Lies Immigration Reformers Told Me

President Obama and backers of deferred action for Dreamers tout the conditions that limit applicants. How restrictive are they, really?

Ronald Reagan addresses the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1986.  (Barry Thumma/AP)

“Mom hid a present for you in the basement.”

“Last time you said that, you locked me downstairs for three hours.”

“This time I won’t.”

Before Matt Groening gained wealth and fame from The Simpsons, he drew a bleakly funny series of comic books. That snippet of dialogue comes from one of them. It also explains a lot of the negative reaction to President Obama’s immigration proposals: There’s a long record of broken promises in this policy domain.

The record stretches back to the immigration reform of 1986. That year, Congress enacted an amnesty for illegal immigrants joined to promises of more effective enforcement in future. Instead of halting law-breaking, however, the 1986 reform enabled more of it. Immigration officials detected fraud in one-third of the applicants for the specialized amnesty for agricultural workers. Some applicants had never worked in the fields a day in their lives. Some had been convicted of crimes. Some weren’t the people they said they were. Some were disqualified for other reasons. Yet 90 percent of the 1.3 million applications were approved regardless.

Thirty years later, the question of good faith has again become urgent to the immigration debate.

To pry open the door of a wider amnesty, Obama and congressional Democrats have directed attention to a subsection of the illegal-immigrant population: young people who were brought to the United States as children, the poetically named “Dreamers.” They proposed a law to offer citizenship to this population—and through them, eventually and ultimately their parents and other relatives. (The original DREAM Act provided for a multiyear delay before Dreamers could sponsor parents and siblings. But DREAM’s most important purpose was to smooth the way for a more comprehensive reform for the benefit of a wider illegal population.)

Prospects for Congress passing a big immigration bill have, however, dimmed since the DREAM Act was proposed in the first Obama term. So in June 2012, as the election neared, Obama announced unilateral executive action: He would defer enforcement against the Dreamers, offering them a temporary legal-residency status in the United States. In doing so, Obama was stretching executive powers into the area of lawmaking about as far as any president has ever stretched them. He justified his bold move with three main claims:

  1. Dreamers have sunk deep roots in the United States. They have no other home.
  2. Minor children should not be held culpable for their parents’ law-breaking.
  3. The Dreamers are gaining the skills and education to contribute to American society.  

Here’s Obama in his own words, first in 2012, in the speech announcing deferred action against Dreamers:

These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they’re friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper. They were brought to this country by their parents, sometimes even as infants, and often have no idea that they’re undocumented until they apply for a job or a driver’s license or a college scholarship.

Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine you’ve done everything right your entire life, studied hard, worked hard, maybe even graduated at the top of your class, only to suddenly face the threat of deportation to a country that you know nothing about, with a language that you may not even speak.

And here he is again, even more emphatically, at a fundraiser in June 2014:

So these young people are graduating, ready to go to college, but also certified nurses, EMT folks.  Many of them are choosing to join the military and will contribute to our country in this way. And looking out as I was speaking to them and then shaking their hands, and giving them hugs and high-fives and all the things that kids do on a graduation, I thought to myself: How could we not want to invest in these kids?

The truth is more complicated and more difficult.

To put substance behind his three arguments, Obama put some important conditions on applicants for “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”:

  • They must have entered the United States before age 16 and continuously resided in the United States from 2007 to 2012.
  • They must have a clean criminal record: no felony conviction, no major misdemeanors and no more than three petty misdemeanors.
  • They must have graduated from high school, or be currently enrolled in school, or have gained honorable discharge from the armed forces.

Those sound like defined and enforceable conditions. In practice, they are proving anything but. From the start, the requirements of “continuous residency” and “no more than three misdemeanors” were highly porous. Now, as the first wave of DACA applicants seek renewal of their two-year status, it’s becoming clear that the education requirements will mean even less.

In immigration law, “continuous residence” does not mean what it seems to mean in ordinary speech. Immigration law allows people to claim “continuous residence” even if they return to their country of origin for visits (plural!) of up to six months each.

Likewise, the “no more than three misdemeanors” tally for aspiring Dreamers carries some fine print. DACA will count all the charges arising from a particular incident as a single misdemeanor. A DACA applicant who drives past the speed limit while intoxicated and then resists arrest (all potential misdemeanors in most states) will be counted as having committed one misdemeanor, not three. Nor can we feel any certainty that the public records will reveal all the charges against an applicant. Illegal immigrants sometimes use more than one identity—and their documents do not always tell the truth about their ages either.

As for the educational requirement, Jon Feere of the immigration-skeptical Center for Immigration Studies explains how it has already begun to fade:

The new DACA guidelines note that certain sections of the application can be skipped if the alien is renewing. One section that can now be left blank is the "Education Information" section. In other words, illegal aliens who applied for DACA two years ago and have since dropped out of school are still eligible to receive the amnesty.

This is not a minor loophole. The Migration Policy Institute—a group strongly sympathetic to Obama’s policies—calculates that of the 2.28 million people who potentially meet the age requirements for DACA status, some 473,000 will not be able to meet its requirement for a high-school diploma, current enrollment in school, or honorable completion of military service.

And even the Migration Policy Institute’s shocking number may nevertheless still overestimate the number of DACA Dreamers who will ultimately graduate from high school. The question is not, how many potential Dreamers fail the educational requirement today? The question is, how many Dreamers who were enrolled in school on the date they applied for DACA will remain in school until graduation? Mexican immigrants, who account for about three-quarters of Dreamers, have far and away the highest dropout rate. In 2011, The New York Times studied Census data for Mexican migrants aged 16 to 19 living in New York City, both legal and illegal, and found that 41 percent of them had dropped out of high school. “No other major immigrant group has a dropout rate higher than 20 percent, and the overall rate for the city is less than 9 percent,” the Times reported. The president’s promise that young Dreamers will someday staff America’s nursing wards and EMT ambulances looks unlikely to be fulfilled.

Beneath all of this is the bedrock problem of illegal immigration into an advanced society. In 1914, it was perfectly plausible that the son of an unskilled laborer would acquire a skilled trade. The skilled worker’s children would then advance into business and the professions, achieving the upward mobility of the American dream.

In the postindustrial economy, however, upward mobility has become considerably more difficult. As Edward Telles and Vilma Ortiz report in their pathbreaking Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation, and Race, the kind of intergenerational progress gained by millions of families in the early 20th century is receding out of reach for many newer immigrants. While second-generation Mexican Americans generally attain higher levels of schooling than their immigrant parents, the third generation does not on average improve much on the second—and the fourth generation on average falls back below the third.

From the point of view of immigrants and prospective immigrants, the only thing that matters about immigration policy is what it does for them and their own life chances. Human beings naturally put their own interests first. But from the point of view of the present generation of Americans, the most important question about immigration is whether immigration will benefit the present citizens of the United States, their children and posterity. The answer to that question ultimately turns on the kind of human capital immigrants carry with them into their new country. If it’s low among the immigrants, it’s likely to remain low among their children and grandchildren too.

The educational testing service ETS issued an alarming report in 2007 warning that average levels of literacy in the workforce of the 2030s will likely be outright lower than in the workforce of the 1990s “as better educated individuals leave the workforce, they will be replaced by those who, on average, have lower levels of education and skill." ETS predicted an outright decline of 5 percent in measured literacy and numeracy by 2030—an unprecedented event in the history of the United States. The projected decline in average skills portends sagging average incomes and intensifying inequality.

The immigration-policy decisions Americans have collectively made over the past three decades have decisively contributed to the hardening of class divisions inside the United States. Obama’s immigration policies would not only continue those past decisions, but accelerate them—and accelerate too the loss of faith in institutions that follows when authorities sell their policies with promises they know from the start they intend to break.