A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
During an impromptu gaggle with reporters, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly offered a glimpse into his outlook on undocumented immigrants. Describing a proposed immigration deal where the White House offered a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants in exchange for border wall funding, Kelly said this:
“There are 690,000 official DACA registrants and the president sent over what amounts to be two and half times that number, to 1.8 million,” Kelly told Washington Post reporter Erica Werner. “The difference between 690,000 and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up.”
Kelly is himself a notorious hardliner on immigration. But let's be real. There are a number of reasons DACA eligible undocumented immigrants may not have applied for the program.
In fact, as someone who has interviewed many undocumented immigrants, I’ve heard those reasons firsthand.
First, there are the educational and age requirements. In order to qualify you must have a certain level of education, have come here during the right period of time, or have been honorably discharged from the military. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that of the 3.6 million undocumented immigrants who came here under the age of 18, only about 1.3 million people meet the requirements laid out on the DACA application.
Then there is the simple cost of applying. Most DACA applications cost about $500, which — as immigration advocates have pointed out — is a lot of money for most American families, let alone an undocumented immigrant who, statistically speaking, is more likely to be working a low-wage job. And when you consider the fact that a family may want to get protected status all at once, the potential cost multiplies.
There is also plenty of hesitation amongst the undocumented immigrant community to turn over personal information to the government. And who could blame them? Immigrant advocates allege that in the last year that information has been used to target, detain and deport undocumented immigrants and activists with no serious criminal history.
But perhaps most relevantly, undocumented immigrants understand that DACA protections could end with the stroke of a president's pen. Why go through the trouble if there was no real security? Their fears came to fruition just months ago when President Trump decided to end the program and create the pickle that Congress is now trying to get itself out of.
These are the realities that keep undocumented immigrants from applying for DACA. Not laziness. Not an unwillingness to "get off their asses."
If Kelly would take the time to learn about the immigrants who are coming here illegally, he'd know that almost all of them fled dire situations and struggled greatly to come here and work hard. Undocumented immigrant men are more likely to work than both legal immigrants and American men. Harvard economics and social policy professor George Borjas describes undocumented immigrants as “perfectly inelastic." They simply want to work.
I'm sure undocumented immigrants without DACA protections want to take a break from their work or their classes to go get protected status, too.
But they'd be a lot more inclined to do it if our government gave them a reason to think those protections would last.
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Cover images via the Department of Homeland Security and Shutterstock / Michael Candelori.