A Step Forward in Immigration Reform

The first major attempt at immigration reform, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), on initial examination at least, has been enjoying a relatively successful launch.

The program enables immigrants ages 15–32, who came to the U.S. before 16 and live here illegally, to become citizens. It began in August 2012 with uncharacteristic speed, up and running 60 days after it was announced. Immigration reform advocates are likewise quick in taking it up as an example of the administration’s ability to translate doctrine into effective large-scale action on an issue that has so long been deadlocked.

To date, nearly 600,000 people have applied, and about three quarters of them have been approved.

But bureaucracy being bureaucracy, DACA has been experiencing its share of hiccups, as they like to call it. The paperwork regimen is still being made up as they go along, processing times are subject to delays sometimes lasting months, and there is a lack of resources to meet the large response. While 72 percent were approved by mid-2013, fewer than one percent were turned down; the rest were still under review.

Vaguely-defined rules for documentation to prove residency has been a headache, not only for DACA itself, but for others as well. Since employers are understandably hesitant to put in writing that they’ve violated the law by hiring illegals, it took a while for the agency to approve alternatives, such as school and hospital records and utility bills. In Los Angeles, the school system was so swamped with transcript requests it had to create a new application form (necessity is the mother of invention) and hired two new staffers to handle the requests.

Those who are allergic to any expansion of governmental bureacracy, which after all DACA does entail, will be pleased to learn that it is mostly self-funded through processing fees.

But this will likely be short-lived. The Senate passed legislation earlier this year that would provide for a loan to the immigration agency to help process the flood of applicants.

Even if the cost of the process of legalizing immigrants remains modest, it should not obscure the long-term cost. While estimates have varied as much as the attitudes toward immigrants in general, there is no question that costs will be substantial. A study by the non-profit Center for Immigration Studies estimated that 57 percent of immigrant households (legal and illegal) used at least one welfare program in 2009. Once this group has legal status, they’ll be eligible for the full range of benefits for which other citizens are eligible.

At the same time, numbers like that have to be weighed against the contribution that immigrants have made in every walk of life throughout American history.

The stigma of illegality has been overdone as well. While every country has a right to keep out and deport criminals, carriers of contagious diseases and other undesirables, most of these people do not fall into such categories. (DACA does not accept people with a criminal record.) The great majority are law-abiding people who simply want to be able to earn a living. Their criminality began and ended with their illegal entry into the U.S., an act for which they have paid a stiff penalty for many years.

Seeking a better life for oneself and one’s children is hardly a crime, though in some cases it may be against the law. If the illegal immigrants have broken the rules by crossing the borders of the U.S. without official permission, we have to keep it in perspective. Breaking rules in order to find a way out of poverty, oppression and hopelessness has been part of the story of all the immigrant groups in America, and does not presuppose a criminal character.

It should surprise no one that a government program on such a massive scale is encountering problems. What’s surprising is that the problems aren’t far worse. Even if it might seem to the outside observer that some of them — such as defining criteria for proof of residence — were foreseeable, the extent of the confusion and inefficiency appears to be relatively modest and repairable. Indeed, immigration experts have expressed satisfaction with the way things have gone so far.

DACA represents an encouraging first step on the way forward to a comprehensive and fair immigration overhaul that will benefit not only the immigrants but American society as a whole.