DACA, the “Dream Act” and Its Latest Iteration, “Recognizing America’s Children Act”

There are many disparate opinions about what the U.S. should do about undocumented immigrants, but the group that elicits the most compassion seems to be those who were brought to the U.S. as children. Most Americans sympathize with the plight of children who have lived much of their life in the U.S., and in many cases, do not even remember living anywhere else or even speak anything other than English. Some of them do not even realize that they are not U.S. citizens until their friends start applying for learner’s permits and they find themselves unable to obtain a driver’s license or a part time job during high school.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a policy implemented by President Obama that allows many undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children before their 16th birthday (and before June 2007) to obtain a work permit and protection against deportation (removal). The Pew Research Center estimated that up to 1.7 million people might be eligible for DACA and as of June 2016, over 740,000 DACA applications had been approved.

DACA was always a temporary fix to a long-term problem. For years prior to DACA and since DACA, there have been legislative proposals that can generally be referred to as the “Dream Act.” The First Dream Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) was introduced in 2001 and has been reintroduced numerous times but has never been passed. If passed, this would be a permanent solution for these young people by granting conditional residency followed by permanent residency if they meet the requirements of the law.

The most recently proposed “Dream Act” is the “Recognizing America’s Children Act” (RAC), which was introduced in 2016 without final action by our Congress. U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo (FL-26), along with Rep. Mike Coffman (CO-06), have recently reintroduced this act. According to Rep. Coffman: “It’s so important to recognize that young people who were brought here as children, who grew up here, went to school here, and who often know of no other country, be allowed to legally remain in the United States. Let’s give them a chance to achieve the American Dream through work, education or military service, and to help us together build a stronger America.”

The RAC would grant conditional residence for five years to those who have been continuously physically present in the U.S. since Jan 1, 2012 and who entered when they were younger than 16. After 5 years, they may qualify for permanent resident status and 5 years later they may apply for U.S. citizenship. The bill provides three pathways toward legalization: higher education, service in the armed forces, or employment.

While the humanitarian aspects of this issue are compelling on their own, what is often overlooked in the debate is the economic costs if DACA were eliminated and the economic benefit of enacting a permanent solution such as the RAC. Many Americans believe that the presence of unauthorized immigrants is a financial burden that is harmful to the economy but the economic research indicates the opposite.

The Cato Institute issued a report on January 19, 2017, The Economic and Fiscal Impact of Repealing DACA, which was a scholarly and well researched report. This report concludes that the “fiscal cost of immediately deporting the approximately 750,00 people currently in the DACA program would be over $60 billion to the federal government along with a $280 billion reduction in economic growth over the next decade. The Cato institute report refers to a 2016 study in the Journal of Public Economics, which outlines the benefits of moving immigrants into employment from either outside the formal labor force or unemployment. By working and earning a higher income in the formal sector the “DACA workers’ pay more taxes, both through payroll, income, and sales because of greater consumption associated with higher income.” Having the ability to earn higher levels of education adds even more to the positive fiscal effect. The loss of the positive fiscal effect of DACA is even more significant when you consider that the cost to the government to deport these young people would be $7.5 billion.

The economic benefits of the approximately 750,000 people in the DACA program is much smaller than the benefits which would accrue to the American economy if the “Dream Act” or the RAC were enacted. A study conducted by the Center for American Progress in 2012 estimated that granting legal status to 2.1 million young people and incentivizing higher education would create an aggregate 19% increase in earnings by 2030, totaling $148 billion. These earning would in turn trigger spending on goods and services that would create $181 billion in induced economic impact, 1.4 million new jobs and $10 billion in increased revenue providing a total economic impact of $329 billion for 2.1 million DREAMERS.

Creating a legal pathway for the young dreamers is clearly an issue in which our humanitarian concerns can be justified by the significant positive economic impact to the U.S.

Linda M Kaplan