In the US, no issue has been more contentious recently than the fate of DACA and the Dreamers.

DACA, formally known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, allows some individuals who entered the country illegally as children to be protected from deportation and be eligible for a work permit.  Established by President Obama's executive order in 2012, the program has since enrolled approximately 800,000 individuals. 

The Trump administration announced in September 2017 its intention to phase out the program, which is currently scheduled to end in March 2018, pending judicial reviews.

In addition to those enrolled under DACA, a further one million undocumented migrants were eligible to sign up, but chose not to participate.  Thus, when President Trump floated a plan to cover 1.8 million migrants under DACA, he was refering all those who were eligible, whether or not they had enrolled.  The President's proposal appears to maintain the same requirements which existed for DACA at the time of its implementation in 2012, that is, the program applies to undocumented immigrants who were younger than 31 as of June 15, 2012 and had come to the U.S. before age 18.  They had to be in or have graduated from high school or the equivalent, or had to have served in the military. 

DACA eligible individuals are a subset of those eligible to gain permanent residence in the US under the Dream Act.  The Dream Act was originally introduced in 2001 by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill), but failed to gain passage.  The Senators reintroduced an updated version of the DREAM Act in the summer of 2017.   Like the DACA program, the Dream Act would grant permanent residence to those who had entered before the age of 18, lived in the US for at least four years, and graduated from high school or obtained a GED.  Thus, Dreamers are essentially similar to DACA participants, but covering a different time frame.  

Undocumented Immigrants by Category  Source: ' Trump's Path ', Kevin Johnson

Undocumented Immigrants by Category

Source: 'Trump's Path', Kevin Johnson

By rights, if permanent residency is extended to all DACA eligible persons, then by extension, it should be offered to all 3.6 million Dreamers.  The same logic of eligibility applies to both groups.

The prospect of a large scale amnesty has not gone down well with conservatives.  First, they were told that DACA anmesty would apply to 800,000 migrants, only to be informed by President Trump that the actual number had been enlarged to 1.8 million.  And they have yet to be told that, by logical extension, acknowledging the validity of the 1.8 million is tantamount to accepting as much for a full 3.6 million Dreamers. 

And all this is before the impact of chain migration.  Chain migration allows green card holders or legal residents to bring their spouses and minor children to the US.  Upon being granted citizenship, immigrants can apply to bring over parents, married children and adult siblings.  Most of these will over time vote for the Democratic Party.  Thus, allowing in 3.6 million Dreamers may be tantamount to acquiring 10 million Democratic voters over time.  For conservatives and the Republican Party, this is electoral suicide--and the DACA issue remains in political limbo as a result.


The behavioral aspects of amnesty are yet another sore point for conservatives.  Historical precedent suggests that providing amnesty to a large group of illegal migrants will incentivize further waves of illegal migration as potential crossers perceive the chance to become permanent residents of the United States over time.  Exactly this occurred after the amnesty of 1986 (IRCA).  IRCA was supposed to materially end illegal immigration.  Instead, the illegal population soared.  By 1993, it had regained its pre-amnesty peak of 1986, and and by 1997, illegal immigrant numbers had doubled, if the beneficiaries of amnesty are included.

Conservatives had been duped.  As The Atlantic noted in 1994: 

The mass legalization of then-illegal immigrants was traded for the promise that a new program of employer sanctions would destroy the incentive for further mass immigration. That hope proved vain; but if it had never been entertained, IRCA would never have passed.

As a consequence, the prospects for passing DACA-lite and full DACA, not to mention the Dream Act, look distant.  At a minimum, Americans would have to be convinced that such an initiative would be paired with effective border enforcement.  President Trump has made the construction of a wall the appropriate metric.  As we have written earlier, a wall will not work.  No promise of effective exclusion can be made, because none can be honored.

This leaves President Trump in an awkward position.  If he allows DACA to expire, then individuals with historical ties to the US and at least some sort of legal status -- not to mention jobs and commitments like rent and mortgages -- will suddenly find themselves in limbo.  Deporting such individuals will make for gut-wrenching television, as CNN and NPR interview tearful, native English speakers as they are packed off to Mexico, a country foreign to many of them.

On the other hand, extending DACA is hardly better, as conservatives will rightly claim that the President is providing a kind of slow amnesty entirely at odds with his campaign promises and the dearly held beliefs of his core supporters.

Thus, the President and the Republican Party are effectively stuck, neither able to advance or retreat. 

Market-based visas can help.  Although they are not intended as a remedy for legacy problems, MBVs can nevertheless be used to address the current DACA impasse in three importants ways.

Status without Permanence

As envisioned, market-based visas provide nothing more than the right to work in the US in return for a market-based fee.  As such, they can be used to provide status to persons in the US without having to commit to any formal amnesty.   Visas are not granted to any particular person.  They are purchased at a market price in the marketplace, just like a day pass at Disney World.  As noted earlier, MBVs by their very nature resist serving as a transition program to permanent residency.  Moreover, MBVs could cover virtually the entire illegal immigrant population, including Dreamers.

Demonstrate a Working Visa System

Market-based visas can be used to channel migrant flows, rather than trying to block them off. Critically, MBVs are a compensation-based system, not an enforcement-based system.  A market-based approach is not built on aggressive border control, arresting people in the streets of New York, or raiding bakeries in California.  Rather, MBVs are based on allowing in a market-clearing number of immigrants at a price which even the immigrant who values the opportunity the least is willing to pay.  At the same time, such a system will create a safe, transparent and ordered market and generate fair compensation to the US -- all critical goals for conservatives.  Our early feedback shows conservatives support such an initiatve for just these reasons.

If a working migrant immigration system can be demonstrated to the US public, attitudes towards amnesty might soften, as it would show that the border can be controlled, if not closed, and that the undesirable side effects of a black market can be effectively eliminated.  MBVs can meet these requirements.

MBVs can be used as an off ramp to permanent status for already resident migrants

Like any commercial product, MBVs can be offered with discounts.  Thus, in a hypothetical example

  • For migrant children less than 22 years of age who have lived in the US at least five years, MBVs could be offered at a 90% discount
  • For young adult migrants aged 23-30 with at least five years residence, the MBV could be offered with a discount of 70%
  • For adult migrants aged 31 and older, with at least five years residence, MBVs could be offered with a 30% discount.

These visas promise nothing over the very long run, but they would provide status in the US indefinitely.  All the visas issued over the initial period of the program would be of a one year term or less.  Therefore, visa conditions could be modified with changing circumstances in the future.  This approach would provide immediate status and relief from deportation for those 85% of undocumented immigrants in the US longer than five years.  (Those in the US less than five years could purchase the visas at market value.)  As the visa discounts (but not the visas) would be granted to individuals, and not on a market basis, such discounts would have the effect of creating a protected class, much as the DACA program has done.  

It should be noted that many undocumented migrants are now long-standing residents of the United States.  Essentially, the undocumented Hispanic population in the US is the result of two different historical periods.  Most undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans came to the US between the IRCA amnesty and the end of the Clinton administration, that is, between 18 and 32 years ago.  Very few have entered the US since the start of the Great Recession a decade ago.  Thus, most of the undocumented residents of the US have been here more than a decade, and many substantially longer.  Over time, the pressure to provide such residents permanent status will only grow.

At some point -- but not necessarily in the short term -- an off ramp to premanent resident status is conceivable for those given discounts, say hypothetically, for those with at least five years residence today, at least five years participation in a future MBV program, and at least twenty years residence in the United States.

Off ramp.png

On such a basis, a plausible path of conversion from the MBV program to permanent residency, for those already resident in the US today at least fifteen years, would shown on the graph at the right.

Such a program would have a number of key advantages:

  • The first migrant cohort would gain permanent residency in 2024, the year after end of President Trump's putative second term
  • No firm commitment of permanent status would have to be given until the MBV program is up and running for several years -- perhaps enough to gain tolerance from the American public for the naturalization of illegal immigrants who have remained in good standing in an MPV program over time and been residents of the US for more than twenty years.
  • All illegal immigrants in the US for more than five years without a serious criminal background would have an opportunity to gain legal status at a discounted price; and all other, non-criminal, illegal immigrants, at a market price, thereby diffusing the entire undocumented migrant issue in the short run.   
  • When migrants graduate from the system in substantial numbers, the market price of the visas will collapse, and the system will reduce the number of visas offered to return the price to its previous level.  In other words, by its nature, the system will tend to retire those visas used by migrants transitioned into permanent residency and reduce the size of the MBV program accordingly.

MBVs are not a panacea, and they are not intended to cope with legacy illegal immigration problems.  However, given the political stalemate which currently prevails in Washington, MBVs can be used to finesse the issue by providing short-term, but potentialy indefinite, legal status to undocumented immigrants in the US, even as the political impact of granting permanent residency status is deferred past the days of the Trump administration.

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