‘Dreamers’ Have Faced Barriers to a Better Life

On December 4, news broke that immigration negotiations between six bipartisan senators had fallen apart. These talks revolved around Republicans pushing changes to asylum in return for aid for Israel and Ukraine. It’s a common event in immigration policy—many small groups of Senators have tried and failed to find a consensus. But it’s unfortunate because smart immigration reform has the potential to improve the lives of both Americans and those arriving at our shores.

States have recently been taking matters into their own hands, some with efforts to keep immigrants out (as in Texas’s border barriers) and others with efforts to better integrate immigrants (like in-state college tuition and language training support). Neither approach, however, has had much success. Our new study (joint with Susan Averett and Grace Condon) shows that integrating undocumented immigrants is more complex than what states can do alone. A real solution for “Dreamers” and the undocumented immigrants in the country will require Congress to open the nation’s golden door to them.

Young undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who arrived with their parents before age 16 can be thought of as “Dreamers.” According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are over 3 million. The migration decision was not theirs. Their status puts them in a sort of limbo—they have spent most of their lives in the U.S. but do not have the authorization of the federal government to work legally, receive government benefits, or, in many states, access in-state low-cost tuition for higher education. This sort of twilight status is a problem for immigrants and our entire country. It is in the nation’s best interest to promote education among undocumented youth because they are here to stay. As you might expect, more educated people are less likely to draw on public assistance and more likely to enter high-paying occupations. 

Undocumented immigrants make extensive contributions to the country even when lacking legal status. For example, they contribute $11.6 billion in state and local taxes each year through sales, property, and personal income taxes. Undocumented immigrants have a net positive effect on U.S. federal welfare programs—they put more money in than they take out.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 prohibited access to in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants at the federal level. Since then, more than half of U.S. states have granted in-state tuition to undocumented youth who have graduated from high school and have spent, on average, three years in their state. 

Only 5 percent to 10 percent of undocumented high school graduates pursue higher education, compared to the national average of 62.5 percent. Despite the generosity of these states, our new research finds that in-state tuition alone doesn’t uniformly boost enrollment and completion rates for college degrees. For those who are undocumented and can’t legally work, it could be that they simply don’t see a reason to invest in schooling. Even if they finish their degree, they can’t take it to employers as proof of their skills and knowledge as companies cannot legally employ them.

There are some differences based on gender. Our results suggest that access to in-state tuition rates does not increase enrollment among women but allows them to stay in school and complete their degrees. Men, on the other hand, are incentivized to take a college class at a lower cost but the impact is short-lived as they are not more likely to graduate.

Meanwhile, we also evaluate the role of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA), a federal directive that was announced in 2012 and has given access to legal employment and deferral of deportation to over a half-million young adults. In our study, we find that DACA does not encourage eligible youth to invest in higher education, possibly since the policy alone did not lower tuition costs. While DACA eligibility does not impact enrollment rates, we show that overall it is positively associated with graduation which may result in higher returns in the formal labor market. We confirm that DACA incentivizes youth to work more, as expected, and results in lower rates of self-employment, as this group of undocumented youth likely has access to the formal labor market. However, DACA recipients must reapply every two years to stay in the country. Their limbo got more uncertain when, in September, a Texas court ruled the program unconstitutional and they are now waiting on an appeal in federal courts. 

The fundamental story is simple: The lack of access to legal employment reduces the power of in-state tuition access to motivate students to attend and complete post-secondary schooling. This becomes a problem when you zoom out and think about the families and children of undocumented immigrants. The children of undocumented people in the U.S. are, by birthright, U.S. citizens. Today’s failure to educate and lift their parents dims their prospects. These children are likely to be more secure if their parents hold better jobs and are more productive. In addition, more educated households are less likely to depend on public assistance.

The patchwork opportunities for undocumented youth will continue to limit their potential returns to education, dampen U.S. productivity, and negatively impact public fiscal coffers. So what to do? With approximately 3 million undocumented youth who grew up in the U.S., there is tremendous potential for them to contribute to the formal labor market and enhance economic growth. They are already here and ready to contribute, the benefits are there to be captured. It is a low-hanging fruit and a win-win for the undocumented youth and the U.S. economy. A comprehensive plan would involve both in-state tuition and access to legal employment along with the path to permanent residency.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.