A Path to Citizenship for 1.8 Million DREAMERs? Despite Talk, No Proposal Would Do So
The 1.8 million figure keeps surfacing in the debate over the status of DREAMers, with both the White House and key Senate negotiators saying legislative proposals would extend legalization to this number of unauthorized immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. However, the Migration Policy Institute’s modeling of measures that were considered this week in the Senate, including one endorsed by the White House, shows each option would fall short of placing 1.8 million people on a pathway to citizenship. While the three proposals voted on by the Senate on February 15 failed to gain sufficient support to advance, negotiations undoubtedly will resume at some point considering the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program is being phased out, leaving the status of hundreds of thousands of DREAMers in the balance.
Based on a unique MPI methodology that permits analysis and modeling of characteristics of the unauthorized population in U.S. Census Bureau data, we find that none of four options that were before the Senate in mid-February would allow 1.8 million people to eventually earn citizenship. The most restrictive of the options, the Secure and Succeed Act advanced by Senator Charles Grassley and supported by the White House, would have offered legal permanent residence to at most 1.25 million unauthorized individuals. Even if every eligible DREAMer sought and received legal permanent residence (also known as getting a green card), significantly fewer of them would apply for or receive U.S. citizenship.
Two bipartisan proposals, the Immigration Security and Opportunity Act (offered by Senators Mike Rounds, Angus King, and Susan Collins and others) and an unnamed proposal advanced by Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, included more generous provisions that would have made 1.55 million and 1.65 million individuals eligible for legal permanent residence, respectively. (For an analysis of the measures' key criteria, including the Gardner-Bennet one which was not voted on, click on the spreadsheet at right.)
We estimate that the McCain-Coons proposal, the USA Act of 2018, would have been the most generous of the options before the Senate—with potentially as many as 1.73 million individuals meeting the requirements for legal permanent residence. (For MPI's estimates of other legalization bills introduced last year in the House and Senate, including the DREAM Act of 2017, click here.)
The infographic at right models three populations under the legislation offered so far this year in the Senate: (1) the group meeting the minimum age at arrival and years of U.S. residence (in other words the maximum universe that could benefit under each proposal, without taking into account whether they could meet all necessary criteria); (2) the subset that could gain conditional legal residence after achieving educational and other requirements; and (3) the number of conditional status recipients who would be expected to earn their way to legal permanent residence by fulfilling additional educational, military service, or professional requirements, and thus have the option of potentially applying for citizenship some years later.
These estimates represent the maximum numbers potentially eligible at each stage; in reality far fewer would ultimately apply for and receive these benefits and progress on to citizenship. As the DACA experience has shown, significant numbers of those who meet all eligibility requirements do not apply. (MPI estimates 60 percent of the 1.3 million people who met all the criteria to apply for DACA ultimately received the temporary protection from deportation and work authorization it conferred.) Among the reasons: Inability to afford the filing fee, fear of negative repercussions for family members in the household ineligible to gain legal status, a disqualifying criminal conviction, or lack of knowledge about the program. Some individuals earning conditional legal status would fall out of eligibility, whether because of receipt of public benefits (a restriction under both the Secure and Succeed Act and the Gardner-Bennet proposal); criminal records; inability to pay for adjustment to permanent residence; or other reasons. Finally, a not insignificant share of green-card holders would not apply for citizenship, whether because of choice, lack of funds, or ineligibility.
The imprecise use of estimates has also surfaced in another aspect of the immigration debate: Over how many relatives each legalizing DREAMer would be expected to eventually sponsor. The White House and its allies have suggested that 9 million immigrants would come in via this “chain migration.” The size of the family-based immigration would, in reality, be a fraction of that estimate, in part because DREAMers by their very definition would be far less likely than other immigrant groups to have children, spouses, or parents in need of sponsorship. MPI estimates that DREAMers would sponsor at most one relative on average over their lifetime—a figure that does not take into account the sponsorship limitations present in both the Secure and Succeed Act and the Immigration Security and Opportunity Act.
The current debate posits the need for major cuts to legal immigration and termination of the Diversity Visa program as balance for placing DREAMers on a path to legal permanent residence and ultimately citizenship. As a result, it is important to understand the real effects of legislative proposals that would extend legalization to this group.
This commentary was published with invaluable assistance from Ariel G. Ruiz Soto and Jessica Bolter.