Beyond DAPA and DACA: Revisiting Legislative Reform in Light of Long-Term Trends in Unauthorized Immigration to the United States

Beyond DAPA and DACA: Revisiting Legislative Reform in Light of Long-Term Trends in Unauthorized Immigration to the United States


In December 2014, the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) released a paper that provides new estimates of the US unauthorized resident population (Warren 2014). The paper describes the development of a new dataset which has detailed information about unauthorized residents, derived from data collected in the US Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). The dataset will be useful to scholars, researchers, service-providers, and government officials in crafting, implementing, and evaluating programs that serve noncitizens, including the unauthorized. In addition, the new estimates provide an opportunity to examine the dramatic changes in unauthorized immigration in the past two decades and the assumptions that have shaped US policies and public opinion.

The new dataset, recent estimates of the unauthorized (Warren and Warren 2013) and statistics on the noncitizen population from IPUMS-USA (Ruggles et al. 2010) highlight several trends related to the decline in the unauthorized population, particularly from Mexico, and the increasing salience of visa overstays in constituting this population. Some trends defy conventional wisdom and all of them have public policy consequences. In particular, we find that:

  • The unauthorized resident population was about a million lower in 2013 than in 2007.
  • The “Great Recession” was not the principal cause of population decline.
  • Annual arrivals into the unauthorized population increased to more than one million in 2000, then began to drop steadily, and have now reached their lowest levels since the early 1980s.
  • From 2000 to 2012, arrivals from Mexico fell by about 80 percent.
  • Between 2010 and 2013, the total unauthorized population from Mexico declined by eight percent.
  • In 2006, the number of arrivals from Mexico fell below the total number of arrivals from all other countries (combined) for the first time.
  • The number who stayed beyond the period authorized by their temporary visas (overstays) exceeded the number who entered across the southern land border without inspection (EWIs) in each year from 2008 to 2012.

While the CMS estimates are based on sample data and assumptions that are subject to error, these trends are consistent with the best empirical information available.

In November 2014 the Obama Administration announced an unprecedented set of executive action initiatives. At this writing, the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) program and the expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which would provide work authorization and temporary reprieve from removal to eligible persons, have been preliminarily enjoined. The temporary injunction, which the US Department of Justice plans to appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, comes in response to a legal challenge to the two programs by 26 states under Article II, section 3 of the US Constitution which requires the president to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” and under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA). In addition, the Republican majorities of the 114th Congress have vowed to prevent the implementation of these programs. However, the administration has expressed confidence that it will ultimately prevail in court and in its battle with Congress over these programs. Meanwhile, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), community-based organizations (CBOs), and others continue to plan intensively for the DAPA and DACA programs, as well as for other executive action initiatives.

This paper provides estimates of those who are potentially eligible for DAPA and DACA. However, it also looks beyond DAPA and DACA to make the case for broad legislative reform in light of long-term trends in unauthorized migration to the United States and the unauthorized resident population. In particular, it argues that substantial declines in the unauthorized population—a goal shared by partisans on both sides of the immigration debate—will require reform of the legal immigration system, legalization of a substantial percentage of the unauthorized, and a more effective response to nonimmigrant visa overstays.


Author Names

Robert Warren, Donald Kerwin

Journal Journal on Migration and Human Security
Date of Publication 2015
Pages 80-108
DOI 10.1177/233150241500300104
Volume 3
Issue Number 1