Obama’s Tepid and Temporary Immigration “Reform”

Post by Alex Nowrasteh (occasional blogger for the site, joined April 2012; pieces published are by default republished from other sources with permission). See:

FINANCIAL INTEREST DISCLOSURE: Nowrasteh has a paid job as immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute (since April 15, 2012), and formerly had a similar role at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

The post was originally published at the Huffington Post blog here and is reproduced with permission from the author.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) just released a memo outlining a temporary relaxation in prosecutorial discretion to allow unauthorized immigrants who came here when they were under the age of 16, to get a temporary two year (possibly renewable) work visa. This proposal is a truncated version of Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) recent proposal and another older law called the DREAM Act. This temporary version of the DREAM Act offers a glimpse of the benefits of the real one.

Under the proposal, unauthorized immigrants who came to the United States when they were younger than 16, have lived here for 5 years, are in school or have graduated from high-school or are honorably discharged from U.S. Armed Forces, who are not criminals, and who are currently under younger than 30 can stay and receive a two year temporary work permit that can be renewed. That’s it.

The government already has legal authority to grant something called “deferred action” to unauthorized immigrants. That basically means the government will choose not deport them and instead focus on criminals or other deportation priorities. Those immigrants are then allowed, under current law, to get a temporary work permit if they show “an economic necessity for employment.”

Most unauthorized immigrants who could be legalized by Obama’s memo would meet the “economic necessity” qualifications for a temporary work permit.

Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) has already said he will sue the Obama administration to stop this memo from going into effect but his success is uncertain. Rubio rightly called the measure “a short-term answer to a long-term problem” but continues by saying that it “will make it harder to find a balanced and responsible long-term [solution].”

Since taking office, Obama’s DHS has deported over 1.2 million people in a frenzy of government immigration enforcement not seen since the 1950s. Last year his administration promised to use prosecutorial discretion to stop prosecuting those who had strong American family ties and no criminal records. Since that policy went into effect in November 2011, DHS officials have reviewed more than 411,000 cases but closed less than 2 percent of them.

Immigration enforcement officers referred to that administrative order as “a joke” which barely impacted government policy toward deportations. This year’s change could be very different.

If applied as broadly as the DREAM Act, somewhere between 800,000 and 2.1 million unauthorized immigrants could gain a temporary work permit through the administration’s actions.

Only a fraction of the economic benefits of the proposed DREAM Act will be reaped by the memo’s policy change. Political scientist Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda estimated that an amnesty similar to 1986 would yield at least an added $1.5 trillion to GDP over a single decade. If the maximum of 2.1 million eligible unauthorized immigrants are legalized under the Dream Act, we would gain at least $250 billion in additional production over the next decade by a rough estimate.

A temporary two years deferment with uncertain renewals will yield benefits that are miniscule compared to what they would be under legalization.

This temporary reprieve should also have a very minimal impact on the welfare state and other government services because they are limited to those with work permits. But even if they were granted permanent resident status tomorrow, it would still be five years before they were eligible for any kind of major government assistance. In any case, immigrants use less welfare and government assistance than Americans with similar incomes.

Our government’s restrictive immigration policies fly in the face of economic reality. Most immigrants who want to come to the U.S. are denied by our immigration regulations. But just because our law doesn’t adapt to supply and demand doesn’t mean people remain idle when confronted with poverty in their home countries. A predictable outcome of immigration restrictions is that immigrants will come without authorization and Americans will want to work with them, employ them, and sell to them.

The sad situation that so many unauthorized children face, being born in another country but raised American, can only be permanently resolved with immigration reform that vastly diminishes the government’s role in regulating, limiting, and controlling immigration.

Unauthorized immigrants brought here as young children are attached to this country and our society. Many of them don’t even remember the land they were born in. It’s about time the government gets out of the way, even if it’s temporarily, and allows industrious, peaceful, and otherwise law-abiding unauthorized immigrants to not fear deportation. The next step should be real immigration reform.

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