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April 16, 2015

Temporariness is the new normal in immigration policy

April 16, 2015

It seems that temporariness is the new normal in immigration policy. Counting existing temporary immigrants and those who would be affected by President Obama’s November 2014 executive actions, the number of temporary immigrants in the United States could be 7.6 million, or 19 percent of the foreign-born population. 

About 5.4 million of those immigrants would gain temporary status under 2014 changes, more than tripling the number of temporary immigrants from the recent past.

Why such a large number? It could be that, with the divisiveness over immigration, temporariness is all we can agree upon. Temporariness meets the Goldilocks political test: not too hot and not too cold (though it’s not perfect). Or it could be that temporary workers are what employers want.

Types of temporary workers, and new classes being created

Recently, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing about H1B visas, the temporary worker visas for immigrants in specialty occupations. Employers have been advocating for an increase in the H1B visa cap, and some in Congress seems receptive to the idea. But this is only one temporary immigrant program. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated that the total number of resident nonimmigrants—that is, foreign nationals living in the United States for specific, temporary reasons—was 1,870,000 in 2012. This number includes temporary workers and their families, foreign students, diplomats, and other residents with temporary visas.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive action of June 15, 2012, gave a temporary, two-year stay of deportation and provided work permits to immigrants under the age of 31 who meet specific requirements. An estimated 1.5 million immigrants could benefit from DACA. In April 2014, DHS reported that 560,000 people have been granted temporary permits under DACA.

In November 2014, President Obama issued executive actions that deferred deportation and provided work permits to certain undocumented parents of US-born children and that extended DACA to a larger group of immigrants. These actions are additional examples of the proliferation of temporariness. Both initiatives are on hold in the courts, but if implemented, they could provide temporary status to 3.9 million undocumented immigrants.

Then there are the immigrants in Temporary Protected Status (TPS): 340,000 in 2014. The Department of Homeland Security confers TPS status to immigrants when conditions in their home countries make it unsafe for them to return. The bulk of TPSers are from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti. But here’s the thing, Central American TPSers have been in this temporary status anywhere from 14 to 16 years, renewing their status every 18 months, and paying potentially thousands of dollars in registration fees. Every so often, DHS announces registration openings, but these openings rarely make the news.

The downside of temporariness

Let’s be clear, a temporary work permit can be life changing for an undocumented immigrant. And it could be the sort of arrangement that globally mobile professionals want. But temporary status is not legal permanent residence. TPSers and those granted temporary status under executive actions cannot petition for family members to join them in the United States. Temporary immigrants are not on a path to legal permanent residence, much less for citizenship. And applying for permanent status may trigger a reentry bar for immigrants who entered the country without inspection, separating them from their families. In addition, if a temporary immigrant does not continue reapplying, he or she could easily fall into undocumented status.

With temporary status, immigrant families may put off buying a house, setting up a business, or making other crucial investments in their lives and in this country because they are not sure they’ll be able to stay here. Some states are still considering whether they will give DACAs in-state tuition. Employers do not invest in temporary workers. Those with temporary status cannot get subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. And families, many of whom are poor, often spend a significant amount paying temporary permit fees.

The growing number of temporary immigrants may be marking an important shift in immigration policy. As more immigrants join the ranks of temporary workers, including those who have been residing in the United States for decades, we have to think hard about what temporariness means for immigrants, their families, and their ability to integrate in and contribute to the country.

Photo by Peter Prengaman/AP

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