The proposed price tag to adjust the immigration status of more than 1 million youths in the country illegally was pegged in the millions of dollars.
An Associated Press story last week said that the cost of implementing the immigration program could cost $585 million and would require the federal government to hire hundreds of federal workers. According to the story, AP obtained internal Homeland Security Department documents marked "not for distribution."
While it's the first time the public has seen a number associated with President Obama's immigration policy that will grant temporary work permits to thousands of people under 30, many of whom were largely raised here, immigrant-advocacy groups say the number alone doesn't show the full picture.
"I think the problem is looking at the number in isolation," said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small-business owners advocating immigration reform.
"What would it cost to deport them?" Jacoby asked. Policymakers, and the general public, should take into account the costs of these young immigrants living and working in the underground economy.
President Obama stated the qualifications that allow people to apply: youth who came to the country before the age of 16; those who have lived in the U.S. continuously for five years; individuals who have fulfilled an educational or military requirement; and those who don't pose a threat to national security or public safety. The administration has said that 800,000 people could qualify. Others say that the number of eligible youths could surpass 1 million.
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"They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper," Obama said in mid-June when he announced the program. The administration is expected to release application procedures on Wednesday.
Jacoby said the cost-benefit analysis should include considerations such as the taxes these youths could contribute once they obtained decent-paying jobs after college, the cost and feasibility of mass deportations, and tax-revenue loss if these youths turned to gangs or remained unemployed for long periods of time.
"I think it will get traction from those who are dead set against it," Jacoby said of the proposed dollar amount.
The tentative figure focused on the net costs, without accounting for the revenues that will be collected through application fees for the temporary work permits, said Ali Noorani, executive director for National Immigration Forum.
That's because the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, the arm of Homeland Security that processes citizenship naturalizations, green cards, and temporary work visas, generates its funding from fees collected for such services.
In 1988, Congress created what was formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service as a user-fee agency. The agency, which is now called USCIS, has since generated revenues from applications to pay for daily operations.
Since Sept. 11, the agency has increased the cost of applying for citizenship and other immigration benefits so that the government can recover the full costs associated with processing some benefits.
While the agency provides a significant number of services free of charge to some — asylum, refugee applications, and military personnel — the administration has said these undocumented youths would not qualify for fee waivers.
Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said the agency is working through operational planning for the program. He said in an email, "As the Administration has repeatedly made clear, USCIS is a fee-based agency and the adjudication of deferred action application requests will not use taxpayer dollars nor will the agency generally accept fee waivers."
Current fees to apply for employment authorization applications are $380. They require, in most cases, biometric fingerprints, adding to the costs. Marshall Fitz, director of Immigration Policy at the Center for American Progress, estimated the costs to apply for deferred action could be $475.
"Whether the cost would net out to zero — I don't know," Fitz said. "I think one could anticipate there could be some costs. That would make sense. Anytime you go from zero to 60 [mph] requires you to spend some energy and manpower."
Still, he suggested that someone inside DHS with political motivations released the documents to the media.
"That kind of damaging documents should have never seen the light of day," Fitz said. "It was clearly leaked by someone who doesn't want to see it succeed."
This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.