Obama's Two Year Deferral Policy and Immigration Reform

By: Rachel Leven  

Starting this week, illegal immigrants who came to the US before the age of 16 are allowed to apply for a two-year deferred action, a reprieve from the watchful eyes of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office.  Like all things immigration, Obama’s executive order was met with immediate and heavy opposition. Both sides were looking warily at the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) as the order took full effect on Wednesday.

House Republican Lamar Smith, among others, charges that the program will raise expenses for USCIS and create a backlog for all other immigration applications. However, the overall budget for U.S. Citizenship activities is largely self-funded, through fees paid by immigrants. Deferral applicants will be asked to pay standard processing fees--$380, the same amount charged for an employment authorization application, and $85 for the biometric check. It remains to be seen whether the program will in fact cost more than the standard immigration application. The estimated costs change according to what is counted and who is asked; but last month the federal government estimated the total to be between $467 million and $585 million. With additional losses of up to $121 million depending on the number of applicants granted a fee waiver. So, there is a chance that the program will cost extra, but that is far from certain. Even if the government puts forward money for fee waivers, those exceptions appear to remain below 20% of the total cost, and would be a far cry from creating a standstill for other immigrants.

Conservative critics’ second major concern, that the program is nothing more than “backdoor amnesty” leading to--that old cliché--more stolen American jobs, stands on even shakier grounds. First of all, submitting an application does not guarantee deferral. Moreover, the five-year waiting period makes it far from a sure bet and unlikely to be the main factor driving parents to bring their children here.

Ironically this outcry comes at a time when, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, migration flows between the US and Mexico are at a net 0. And with a president who has overseen record high deportation levels. Instead, the native-born Latino population is booming, which points to underlying race tensions more than leaking gateways.

The conservatives do get one thing right: this is more political ploy than actual immigration reform. The two-year deferral is a much-desired reprieve for a limited population, but it doesn’t change the fact that America’s walls (real and metaphorical) are in need of a gutting and some new architecture. Not only are we keeping out immigrants with the technical skills we can’t seem to teach to our children, but anti-immigration sentiment and tighter border controls actually encouraged migrants to stay put during the recession. According to Sanket Mohapatra and Dilip Ratha at the World Bank, fear of not being able to return during better years has kept migrants inside our ridged borders, despite scarcity of jobs.

To be fair, Congress has tried, in its schoolyard way, to pass bills of substance. The original Dream Act, the Start Up Act, and the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act are just of few of the fixes suggested. But, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for a resolution to any of our immigration woes, at least not until January.... January 2025?

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