Huge Fiscal Benefits of Including Legal Immigrant Dreamers in the DREAM Act

While Congress is rightly concerned about providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrant Dreamers without legal status, thousands of legal immigrants who are in the same position are being left behind. This decision to exclude legal immigrant Dreamers is not just inequitable. It is costly.

H-1B high-skilled foreign workers can bring their spouses and minor children with them to the United States on H-4 visas. The H-4 is a temporary visa that is valid for as long as the H-1B is. Once the child turns 21, however, the H-4 is canceled. Most employers also sponsor their H-1B employees for permanent residency (a “green card”), and their minor children can receive green cards with them. But again, if their children turn 21 while they are waiting, the law boots them from the line.

In a functioning immigration system, these situations would happen rarely, if ever. But because Congress has failed to update the limits on permanent residency since 1990 and because it discriminates against immigrants from populous countries, H-1B workers from India have to wait at least several decades for green cards. During this time, their children grow up as Americans, but then “age out,” losing both their H-4 status and their place in the green card line on their 21st birthday.

These kids are in almost the exact same position as those in the DACA program right now. Their parents brought them to the United States as young children; they grew up here; they have a temporary status now, but they will lose it if Congress fails to change the law. Yet the DREAM Act and other legislative solutions for immigrant Dreamers expressly and inexplicably exclude these legal immigrants. It is not hyperbole to say that the DREAM Act requires applicants to violate the law to qualify.

Why? Legal immigrant Dreamers would certainly qualify under the bill’s other requirements. Virtually all graduate U.S. high schools and enroll in U.S. colleges, and virtually none have criminal records that would disqualify them. Children of H-1Bs are some of the highest achieving children in American society today. In fact, 75 percent of the 2016 finalists for the Intel Science Talent Search—the leading science competition for U.S. high schoolers—had parents who were at one time on an H-1B visa.

This talent is a gigantic economic asset to the United States. According to the National Academy of Science’s 2016 report (NAS) on the fiscal effects of immigration, immigrants who enter as children and who have at least one college graduate parent—as all H-1B workers do—create a massive fiscal surplus. The NAS estimates that each H-4 child would have a 75-year net fiscal present value of between $143,000 and $316,000 to all levels of the U.S. government—federal, state, and local. Averaging NAS’s estimates from Table 8-14 for kids with college grad parents or parents with advanced degrees yields an estimated $252,000 net present value for each legal immigrant Dreamer.

Net present value estimates apply a discount rate to future costs and benefits on the (correct) theory that money today is more valuable than the same amount of money received three decades from now. One way to understand the net present value concept is to envision each one of these kids cutting a check to the government for $252,000 when they arrive in the country that would then be invested at 3 percent per year for the next 75 years.

The DREAM Act is already a big fiscal boost to the United States, but including the legal immigrant Dreamers would increase its fiscal benefits. The government doesn’t produce estimates of the number of children with H-4 status or how many are waiting in the backlog for green cards who could potentially qualify. However, DHS did estimate that 125,000 spouses of H-1Bs on H-4 visas had resided in the United States for at least 6 years as of 2015. Conservatively estimating that each married couple brought an average of one child with them, that’s a population of 125,000 kids. $252,000 multiplied by 125,000 kids is $31.4 billion in net fiscal benefits.

This number is likely low because it only counts H-4s. There are some, albeit fewer, legal immigrant Dreamers on the whole range of alphabet soup visas (E, O, J, L, P, etc.). All of these kids are children of skilled professionals in the United States, so their impacts are probably similar. The country likely will receive some of these benefits whether legal immigrants are included in the DREAM Act or not, as some kids will find a way to stay on their own, but to fully realize all of them, Congress needs to provide them with permanent residency.

The United States gains nothing from kicking legal immigrant Dreamers out or forcing them to maneuver America’s impossible immigration system to find other temporary statuses to stay in the country that is their home. And here’s the thing: the sponsors of the DREAM Act or any other proposal don’t need to add legal immigrant Dreamers or do anything special for them. They just need to not exclude them or go out of their way to treat them worse than other immigrants, as they have right now. All they need to do is strike the requirement that DREAM Act applicants break the law. Few changes so simple could benefit the United States so much.