As divisive as U.S. immigration policy is, members of both parties ought to be able to agree on a simple principle: Immigrants who come to the country legally should be given a fair chance to succeed and build lives in the U.S. – as generations have before them.
It’s perplexing, then, that the government is denying this opportunity to hundreds of thousands of young immigrants whose parents came to the U.S. legally for work, but who haven’t yet been granted green cards giving them legal permanent residency – and are now at risk of being forced to leave the only country many have ever known. A bipartisan measure passed in the House of Representatives last week would help fix the problem. In the interests of fairness and common sense, the Senate should act quickly to pass its own version and ensure these immigrants can stay.
Roughly 1.6 million people reside in the U.S. on non-immigrant, employment-based visas. They include entrepreneurs, academics, artists, physicians and workers in the technology and health-care industries. Children of these visa holders can live in the U.S. legally until they turn 21, but then must obtain new visas giving them permission to continue to study or work. Those unable to do so face an excruciating choice: stay in the U.S. illegally, or “self-deport” to their countries of birth. As of April 2020, more than 250,000 of these children were at risk of “aging out” of their legal status.
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The country’s dysfunctional legal immigration system is worsening the problem. Each year the U.S. awards 140,000 green cards to employment-based visa holders and members of their immediate families. Due to a backlog in applications and (mostly arbitrary) caps on the number of green cards allocated to each country, some workers now need to wait decades to obtain them. Even if they’re eventually successful, their children won’t benefit if they’ve since become adults; they can’t receive green cards until their own applications reach the front of the queue. This effectively means that legal immigrants who arrived as infants and have been raised and educated in the U.S. are less likely to become citizens than foreigners who came as adults.
In fact, the status of these legal immigrants – often called “documented Dreamers” – is even more precarious than that of children without documentation. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created by President Barack Obama in 2012, allows immigrants brought to the country before the age of 16 to work in the U.S. and defer deportation, with renewal required every two years. More than 700,000 undocumented immigrants have benefited from DACA’s protections and remained in the U.S., wielding $24 billion in after-tax spending power. But DACA stipulated that only immigrants with “no lawful status” were eligible – which excluded the children of immigrants on work visas from the same protections.
The good news is that Congress is waking up to the problem. The House of Representatives approved an amendment to the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act that would ensure that U.S-raised children who reach adulthood before their parents receive their green cards don’t age out of the benefit of gaining legal permanent status. It would also authorize them to work after the age of 16 and allow them to maintain their place in the green-card queue even if their parents leave the country.
Leaders in the Senate should now work to pass the measure into law. Failing to do so would harm not just legal immigrants and their families but the country as a whole. America’s long-term growth prospects require that the country bring in more knowledge workers from abroad, particularly in the sciences and technology. Ensuring the children of those workers can stay and build lives in the U.S. is critical to winning the war for talent – and is a necessary a step toward creating the immigration system the country needs.
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The authors of this editorial are members of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.