DHS initiative for young unauthorized immigrants is cost-effective and benefits American workers

Next week, about 1.2 million young people who reside in the United States without proper authorization—but who were brought here by their parents when they were children—will be eligible to apply to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for a discretionary grant of relief from removal (also known as deportation). This relief will be valid for two years and renewable in two-year increments. If granted, beneficiaries would also be eligible for an Employment Authorization Document, which would allow them to work legally in the United States with full labor and employment rights. This will clearly benefit the American workforce, and it’s unlikely to cost a dime of taxpayer money.

On Tuesday, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) hosted a forum to discuss how DHS’s new process—known officially as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative—will function in practice. The keynote speaker was Alejandro Mayorkas, Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which is the DHS agency that will process and adjudicate DACA applications. Mayorkas outlined the programmatic aspects of the initiative and its requirements, and four immigration experts offered their thoughts in response. It was a valuable discussion that shed some much-needed light on DACA.

We know from multiple reports that many of those who will seek this type of relief from removal are some of the best and brightest students—and future workers—our country has to offer. They arrived in the United States through no fault of their own, and it would be unjust to send them to a country they barely know or do not remember, and where many would not even know the language. They deserve to stay here and to become Americans, and to be allowed to contribute to our labor market. But despite bipartisan support and a decade’s worth of bipartisan proposals in Congress, gridlock and obstructionism have blocked a solution that would grant them a permanent status. That’s one of the reasons why President Obama announced on June 15 that his administration would use its discretionary administrative authority to refrain from removing young unauthorized immigrants who are not criminals and pose no threat to national security.

However, it is clear that USCIS has quite a task on its hands.

First and foremost, there could be a high volume of applications received in a short period of time. MPI just released updated estimates that 1.26 million people would potentially be eligible to apply for DACA relief on Aug. 15, with an additional half-million becoming eligible in the coming years after they reach the age of 15 (the minimum required age to apply). That’s a potential total of 1.76 million applications to review, background checks to complete, and adjudications to determine. And only two months for USCIS to engineer a method to do it.

In addition, it won’t be cheap. According to the Associated Press, DHS “internal documents” suggest the DACA initiative could cost the government up to $585 million, and may require 1,400 full-time employees and contractors to do the work. This certainly is a lot of money, but most of the costs will be offset by a required $465 fee for each application. (If every potential applicant applied, the fees would total more than $800 million, more than offsetting the estimated cost. But for several reasons, not everyone eligible will apply, and fee exemptions will be granted for a limited number of applicants who suffer extreme hardship.) Mayorkas confirmed on Tuesday that additional staff will indeed be hired with these funds, which will come as a relief to those who are worried about overworked USCIS staff and longer wait times for green card and asylum processing and other USCIS services.

Hopefully, the NGO community and the private sector will also help out by stepping up their efforts to assist USCIS in implementing DACA. The need to educate and inform the public will be acute, and the government cannot reasonably be expected to do it on its own.  More importantly, many of the 1.76 million aspiring Americans who will have the right to apply—but cannot afford a lawyer—are likely to need detailed guidance and support from advocacy organizations and pro-bono immigration attorneys if they are to successfully navigate the entire process.

But the extraordinary effort required will be well worth it. Here’s why.

The potential beneficiaries of this initiative are already well-integrated into American society. MPI’s data confirm this statistically: Most of the DACA-eligible population is currently employed, and the vast majority of all young unauthorized immigrants who are eligible or will become eligible have already graduated from high school or college or are currently enrolled in grade school or university.

Thus, unauthorized young people are already contributing to our economy and getting an American education so that they can maximize their economic potential and contribution to the country. They are Americans in all respects except for having a passport or driver’s license. Having work authorization will allow them to bargain for fair wages and working conditions without fear that an employer will threaten deportation or report them to immigration authorities. This in turn will ensure they are not forced to earn less than full market value for the level of skills and education they’ve attained. Without these protections, their employment could put downward pressure on American wages and working conditions. That’s why all Americans, and especially American workers, should support this initiative.