Our organization – PICO National Network – has been talking to immigrant families in the congregations that are part of our network and we’ve been organizing educational clinics on DACA. We’ve heard many stories about the practical and emotional benefits of DACA for young people and their families. Nonetheless, some people have been afraid to apply and others have not known they are eligible.
But disturbingly, the most common thing we hear from young people who qualify but have not applied and from their families is the cost of the $465 application fee. Over and over we’ve heard stories of families who’ve applied for one of their children, but are still saving up for the others. This is a reminder of how many immigrant families live hand-to-mouth, despite working long hours at difficult jobs.
When we’ve asked immigrant families about the current Senate legislation, the biggest obstacle they’ve identified is saving up for the costs of applying for legal status. Under the Senate bill it will cost an individual more than $4,000 in fees and penalties to receive permanent legal status.
Our experience with DACA shows us that this cost will be too high for many immigrants. Undocumented immigrants have very high labor force participation rates, but they often work for low wages. One out of five undocumented immigrants lives below the poverty line. If just half of these immigrants are unable to afford the high costs of applying for legal status or the separate work and income requirements imposed by the legislation, 1.2 million people who are otherwise eligible could remain undocumented as a result of financial barriers.
The case for lowering the cost of applying for legal status – especially for families with multiple members who are undocumented – is practical rather than political. The American people want to see the problems with our immigration policy solved once and for all. They don’t want there to be a large residual population of people blocked from a path to citizenship after immigration reform is passed.
There are a number of pragmatic solutions that would make the legislation more workable for immigrant families. We were happy to see the Senate Judiciary Committee pass an amendment that allows families to pay their penalties in installments. We’re urging the Senate to build on this change by putting a cap on the total amount that a family would have to pay in penalties. Another suggestion is that people be able to meet their penalties through community service. Extending the application period would also make a big difference. And it will be important for senators to reject amendments that would have the counter-productive effect of excluding more people from legal status and the path to citizenship.
Bipartisan momentum behind immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship is good for the country and long overdue. Now let’s make sure that the legislation Congress passes is workable for immigrant families.
Whitman is the director of Public Policy for PICO National Network, the largest faith-based organizing network in the country. PICO’s Campaign for Citizenship is working for a fair and direct path to citizenship for the 11 million aspiring Americans living, working, and worshiping in the United States.