As President Obama prepares to leave office, more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the nation face an uncertain fate. During the past eight years, immigrant communities have felt the fear stemming from mass deportations, and the hope of promised reforms. But now, any progress won might very well be erased by President-elect Trump and his advisors.
President Obama promised a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. His efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform were blocked by Congress, but his executive action—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)—provided temporary status for 741,000 young people who came to the US as children. The initiative protected those who were eligible from deportation and granted them temporary work authorization. A proposed expansion of the program would have extended protections to an estimated 330,000 more people, including the family members of DACA recipients. It was blocked by the courts despite its clear legality.
Get TalkPoverty In Your Inbox
The data already demonstrates that DACA empowers young people to pursue their education, and makes a dramatic difference in the opportunities available to them. Nationally, undocumented immigrants often have to rely on low-wage jobs: Nearly 20% are employed in the leisure and hospitality industry, more than 15% are employed in construction, and 5% are in agriculture. DACA recipients, on the other hand, are most likely to work in educational and health services—only 5% are in leisure and hospitality, 3% are in construction, and less than 1% work in agriculture.
DACA also benefits US workers more broadly, because it makes it more difficult for employers to undercut wages. Since they are unable to assert their labor rights, undocumented workers are more vulnerable to wage theft, non-payment of minimum wage and overtime, and other forms of exploitation. DACA helps ensure that good employers who play by the rules aren’t competing with bad actors who minimize costs and maximize profits through labor violations.
President Obama’s legacy on immigration is not all positive, however. He presided over the largest number of removals ever in the United States. Not only does deportation break families apart, but it threatens their economic well-being. The loss of a breadwinner can mean the difference between paying rent and being homeless, feeding a family or facing hunger. President Obama enforced a flawed immigration system, and many advocates were angry that he didn’t push for comprehensive immigration reform when the Democrats controlled the House and Senate.
However, it is House Republicans who bear most of the blame for the broken system that remains in place. In 2013, the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform. The bill increased the number of border patrol agents, made common sense reforms to our visa system, and provided a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants. But House Republicans failed to act. Their inaction not only has consequences for immigrant families, but for the entire economy. It is estimated that greater labor mobility and stronger workplace protections would increase the average undocumented immigrant’s earnings by nearly $1,900 each year. For the typical family with an undocumented immigrant, that increase in earnings is equal to 37% of average food expenditures, or 27% of average transportation costs. These additional resources lift-up families and stimulate local economies.
While President Obama’s legacy on immigration will get mixed reviews, President-elect Trump’s vision is unequivocally myopic, enforcement-minded, and cruel. His advisors—like Kris Kobach (author of Arizona’s notorious SB 1070) and Attorney General-nominee Jeff Sessions—support virulently anti-immigrant policies, and one of Trump’s signature campaign promises was to build a literal wall to keep undocumented immigrants out of the country.
Trump’s proposal to deport all 7 million unauthorized workers is not just divorced from reality—it would be deeply damaging to the economy. Removing DACA recipients alone from the workforce would cost $433.4 billion in lost GDP over a decade. If all unauthorized workers were removed, the damage would be even wider spread. Industries ranging from construction to leisure to hospitality to wholesale retail would suffer. All told, a policy of mass deportation would immediately reduce the nation’s output by $236 billion—$4.7 trillion over 10 years—which is almost two-thirds of the decline experienced during the Great Recession.
Ultimately these policies are about people, not numbers. It’s possible to measure the loss in GDP due to deportation, but you cannot encapsulate the grief of being separated from a family member or the exhilaration of pursuing a college education and the job you have always wanted. And numbers cannot express the difference to our national psyche between welcoming immigrants and recognizing their contributions to our communities and the economy, and going backwards to a climate of fear and hostility.
As President Obama takes a last look at the Oval Office, he knows his work on immigration was incomplete. It will be up to the rest of us to make sure that what he did accomplish isn’t undone, and to push for the solutions we know will benefit our entire nation.
Editor’s note: TalkPoverty presents this series in collaboration with the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.