Seven GOP Senators have proposed a plan that they claim would fulfill a pledge by President Trump to provide permanent residence (a pathway to citizenship) to 1.8 million young immigrant Dreamers. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) appeared to go further than a mere “pathway” alone, claiming that it would actually provide citizenship itself to 1.8 million. Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) made the same claim, stating that he expects “1.8 million [to] go through naturalization.”
In reality, only an estimated 877,100 people would receive permanent residence under the White House-Senate GOP plan – and only approximately 587,650 should be expected to receive U.S. citizenship. A realistic number of those who may benefit from the White House plan, as embodied in a GOP Senate bill, is important because supporters have used the 1.8 million figure to justify large-scale reductions in the number of legal immigrants entering the country – potentially 22 million fewer legal immigrants over 50 years.
The 1.8 million figure is fiction. Based on the experience of prior documentation efforts and the specifics of this particular proposal, the GOP senators’ Secure and Succeed Act would provide an initial status to about 1.1 million. But of them, only about 877,100 would likely receive permanent residence, sometimes called a “pathway to citizenship,” and only about 587,650 would likely end up receiving citizenship. Table 1 provides the actual enrollment rates and extension rates for DACA compared to estimates for the Secure and Succeed (S&S) Act.
Sources: Authors’ calculations based on Migration Policy Institute (DACA Eligibility); Migration Policy Institute (S&S Eligibility, LPR Rates); Pew Research Center (Naturalization rate); U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (DACA Enrollees; DACA Extensions); S&S Initial Enrollment Rates Based on Congressional Budget Office. *An individual cannot apply for citizenship from DACA.
The S&S Act creates a four-part framework for potentially receiving permanent residence and later citizenship (see Table 2 at the end). First, Dreamers would need to meet a set of basic criteria to receive a conditional residence status valid for up to 7 years. Second, after 7 years, they could apply for an extension under a second set of stricter criteria. Third, at any time after the extension, they could apply to have the “conditions” removed and receive full permanent residence status with a pathway to citizenship under a third set of criteria. Fourth, they could apply for citizenship after another 7 years and more conditions. Each stage is fraught with obstacles for the about 3.3 million unauthorized immigrant Dreamers who entered the United States as minors several years ago.
Why the Secure and Succeed Act Won’t Provide Even Temporary Relief for 1.8 Million People
Under the Secure and Succeed Act’s initial requirements, applicants must have lived in the United States continuously since June 15, 2012—more than five years and eight months ago—and have entered before the age of 16. They need to have been younger than 31 in June 2012—36 years old today—and have graduated high school or be enrolled in college. According to estimates from the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute (MPI), under the legalization portions of the S&S Act,* fewer than 1.6 million people could potentially become conditional permanent residents.
Even fewer will actually apply. DACA applicants had similar requirements when President Obama created the program in June 2012 (see Table 2), but only 60 percent of the eligible population ever signed up. While certainly S&S’s promise of permanent residence could entice some more applicants to apply, the factors that led to the low levels of DACA participation are likely to continue under S&S’s legalization program.
Some people who are included in MPI’s eligible population are not actually eligible, because they have committed certain criminal offenses (because these offenses can’t be modeled in the American Community Survey data MPI employs). This population of “eligible ineligibles” will grow significantly under S&S, because the legislation includes a variety of new criminal and non-criminal bars to a successful application, including the inability to support oneself without government benefits, prior deportations, removal orders, falsely claiming to be a U.S. citizen, false statements to obtain immigration benefits, and state or local offenses arising due to a lack of immigration status. No estimates exist of how many Dreamers fall into one of these categories, but it is potentially quite large.
In addition to the “eligible ineligibles,” some Dreamers believe they are ineligible but are actually eligible. This population could explain a major portion of the DACA enrollment-eligibility gap. The Secure and Succeed Act would likely increase the confusion, with its variety of new requirements on top of those from the original DACA program. DACA required enrollment in school of any kind or a high school degree. S&S would increase those initial requirements to require college enrollment or a high school degree.
S&S would create a new category of quasi-“eligible ineligibles”: those who are initially eligible, but could not meet the secondary requirement to extend status or receive permanent residence. The risk of a denial may keep some from taking the risk to apply. Nearly 8 percent of applicants for DACA were rejected. The S&S Act requires applicants to sign away their rights to an immigration hearing before a judge, meaning an agent could remove them quickly without due process for any infraction. If they dropped out of college or lost their job for more than a year, S&S could quickly end up as a pathway to deportation. This actually imposes a new risk that wasn’t present with the DACA program itself.
Applicants also consider the cost. DACA required an application fee of $495. This forces the recipients to have this amount on hand to pay to enter the program. Many DACA recipients cite the fee as a primary challenge. MPI’s analysis also cites family income as a factor “strongly affecting” Dreamers’ ability to apply. S&S would increase the fee by an unknown amount. But various requirements in the law would imply that the fee would increase as much as 100 percent or more. It requires a medical examination and could require an in-person interview—neither of which DACA required. This could make S&S legalization more like applying for adjustment of status to permanent residence, which costs about $1,225.
Fear of deportation counterintuitively affected DACA applications. The more immigrants in a certain community who feared deportation, the more likely they were to apply for DACA. This makes sense, because enforcement makes legal documents more valuable than they would otherwise be. Communities less affected by enforcement are more likely to fear putting themselves on the government’s radar for the first time than those where the government is already targeting them. For this reason, Asian immigrants signed up at the lowest rates, while Mexican immigrants—the most likely to be deported—signed up at the highest rates.
S&S’s impact on this phenomenon is likely mixed. On the one hand, Asian immigrants are more likely to say that green cards are more important than relief from deportation for unauthorized immigrants, making them more likely to apply. On the other hand, S&S doesn’t immediately provide a green card but rather a seven-year conditional residence status subject to a variety conditions. If this population was concerned about bringing attention to themselves under President Obama, there is little reason to believe that concern would decrease under President Trump, whose administration has demonstrated a willingness to deport even people who regularly checked in with immigration enforcement.
Moreover, many Dreamers expressed concern that their application could be used to target their families. Not only does S&S not address this fear, it amplifies it by providing enforcement resources and new legal authorities to the administration to speed up deportations.
The increased benefits of a potential green card may draw out some new applicants who previously didn’t want to take the risk to apply. But overall, the increased costs, greater risks, heighted eligibility requirements, and more frightening political environment would act to depress application rates. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the last major legalization—the 1986 amnesty—had only a two-thirds participation rate, despite much less stringent requirements than the ones contained in S&S. Ultimately, we chose to use the CBO’s higher rate of 67 percent, rounding it up to 70 percent—10 percentage points higher than DACA’s initial enrollment rate. Based on this analysis, we can conclude that at most 1.1 million Dreamers would receive initial legal status under the Senate GOP proposal.
Why Secure and Succeed Won’t Give a Pathway to Citizenship to 1.8 Million People
The 1.1 million people who are legalized by the Secure and Succeed Act receive (at first) only conditional permanent residence under the bill, not full permanent residence with a right to seek citizenship. For that, S&S recipients would have to reapply for an extension and separately for permanent residency. Under DACA, which had no additional requirements at all to extend status other than maintaining residence in the United States for another two years, just 86 percent of initial enrollees maintained status through the end of the program. Under S&S, applicants for extension and ultimately permanent residency would be required to pay a fee of at least (another) $1,225, have accumulated 7 years of residency, English language literacy, and 62 months of a mix of either employment, military service, or college enrollment.
Only 79 percent of initial enrollees would meet these requirements and move onto the permanent residence phase, according to MPI estimates. That means fewer than 900,000 Dreamers would receive permanent residence – the promised “pathway to citizenship” – under the White House-GOP Senate bill.
Finally, this population will only have the right—after yet another 7 years—to seek citizenship. The actual population that will receive it is much lower. Nearly 90 percent of DACA recipients are from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. According to the Pew Research Center, these nationalities have naturalization rates below 50 percent. Mexicans, which account for 80 percent of all DACA enrollees, have a 42 percent naturalization rate. Given that Dreamers grew up in the United States, however, they are more likely to want citizenship. For this reason, Table 1 above applies the average naturalization rate for all countries of 67 percent. This implies that fewer than 600,000 people would end up receiving citizenship under the White House-Senate GOP proposal.
In the best case scenario, the Senate GOP plan would likely provide a pathway to citizenship to fewer than 900,000 Dreamers—less than half of the president’s promise. Moreover, only an estimated 587,657 would likely naturalize—less than a third of the 1.8 million that some senators have claimed.
If Congress wants to fulfill the president’s promise, it would need to institute a broader legalization program for Dreamers with as few risks and costs, and as little confusion, as possible. Congress would also need to provide legal certainty in some form for their parents to mitigate fear of coming forward. Members of Congress should also stop exaggerating the extent of the legalization of Dreamers as part of a strategy to justify politically questionable policy choices, including imposing large-scale reductions in the annual level of legal immigration and eliminating many current immigration categories.
*Migration Policy Institute evaluated the Succeed Act, which contains the same basic criteria for legalization as the Secure and Succeed Act.