Ready to Stay: A Comprehensive Analysis of the US Foreign-Born Populations Eligible for Special Legal Status Programs and for Legalization under Pending Bills
Donald Kerwin, José Pacas, and Robert Warren
February 4, 2022
This paper offers estimates of US foreign-born populations that are eligible for special legal status programs and those that would be eligible for permanent residence (legalization) under pending bills. It seeks to provide policymakers, government agencies, community-based organizations (CBOs), researchers, and others with a unique tool to assess the potential impact, implement, and analyze the success of these programs. The paper views timely, comprehensive data on targeted immigrant populations as an essential pillar of legalization preparedness, implementation, and evaluation. The paper and the exhaustive estimates that underlie it, represent a first attempt to provide a detailed statistical profile of beneficiaries of proposed major US legalization programs and special, large-scale legal status programs. The paper offers the following top-line findings:
- Fifty-eight percent of the 10.35 million US undocumented residents had lived in the United States for 10 years or more as of 2019; 37 percent lived in homes with mortgages; 33 percent arrived at age 17 or younger; 32 percent lived in households with US citizens (the overwhelming majority of them children); and 96 percent in the labor force were employed.
- The Citizenship for Essential Workers Act would establish the largest population-specific legalization program discussed in the paper: 7.2 million (70 percent) of the total undocumented population would be eligible for legalization under the Act. Approximately two-thirds of undocumented essential workers reside in 20 metropolitan areas.
- The populations eligible for the original Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and for permanent residence on a conditional basis and removal of the conditions of permanent residence under the Dream Act of 2021 are not only ready to integrate successfully, but in most cases have already done so. A high percentage are long-term residents, virtually all have completed high school (or attend school), a third to one-half have attended college, and the overwhelming majority live in households with incomes above the poverty level.
- The median household income of California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey residents that are eligible for the original DACA program is higher than the US median household income. New York and New Jersey residents that are eligible for removal of conditions on permanent residence under the Dream Act of 2021 also have median incomes above the US median household income. The total eligible for removal of conditions on permanent residence under the Dream Act of 2021 have median household incomes that are 99 percent of the US median income.
- Unlike populations eligible for most special legal status and population-specific legalization programs, childhood arrivals can be found in significant numbers and concentrations in communities throughout the United States, particularly in metropolitan areas.
- More than 1.8 million persons from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras would be eligible for TPS if the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) designated Guatemala for TPS and re-designated El Salvador and Honduras.
- Local communities can best prepare for legalization by collaborating on: (1) the hard work of assisting individual immigrants to meet their immigration needs; (2) dividing labor, integrating services, screening the undocumented for status, and building legal capacity; and (3) implementation of special legal status programs. This collective work should be viewed as a legalization program in its own right.
- The populations eligible for legalization and legal status under the programs analyzed in the paper have overlapping needs and large numbers of immigrants would be eligible for more than one program. However, substantial differences between these populations in size, geography, length of residency, education, socio-economic attainment, and English language proficiency argue for distinct preparedness and implementation strategies for each population.
The paper also makes several broad policy recommendations regarding legalization bills, special legal status programs, and community-based preparedness and implementation efforts. In particular, it recommends that:
- Congress should pass broad immigration reform legislation that includes a general legalization program or, in the alternative, a series of population-specific programs for essential workers, childhood arrivals, agricultural workers, persons eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), and long-term residents. In the interim, the Biden administration should also designate and re-designate additional countries for TPS.
- Immigration reform legislation should allow the great majority of US undocumented residents to legalize, should reform the underlying legal immigration system, and should provide for the legalization of future long-term undocumented residents through a rolling registry program.
- Congress, the relevant federal agencies, and advocates should ensure that any legalization program be properly structured and sufficiently funded, particularly the work of CBOs, states, and localities.
- Local communities should continue to build the necessary partnerships, capacities, and skills to implement a legalization program. They should do so, in part, by collaborating on special legal status programs such as DACA, TPS, and naturalization campaigns, as well as through the steady-state work of assisting immigrants in their individual immigration cases and funding their representation in removal proceedings.
Section I of the paper describes the populations that would be eligible for legalization under pending bills and that are potentially eligible for special legal status programs. Section II presents top-line findings based on the Center for Migration Studies’ (CMS’s) estimates and profiles of these populations. The paper offers estimates of each population by characteristics – such as length of time in the country, English language proficiency, education, household income, health insurance, and homeownership – that are relevant to preparedness and implementation activities. Section III makes the case for immigration reform and a broad legalization program. Section IV offers detailed recommendations on the substance, structure, and implementation of these programs.
“Immigration reform legislation should allow the great majority of US undocumented residents to legalize, should reform the underlying legal immigration system, and should provide for the legalization of future long-term undocumented residents through a rolling registry program.”