Bloomberg Opinion — No issue better illustrates the difficulty of immigration reform than the plight of the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, who were brought to the US as children. Years of congressional inaction have left these migrants subject to capricious court rulings that threaten to force some of them to leave the only country they’ve known — which is why President Joe Biden needs to press lawmakers to make a deal to protect the Dreamers now. With a change in control of Congress looming, they may not get another chance.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program was created in 2012, via an executive order by President Barack Obama. It protects undocumented immigrants brought into the country before the age of 16 from deportation, allowing them to study and work legally in the US and renew their status every two years. Since its inception, the program has enrolled more than 800,000 young adults — at least one-third of whom have been in the US since they were 5 — and benefited the country as a whole. DACA households pay $6.2 billion in federal taxes and $3.3 billion in state and local taxes annually.
Despite those contributions, DACA recipients still lack any clarity about their legal status and whether they’ll be permitted to stay in the US. In 2020, the Supreme Court gave enrollees a temporary reprieve by blocking President Donald Trump’s attempt to end the program, while allowing legal challenges against it to continue. Last month, the US Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit declared DACA unlawful and sent the case back to a Texas district judge who had previously struck down Obama’s original executive order. If the judge rules against Biden’s updated DACA rule, some enrollees will immediately lose their right to work and again be subject to potential deportation.
Such an outcome would be devastating. Beyond the anxiety for the (entirely blameless) immigrants themselves, businesses employing them would face a cumulative $6.3 billion in turnover costs with DACA shut down — at a time when thousands of positions already remain unfilled.
The lame-duck session after next week’s midterm elections may be the best chance for Congress to avert that scenario. The House has already passed a bill that would permanently shield DACA recipients from deportation and give them a path to citizenship. A bipartisan effort in the Senate would do much the same. To get enough Republican senators on board to overcome a filibuster, Democratic leaders should meet GOP demands for more stringent border-security measures, including investment in manpower and technology, funding to close some gaps in physical border barriers, and an expansion of policies requiring some asylum seekers to remain in Mexico. If giving DACA enrollees a pathway to citizenship proves too difficult, Congress should at least extend their work authorization and deportation protections, a fallback that has previously gotten bipartisan support.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has suggested that Republican representatives would resist a citizenship-for-security deal if they win a majority. He should remember that nearly 75% of Americans support granting legal status to the Dreamers, and that deporting them is extremely unpopular even among staunch conservatives. The DACA drama is entering its second decade — far too long for young families to live in perpetual fear of their world being upended by the courts.
-- The Editors are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board
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