A Narrower Path in the House for Most DREAMers
Although public and political attention has been captivated for days by the family-separation crisis unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border, the House on Thursday is expected to vote on two Republican immigration proposals initially billed as addressing the future of DREAMers, young unauthorized immigrants brought to country as children.
In exchange for some protections for DREAMers, the bills include demands sought by the White House: further border security increases, sharp limits on asylum, and sizeable cuts to legal immigration. They would also change the treatment of families at the border, in response to outcry against the separation of parents and children unfolding as the result of the Trump administration’s new zero-tolerance policy for illegal crossers at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Both House measures would benefit fewer DREAMers than even the least-generous of the three bills taken up by the Senate in February. As this commentary will explain, one House proposal would grant temporary status to at most 590,000 DREAMers, and the other to 1.25 million, with the vast majority of the second group likely to be eligible to gain legal permanent residence, colloquially known as getting a green card, under a new points system. In comparison, under the most restrictive of the Senate bills, 1.6 million would have been eligible for conditional legal status, with 1.3 million of these eligible to progress to legal permanent residence.
The Migration Policy Institute has previously estimated that there are 3.6 million unauthorized immigrants who entered the United States before the age of 18—1.3 million of whom met all requirements as of 2017 to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Created by the Obama administration in 2012 as a means to offer temporary relief from deportation and work authorization to young unauthorized immigrants who meet educational and other requirements, the program was terminated by the Trump administration in 2017. Though the action was partially stayed by court injunctions, the uncertain fate of DACA recipients and the broader DREAMer cohort more generally has placed pressure on Congress to act to resolve their status.
Securing America’s Future Act
The first House bill, the Securing America’s Future (SAF) Act, as introduced by Representative Goodlatte (R-VA) in January 2018, would essentially enshrine DACA protections into law for the existing 694,000 recipients. The bill would allow current DACA beneficiaries to apply for a three-year period of work authorization and relief from deportation, which could be renewed indefinitely. It would not open a path to permanent legal status or citizenship.
Moreover, some existing DACA holders would not be eligible for protections under the SAF Act. Those who are 18 or older and not enrolled in school would have to maintain an income of at least 125 percent of the federal poverty level to qualify. (Currently, for a single person, this works out to an annual income of $15,175.)
Subtracting the roughly 15 percent of DACA holders who could be ineligible due to the income restriction provision, we estimate that approximately 590,000 DACA recipients could apply to continue their protections under Goodlatte. Further, anyone with a prior removal order—likely a small share of the DACA population—would be ineligible, as would a small share with past criminal convictions. Government statistics suggest that about 8 percent of unauthorized immigrants approved for DACA since 2012 had at least one arrest, but a significant share may have been for minor offenses which would not disqualify them under the SAF Act. Further, we do not know how many of those arrests resulted in convictions.
Border Security and Immigration Reform Act
A second bill, described as a compromise measure negotiated by Republicans in the hardline Freedom Caucus and more moderate members, would open a path to permanent residence and eventually citizenship for DREAMers who meet the criteria for DACA—including those who never applied or were too young.
The Border Security and Immigration Reform Act would let eligible DREAMers first apply for a contingent temporary status that would last six years and could be renewed indefinitely. Like the SAF Act, it would exclude immigrants who were previously ordered removed, have certain past criminal convictions, and cannot show that they would maintain an income at or above 125 percent of the federal poverty level during the six-year period. MPI estimates that 1.25 million DREAMers would be eligible to apply for temporary status under this bill. This estimate models the maximum number who could potentially apply, not those who actually would.
A New Category: “Legal DREAMers”
The compromise bill would also open a path to lawful status for “legal DREAMers”—those already on temporary visas who could become unauthorized when they turn 21 because they can no longer be considered dependents on their parents’ visa applications. Specifically, any child of an E-1, E-2, H-1B, or L worker who arrived before age 16, has been in the country for ten years, and is currently on a nonimmigrant visa, could apply.
We estimate that roughly 30,000 to 75,000 legal DREAMers (also known as DALCA members) could gain a new lawful status under the compromise. On the low end, this estimate is based on what we know about the share of new nonimmigrant visas going to children of E-1, E-2, H-1B, or L workers, and applying that share to a 2015 government estimate of the total nonimmigrant population in the United States, assuming that not all have been in the country the required ten years. The high end is an estimate of how many children are waiting in relevant employment-based green card backlogs.
Points System for DREAMers—Legal and Unauthorized
To transition from temporary status to legal permanent residence, DREAMers—both legally present and unauthorized—would have to accrue at least 12 points through a newly created points system, based on their educational attainment, years of employment, English skills, and military service.
Most young immigrants who qualify for conditional nonimmigrant status would earn six points for obtaining a high school degree or equivalent. Others would earn more for higher education—for example, ten points for an associate degree or 15 points for a bachelor’s degree. Those working in a job requiring a high school diploma would earn two points for each two-year work period, while those employed in a job requiring an associate’s degree would earn 3.33 points for each two-year period. Further, a standardized English test score in the sixth decile would earn six points, and those serving in the military for three years would gain 30 points.
Given the benefits of having a green card and the strong English proficiency of young immigrants who grew up in the United States, most DREAMers would likely qualify under this system. Considering current graduation and military enrollment rates, we estimate that 1.15 million unauthorized DREAMers could receive a green card through this proposal. We further assume that all 30,000 to 75,000 legal DREAMers, coming from highly-educated families, could receive a green card.
The green cards would be awarded over time, prioritizing applicants with the most points, with 470,400 visas becoming available in 2025, and 78,400 each year after that until no qualifying DREAMers are awaiting green cards. Given our estimate of 1.18 million to 1.22 million total eligible DREAMers, it would take until roughly 2035 before all would earn their green cards. (The visas are contingent on the allocation of $23.4 billion for border security, including $16.6 billion for the wall, and would become unavailable if this funding was reallocated or rescinded.)
Immigrants Potentially Eligible for Temporary Protection or Permanent Resident Status under House Republican Bills
Note: The Securing America’s Future Act does not address the status of ‘legal DREAMers.’
Sources: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) calculations using U.S. Census Bureau data from the 2014 American Community Survey (ACS), 2010-14 ACS pooled, and the 2008 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), with legal status assignments by James Bachmeier and Colin Hammar of Temple University and Jennifer Van Hook of The Pennsylvania State University, Population Research Institute; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), “Approximate Active DACA Recipients: As of March 31, 2018,” available here; U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics, “Nonimmigrants Residing in the United States: Fiscal Year 2015,” available here; USCIS, “Form I-140, Immigration Petition for Alien Worker, Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant - Employment Based Form I-526, Immigrant Petition by Alien Entrepreneur Count of Approved Petitions as of April 20, 2018 with Priority Date On or After May 2018 Department of State Visa Bulletin,” available here.
Further Pressure to Act
Though DACA is being kept on life support by the courts, further rulings this summer could put a sudden end to the program. Despite that ticking clock, the major demands for concessions by the White House and its congressional allies in exchange for a DACA fix make the prospects for the Goodlatte and compromise bills uncertain. And with all eyes now firmly on the family-separation crisis and policies there that have been widely condemned nationally and internationally, the always volatile immigration debate has taken on new complexity.