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New MPI Report Offers Estimates of DREAMers, Essential Workers and Other Unauthorized Immigrant Groups that Could Be Subject of Legalization Debate

Press Release
Thursday, February 4, 2021

New MPI Report Offers Estimates of DREAMers, Essential Workers and Other Unauthorized Immigrant Groups that Could Be Subject of Legalization Debate

WASHINGTON — The legalization debate is back on the table, with President Joe Biden pledging on his first day in office to send Congress a measure to legalize the nation’s estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants. Given the political difficulties inherent in achieving a broad legalization—witness the failures of comprehensive immigration reform bills in 2006, 2007 and 2013—potential sponsors in Congress have said they will tackle the challenge in piecemeal fashion.

A new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report offers numbers and characteristics of unauthorized immigrant subgroups that have particularly strong equities and have been raised as possible candidates for narrower legalizations, including Dreamers, essential workers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients and parents and spouses of U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The report also traces past legalizations and details the range and scope of legalization options that policymakers have, ranging from placing people on a pathway to citizenship, to limited and renewable legal status, or legal protections provided via executive action.

Drawing upon MPI’s unique methodology that allows the assignment of legal status in U.S. Census Bureau data, the report offers estimates for the following subgroups:

  • Recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and DREAMers more broadly. MPI estimates up to 1.7 million individuals are potentially eligible for DACA. A legalization program for Dreamers—unauthorized immigrants brought to the United States as children—could be open to up to 2.9 million individuals, depending on how eligibility requirements are drawn.
  • TPS recipients. Approximately 320,000 people had TPS as of September, 80 percent of them holding the status for at least ten years.
  • Essential workers. Between 1.1 million and 5.6 million unauthorized immigrants could be considered “essential” workers, depending on how essential occupations are defined.
  • Farmworkers. Close to half of the estimated 2.4 million agricultural workers not on temporary visas were unauthorized immigrants, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • Family- and employer-sponsored immigrants. MPI estimates 1.4 million unauthorized immigrants have a U.S.-citizen or permanent resident spouse, and at least 1.7 million others are most likely to have employer sponsors and, if so, would be able to get a green card but for impediments imposed by Congress in 1996.
  • Parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Some 3.4 million unauthorized immigrants live with U.S.- citizen or permanent resident children and have been in the country for at least five years.

It is not possible to estimate what share of the overall unauthorized population these subgroups comprise, given the fact there is overlap between them: for example a DACA recipient could be an essential worker and have a U.S.-citizen spouse. Overall, MPI estimates that 60 percent of the entire unauthorized population has lived in the United States for a decade or more, becoming deeply embedded in its workforce, economy and communities.

“Addressing the status of the unauthorized population in some fashion remains foundational to establishing a workable U.S. immigration system in the coming years,” the authors write. “While legalization can be broad or limited, both in terms of the populations it covers and the scope of relief it offers, providing permanent legal protections to these populations serves not only their interests but national interests as well.”

Read the report, Back on the Table: U.S. Legalization and the Unauthorized Immigrant Groups that Could Factor in the Debate, here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/us-legalization-unauthorized-immigrant-groups.

The report is part of the multi-year Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy Initiative, launched in 2019. The initiative is generating a big-picture, evidence-driven vision for the role immigration can and should play in America’s future. Reports focusing on the changing border enforcement picture, unprecedented use of the attorney general’s referral and review powers, the crisis in the U.S. asylum system, and the need for a regional migration cooperation strategy have been published; other topics will be covered in the coming months.

See all of the work published to date by the Rethinking Immigration Initiative here: www.migrationpolicy.org/rethinking. And to keep up with the latest developments in the Rethinking initiative, sign up for updates here.

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