4569096825_3b413278b7_b (1)As the Obama administration continues its deliberations over what sorts of executive actions the President might take to begin repairing the broken U.S. immigration system, it would be wise to keep in mind just how much a part of U.S. society the unauthorized immigrant population has become. At this point, most unauthorized immigrants belong to U.S. families and communities. They cannot simply be extricated from the social fabric of the country without inflicting needless pain and suffering on millions of U.S. citizens and legal immigrants in the process—not to mention the economic damage that a deportation-only solution would entail. In other words, these are people deserving of relief from the ever-present danger of deportation which hangs over their heads. Two new reports examine in depth who these people are and how administrative actions would impact them. A report from the Pew Hispanic Center looks at the demographic characteristics of the unauthorized immigrant population, while a report from the Migration Policy Institute estimates how many unauthorized immigrants would benefit from different administrative actions.

The title of Pew’s report, As Growth Stalls, Unauthorized Immigrant Population Becomes More Settled, highlights the degree to which unauthorized immigrants have become long-time residents of the United States. According to the report, half of all adult unauthorized immigrants had been in the country for at least 13 years as of 2013. Moreover, whereas only 35 percent of unauthorized immigrant adults had lived in the country as of 2000, that share had risen to 62 percent in 2012. The report also looks specifically at those adult unauthorized immigrants who have no way to legalize their status and finds that they too have been here for a long time. Among the 9.6 million unauthorized immigrant adults with no formal protection from deportation, 16 percent had lived here for less than five years, 60 percent for at least 10 years, and 20 percent for 20 years or more. Unauthorized immigrant parents with U.S.-born children have also been here for a long time. As of 2012, half of these parents had lived in the U.S. for at least 15 years.

The MPI report goes one step beyond Pew and estimates how many unauthorized immigrants would become eligible for relief from deportation under various scenarios for administrative action. The report, Executive Action for Unauthorized Immigrants: Estimates of the Populations that Could Receive Relief, begins by looking at options for expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has thus far granted temporary relief from deportation, plus eligibility for work authorization, to roughly 587,000 unauthorized immigrants who came to this country as children. It then goes on to examine how many unauthorized immigrants would be covered under new “deferred action” programs, and how many would have benefited over the past decade if immigration-enforcement priorities had been different.

Expansion of DACA:

  • Eliminating the requirement for a high-school diploma or current enrollment in school would add about 430,000 to the eligible population.
  • Extending eligibility to those who arrived in the United States before age 18 (instead of the current age limit of 16) would increase the eligible population by about 180,000.
  • Changing the residency cut-off year to 2009 (vs. 2007) would increase the eligible population by about 50,000.

New deferred action programs:

  • Residency cut-off dates would be crucial in determining how many unauthorized immigrants would be eligible for relief given that, as of 2012, three million had lived in the United States for 15 years, 5.7 million for at least 10 years, and 8.5 million for at least five years.
  • Close family ties could serve as a powerful basis for relief since, in 2012, roughly 3.5 million unauthorized immigrants were the parents of U.S. citizens under the of age 18—and 2.4 million of them had lived in the United States for at least a decade. If the parents of children who are green-card holders or DACA recipients are added to the mix, the total number of eligible immigrants rises to 3.7 million.
  • Offering relief to the spouses of U.S. citizens would encompass about 770,000 unauthorized immigrants. Adding in the spouses of green-card holders and DACA recipients would increase this number to 1.5 million.
  • Finally, about 1.3 million unauthorized immigrants were potentially eligible for legal status because they are spouses of U.S. citizens or parents of adult U.S.-citizen children, but many can’t leave the country to apply for a visa without facing bars to re-entry of many years.

Changes to immigration-enforcement priorities:

  • Narrowing the definition of “recent illegal entrants” to those apprehended within one year of entering the county (down from three years) would have reduced removals by 232,000 during the 2003-2013 period.
  • Excluding noncitizens convicted only of traffic offenses (other than DUI) would have reduced removals by 206,000 over this period. Excluding all non-violent crimes would have reduced removals by 433,000.
  • Opting not to deport those with outstanding deportation orders that are more than a decade old would have resulted in 203,000 fewer removals.

As the Pew and MPI reports make clear, the United States is home to millions of people who have lived and raised families here for many years, but who have no means of earning legal status. Deportation would be so destructive at this point—for the immigrants themselves, their U.S. families, and their communities—that it would serve no constructive purpose. Taking these people out of the cross-hairs of immigration enforcement would be a common-sense first step that the Obama administration could take on the road to immigration reform.

Photo by Ray from LA.