportunities available to immigrants. Why do these stats matter? DACA recipients could face problems with their work authorization and other privileges if incarcerated. An area with relatively low crime rates will have fewer incarcerated people, including DACA recipients. It’s also important to note that studies have shown DACA recipients to have a 14% lower incarceration rate than native-born citizens in the U.S.
A state with low incidences of hate crimes related to race or ethnicity is also likely to be more welcoming and supportive toward DACA recipients, whereas states with high incidences of such crimes may prove to be dangerous or hostile environments for minorities. More racially motivated hate crimes also may increase the likelihood of ICE being tipped off about “illegal” immigrants.
Because DACA opens doors to education and employment, many DACA enrollees are able to increase their wages and live above the poverty level. The average DACA recipient earned $7.17 more per hour after enrolling in the program, with the average hourly wage now $17.46 for this group as of 2020. This gives them a living wage rather than a poverty wage. In addition, a full 91% are employed, about 80% have gotten their driver’s license thanks to the program. 45% of DACA recipients are currently in school, with 72% of those pursuing at least a Bachelor’s degree. Examining a state’s poverty rate provides a glimpse into whether its DACA recipients truly benefit from the program.
While no state displayed perfect stats across the board, some clear winners emerged from the data. Discover which states stood out to be the safest for DACA recipients.
11 Safe States for DACA Recipients
1. New Jersey
Total score: 87.95
New Jersey tops our list of safe states for DACA recipients, thanks in part to relatively low crime rates. New Jersey also has the lowest poverty rate of all the states on our list, which signals that there are relatively more employment opportunities and pay rates available to those with work authorizations in this state. Hate crimes relating to race or ethnicity could be lower and no financial aid is offered to immigrants, but DACA recipients are allowed to pay in-state tuition rates for higher education.
Total score: 80.45
When it comes to crime, Washington has some work to do. Notably, it has the highest rate of hate crimes related to ethnicity or race of all the states on our list. But Washington redeems itself by making both in-state tuition and financial aid available to DACA recipients. Making educational opportunities more accessible may also account for Washington’s relatively low poverty rate, which also helps boost this state’s ranking enough to earn it second place.
Total score: 76.36
When it comes to property crime, drug crime, “other” crime and total crime, Oregon consistently has some of the lowest rates compared to other states, which helps it rank high on our list. However, it experiences a relatively high number of hate crimes related to ethnicity or race. Its poverty rate also shows some room for improvement.
Total score: 75.68
Although DACA recipients make up a small portion of Vermont’s population, this state’s low hate crime and drug-related crime rates make it a safe place. Unfortunately, however, neither in-state tuition nor financial aid is offered to DACA recipients, which may make Vermont a poor choice for those who would like to pursue higher education. For those who have already obtained a degree elsewhere, Vermont could represent a quiet place to settle down.
Total score: 73.64
Colorado boasts relatively low hate crime and poverty rates. However, there’s room for improvement regarding its other crime stats. In addition, DACA recipients are only eligible for in-state tuition rates, not for financial aid. Contributing to Colorado’s high ranking on our list is its low poverty rate, which is just 0.1% higher than the lowest rate in New Jersey.
Total score: 66.59
Connecticut has the third-smallest percentage of DACA recipients on our list, with only Vermont and Massachusetts reporting fewer. This state also has low crime rates across the board and offers in-state tuition rates to DACA recipients. However, Connecticut would rank higher if it also offered financial aid to DACA recipients and had a lower poverty rate. Both of these stats indicate that some employment and education barriers still exist for people enrolled in the DACA program, but overall it remains a safe state in terms of crime.
Total score: 65.23
The poverty rate in Massachusetts is one of the lowest on our list. Violent crimes are also comparatively low, but hate crimes related to race or ethnicity do occur at a significant rate. In-state tuition and financial aid are not available to DACA recipients. Perhaps this would be different if more DACA enrollees lived in Massachusetts, but the state reports the second-lowest percentage of DACA recipients on our list.
Total score: 58.86
Of all the states on our list, California has both the highest overall population and the highest percentage of DACA recipients. Unfortunately, California also experiences the most drug crimes and ties Illinois for the highest violent crime index on our list. Hate crimes related to race or ethnicity are relatively infrequent when adjusted in terms of population. On a positive note, DACA recipients can pay in-state tuition and access financial aid at California universities.
9. New Mexico
Total score: 57.5
New Mexico experiences very few hate crimes related to race or ethnicity and has the lowest hate crime score on our list. It also offers in-state tuition and financial aid for DACA recipients. However, compared to the other states on our list, New Mexico has the highest poverty rate by a wide margin, which prevents it from ranking higher.
10. New York
Total score: 55.23
New York has the second-highest overall population on our list and the second-highest poverty rate. Despite offering DACA recipients both in-state tuition and financial aid, New York doesn’t rank very high due to relatively high crime rates across all categories.
Total score: 54.77
Hate crimes in Illinois related to race or ethnicity occur at the second-lowest rate of all the states on our list. However, Illinois ties with California for having the highest overall rate of violent crime, which pulls it down in the rankings. Although DACA recipients can pay in-state tuition in Illinois, they are not eligible for financial aid.
Living in one of these states as a DACA recipient could allow you to access more educational and employment opportunities, while also avoiding racially motivated hate crimes that occur more often in other states. However, it’s important to keep in mind that stats tell only part of the story. The “safest” place for you to live also depends on your social support system, the area’s cost of living and access to the unique opportunities you seek.
It’s also important to know your rights as a DACA recipient. Once granted, your DACA status authorizes you to work in the U.S. and shields you from deportation for two years. To stay safe and avoid being deported, remember to renew your DACA application on time. If the cost of renewal represents a barrier, seek assistance from nonprofit organizations designed to support DACA recipients locally and nationwide.
We gathered crime and population data from the 2018 FBI crime report and used it to rank all 50 states according to each crime category. We used census data to rank the states based on their poverty rates. DACA approval and renewal data was sourced from Governing.com.