The political debate over the fate of "DREAMers" — undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — has overlooked just how many there are in the country today: about 3.6 million.
That number of people whose lives risk being uprooted is not widely known, in large part because so much public attention has been focused recently on 800,000 mostly young DREAMers accepted into the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
This smaller group of DREAMers is in the spotlight because President Trump terminated DACA in September, saying it was an illegal overreach of executive authority that can only come from Congress, which is negotiating with Trump on a compromise immigration plan.
While many politicians use DREAMer and DACA interchangeably, the terms are "not a distinction without a difference," said House Minority Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
The 3.6 million estimate of undocumented immigrants brought to U.S. before their 18th birthday comes from the Migration Policy Institute, a non-profit research group that promotes better understanding of immigration issues. That is roughly a third of all undocumented immigrants in the country and does not include millions of their immediate family members who are U.S. citizens.
A number so large raises the stakes for both sides in the dispute over whether to deport DREAMers, allow them to stay under prescribed conditions or provide them with a path to citizenship.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum, said exposing millions of DREAMers to deportations would be a moral and economic calamity.
"At a time when our economy is growing and our labor market is extremely tight, these are all folks of working age who have skills to immediately contribute," Noorani said. "We would be spending billions of dollars to remove folks who have the potential to help the country grow."
On the other side is Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Status, which favors lower levels of immigration. He argues for only extending protections for the 800,000 in DACA. "It's not like they're entitled to anything, but prudence suggests an extraordinary act of mercy," he said. "Amnesty is warranted for them alone, at least this time."
In exchange for DREAMer protections, Republicans want enhanced border security, the end of a diversity visa program for people from under-represented countries, including several from Africa, and a reduction in relatives that U.S. citizens can sponsor for visas.
The impact of what may happen to DREAMers was highlighted this week when Jorge Garcia, 39, a Detroit landscaper who has lived in the U.S. for 30 years, was deported back to his native Mexico even though he arrived in the country when he was 10 years. Garcia, whose wife and two children are all U.S. citizens, did not qualify for DACA because he was just over the age limit.
To qualify for DACA, created in 2012, DREAMers had to undergo a thorough background check, prove they arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday, were 30 or younger, were attending school or in the military, and had not committed a felony or serious misdemeanor. The program provided work permits and two-year reprieves from deportation that could be renewed.
Cecilia Muñoz, Obama's domestic policy director, said he chose to protect a limited number of DREAMers because he could go only so far through executive action. Now that Congress is involved, Muñoz said, far more DREAMers should be protected.
"The right policy is to be as generous as possible," Muñoz said. "We know the success of DACA. It's good for the country, and this has overwhelming support around the country from people on both sides of the aisle. There's no reason to limit who is eligible."
There are several legislative proposals that each protect different numbers of DREAMers. Some deal only with those who entered the country before their 16th birthday. Others set age limits and include education or military requirements and clean criminal records.
According to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute:
•The most generous proposal is the American Hope Act introduced by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., which would provide legal status to 3.5 million DREAMers, excluding a small group who pose public safety threats.
•Another plan known as the DREAM Act presented to Trump by a bipartisan group of senators last week would allow 2.1 million to stay in the country.
"There is support across the country for allowing Dreamers — who have records of achievement — to stay, work, and reach their full potential," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said. "We should not squander these young people’s talents and penalize our own nation."
•Other proposals from Republicans would protect up to 1.7 million immigrants.
•The most restrictive proposals would provide legal status only to the 798,980 people approved for DACA.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has said it will not deport former DACA recipients if their protections expire. But under Trump's orders, it will arrest any undocumented immigrant agents come across. The percentage of undocumented immigrants without criminal records arrested by ICE has increased dramatically since Trump took office.
If Congress does not strike a deal by March 5, DACA enrollees will begin losing their deportation protections and work permits.