GOOD RETURNS

True conservatives would let Dreamers stay in the US—to avoid wasting billions of taxpayer dollars

After killing it last week, US president Donald Trump now seems to be reviving a policy that allowed some 800,000 immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children—known as “Dreamers”—to stay and work in the US.

Trump on Sept. 13 made a deal with Democrats to turn Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama-era program that had allowed those immigrants to stay temporarily, into a law. At least, the Democrats say he did; he seems to be backpedaling after a backlash from some of his far-right supporters. Their reaction suggests that he won’t have much luck selling a DACA deal (if there is one) to immigration hardliners within the Republican party.

But he may win over more moderate Republicans with another argument: fiscal responsibility.

The US has a big financial stake in the DACA kids. Over the years, American taxpayers have footed the bill to educate them. Ending DACA would squander that hefty investment just when it was starting to pay off, as its beneficiaries join the workforce and become taxpayers. Research on the broader immigrant population suggests that if they stay they will, over time, return more to the economy than they’ve taken.

There are no hard numbers on the size of the investment in DACA kids, but there are ways to estimate it. A comprehensive report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine looked at the cost-benefit balance in 2012 for all immigrants, documented and otherwise, over their lifetimes, and their US-born children. It found, not surprisingly, that they took in the most benefits (mostly education and health care) early and late in life, and paid the most taxes during their working years:

The first arrivals, who were generally less educated, absorbed more resources than they paid in taxes. The second generation, however, was better educated, and put more into government coffers than it took out. And while the “DACA-mented” are first-generation immigrants, because they were born abroad, they tend to be more like second-generation immigrants in terms of education, says Giovanni Peri, an economics professor at University of California, Davis. “They have skills and abilities that would be highly productive,” he said.

How much schooling immigrants get is key to determining their impacts on the national coffers, because it’s closely related to the jobs they can find and the taxes they’ll pay. In fact it’s a better predictor than whether they are documented or undocumented, says Gretchen Donehower, a demographer at University of California, Berkeley, who contributed to the report.

Many DACA recipients are still in education, so it’s unclear what degree they’ll ultimately attain. But by merely allowing them to go about their lives without fear of deportation, DACA has already vastly improved their education and job prospects, surveys suggest. More than 60% of the respondents to a recent poll by a University of California professor said the program allowed them to pursue education options that hadn’t been available to them before. Of the roughly 40% who were still studying, nearly 70% said they were getting a bachelor’s degree or higher.

A separate analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think-tank, found that on the whole, those eligible for DACA are more likely than other undocumented immigrants to have white-collar jobs and less likely to have blue-collar ones.

White-collar occupations DACA-eligible population, % Unauthorized population, %
Sales 15 6
Office and Administrative support 12 5
Management, business, science, and arts 4 2
Education, training, and library 2 1
Healthcare support 2 1
Healthcare practitioners 2 1
Arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media 1 1
Computer and mathematical 1 1
Business operations 1 1
Blue-collar occupations DACA-eligible population, % Unauthorized population, %
Construction 10 20
Food preparation and serving 16 16
Building cleaning and maintenance 6 13
Production 8 9
Transportation 8 8
Farming, fishing, and forestry 2 7
Personal care and service 4 3
Installation, maintenance, and repair 3 2
Protective services 1 0

That’s especially remarkable considering that the average DACA kid costs the US government less than a second-generation immigrant, since some of them got to the US with a few years of schooling already under their belts. Because they are undocumented, they are also eligible for fewer services than their US-born peers.

Most the US’s investment on DACA participants has been on education. To get a—very rough—idea of that figure, here’s how much the government was spending to educate second-generation immigrants in 2012, based on the findings of the National Academies immigration study:

For a back-of-the-envelope calculation, add up the per capita cost for each age from 5 to 25—the average age of DACA participants—to get the price tag over the life of one student. (This assumes costs don’t go up over the years, which of course is a big assumption, but we’re being approximate here.) That’s around $194,000. Multiply that by roughly 800,000 beneficiaries, and you get $155 billion.

Make it somewhat less, if you want, assuming that DACA recipients don’t end up going to college at the same rate as second-generation immigrants. $120 billion? $100 billion? That’s still a sizable amount.

Ending DACA would slash the potential return on this investment. Some of those immigrants would leave the US, taking with them skills Americans paid for. Others would stay illegally, but wouldn’t be able to earn as much and pay as much in taxes.

On top of that, apprehending them and deporting them will take up budget dollars from the Department of Homeland Security.

That’s a lot of government waste to accept for a party that boasts to be a paragon of fiscal responsibility.

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