E.g., 10/30/2014
E.g., 10/30/2014

Executive Action for Unauthorized Immigrants: Estimates of the Populations that Could Receive Relief

Policy Briefs
September 2014

Executive Action for Unauthorized Immigrants: Estimates of the Populations that Could Receive Relief

In the absence of legislative movement to reform the U.S. immigration system, the Obama administration is considering executive action to provide relief from deportation to some of the nation's estimated 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants. These actions could include an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, extension of deferred action to new populations, or further refinement of enforcement priorities to shrink the pool of those subject to deportation. 

Using an innovative methodology to analyze the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data to determine unauthorized status, this issue brief examines scenarios for executive action publicly advanced by members of Congress  immigrant-rights advocates, and others, providing estimates for DACA expansion or potential populations (such as spouses and parents of U.S. citizens) that might gain deferred action. Among the possible criteria for deferred action that MPI modeled are length of U.S. residence; close family ties to U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, or DACA beneficiaries; and/or potential eligibility for a green card as the immediate relative of a U.S. citizen.

The brief's key findings include:

  • Modifications to current DACA criteria could expand the eligible population by a few tens of thousands or as many as 1.9 million. For example, eliminating the current education requirement while retaining all other criteria would expand the population by about 430,000.
  • Looking beyond the DACA-eligible population, 3 million unauthorized immigrants had lived in the United States for 15 or more years as of 2012, 5.7 million for at least ten years, and 8.5 million for at least five years.
  • An estimated 3.8 million unauthorized immigrants were parents or spouses of U.S. citizens as of 2012.
  • 1.3 million unauthorized immigrants in 2012 had immediate-relative relationships with U.S. citizens that potentially qualify them for green cards, including 770,000 because of their marriage and 560,000 because they were parents of a U.S. citizen.

Beyond deferred action, the Obama administration is said to be considering refinement of immigration enforcement priorities to limit the deportation of certain groups of unauthorized immigrants if they are apprehended by federal immigration authorities. While it is not possible to model future apprehensions and thus predict who might be affected by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) enforcement priorities, MPI analyzed 11 years of ICE removals data (for fiscal years 2003-13) to determine how changes to current enforcement priorities could have affected past deportations, assuming removals were strictly limited to priority cases. Among the findings:

  • Narrowing the definition of “recent illegal entrants” to those apprehended within one year of entering the U.S. (currently the definition is three years) would have reduced removals by 232,000 during 2003-13.
  • Excluding noncitizens convicted exclusively of traffic offenses (other than DUI) would have resulted in 206,000 fewer removals over the period.
  • Excluding all non-violent crimes would have reduced removals by 433,000.
  • Foregoing deportation of those with outstanding deportation orders more than a decade old would have resulted in 203,000 fewer removals.

The brief makes clear that the reach of potential changes to expand the DACA program or refine immigration enforcement priorities would be even greater if multiple changes were to be implemented at the same time.

Table of Contents 

I. Introduction

II. Expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program

III. Creating New Deferred Action Programs

A. Length of U.S. Residence

B. Close Family Ties

C. Potential Eligibility for an Immigrant Visa as the Immediate Relative of a U.S. Citizen

IV. Refining Enforcement Priorities that Guide Deportations

V. Conclusion