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Immigration Executive Action by the Numbers

By Matt Graham

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Last week, President Obama announced a series of executive actions on immigration. These new policies could affect millions of individuals, the largest group being unauthorized immigrants eligible for new “deferred action” programs that provide temporary protection from deportation. Separately, BPC has published an overview of the full slate of actions.

This analysis combines data from the government and other research organizations to estimate how many people would be eligible for the new deferred action programs. Available estimates indicate that about 4.2 million additional people may be eligible for deferred action, including about 3.9 million parents of citizens or lawful permanent residents (LPRs or green card holders) and 235,000 to 290,000 additional “DREAMers” under the expansion of the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Not all eligible individuals will apply. Under the existing DACA program, for example, about 40 to 70 percent of those eligible have applied for the status, depending on the estimate.

How many people are eligible for the new protections?

President Obama’s actions offer a deferral of deportation to two classes of unauthorized immigrants: (1) parents of U.S. citizens and LPRs, and (2) certain individuals brought to the United States as children who were not previously eligible for DACA. In the second case, DACA eligibility was expanded to individuals who continuously resided in the United States since 2010 (rather than 2007), and the maximum age was eliminated. The estimates presented here were calculated based on the best available data published by other research organizations.

Parents of U.S. citizens and LPRs. The underlying household surveys used to estimate the unauthorized population do not link children and parents who live in different households. As a result, most estimates reliably capture minor children of unauthorized immigrants, but miss many adult children. To account for these “missing” adult children, Table 1 estimates the number of unauthorized immigrants who have adult children using (1) the number of unauthorized immigrants who had citizen children in their household in 1995 and (2) the percentage of 1995’s unauthorized immigrant population that still lives in the United States. All of these children have now turned 18, and nearly all of their parents should be able to meet residency requirements. This yielded an estimate that 1.1 million unauthorized immigrants have a U.S. citizen child under age 18, regardless of where that child lives. According to the Pew Research Center’s estimates, another 2.8 million unauthorized immigrants live with their minor children.

Immigration Table 1

Source: Pew Research Center (Sep. 2014 and Nov. 2014), DHS (March 2013).

This method is likely to be more complete than examining only adult children who live in their parents’ household, but neither method is perfect. In addition to the typical challenges associated with estimating characteristics of the unauthorized population, Table 1’s estimate has one key potential source of overcount and one key potential source of undercount. First, because the Pew Research Center’s estimate does not account for adult children who no longer live with their parents, parents of minor children who also (1) have an adult child who (2) no longer lives at home will be double counted. Second, adult legal immigrants whose elderly parents later entered the United States without authorization or overstayed their period of admission are unlikely to be captured by this method of estimating the total number of adult children of unauthorized immigrants. Under the program’s requirements, all unauthorized immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and LPRs could be eligible to apply for deferred action, not just parents who migrated unlawfully and later had a child.

Additional DACA eligibility. The Pew Research Center and Migration Policy Institute each estimated the number of individuals who will gain DACA eligibility under the program’s expansion. Pew estimated that this would add 235,000 individuals to the DACA-eligible population, while the Migration Policy Institute estimated that 290,000 people will gain eligibility.

In total, these estimates suggest that nearly 4.2 million unauthorized immigrants could become eligible under the new and expanded deferred action programs.

How many would actually apply?

Historical experience shows that not all migrants who are eligible for protection will apply for it. It is unclear what percentage of the potentially eligible population will apply, but the most obvious point of reference is the existing DACA program. In all likelihood, the true application rates will not be the same.

It is easy to count how many people have applied for DACA, but calculating the application percentage also requires one to know how many people could have applied. Estimates of the DACA-eligible population generally published two figures: (1) people who were eligible immediately and (2) the number who could become eligible. This second group poses a challenge because most current estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population use household survey data collected in 2012 or earlier. We do not know how many of the “potentially eligible” individuals became eligible during the past two to three years.

Table 2 shows that depending on one’s choice of denominator, the DACA application rate may vary between 40 and 70 percent. The 40 percent figure is likely too low, as it seems improbable that every potentially eligible immigrant ended up meeting the requirements. In the same vein, the 70 percent figure is likely too high, as it assumes that no potentially eligible immigrants took steps to become eligible. To accurately reflect the current pool of potential applicants, the “could become eligible” column includes individuals who did not meet the education requirements, but excludes individuals who are too young to apply.

Immigration Table 2
* The number of initial DACA applications (675,000) received by June 2014, divided by the number of people estimated to be eligible.

Source: Pew Research Center (Table 1), Migration Policy Institute (Table 1).

It is unclear exactly how many people will apply under the new and expanded deferred action programs. If one assumes an application rate similar to the DACA program, one might expect between 1.7 and 3.0 million people to apply for protection under last week’s actions. However, it is unclear whether this would be a reasonable assumption—last week’s announcements affect different people, and will be carried out in a different political context.