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CRS — Unauthorized Aliens: Policy Options for Providing Targeted Immigration Relief

February 25, 2013

Unauthorized Aliens: Policy Options for Providing Targeted Immigration Relief (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

The 113 th Congress is expected to consider comprehensive immigration reform legislation. If and when it does, a key challenge will be how to address the unauthorized alien population, estimated to number some 11 million. The unauthorized alien population is often treated as if it were monolithic, but it is, in fact, quite diverse. It includes individuals who entered the United States in different ways, for different reasons, and who have different types of connections to the United States. The circumstances of individuals who compose the unauthorized alien population affect their treatment under immigration law, especially with respect to prospects for obtaining legal status in the United States. Relevant immigration status-related factors include mode of entry into the United States, length of unlawful presence in the country, and the existence of family or employment connections.

The differences in circumstances among unauthorized aliens are particularly relevant in the context of current discussions about how to address this population. In past years, immigration proposals on unauthorized aliens often called for the establishment of broad legalization programs to enable large numbers of unauthorized aliens to become U.S. legal permanent residents (LPRs) or, conversely, included provisions aimed at promoting the departure of large numbers of unauthorized aliens from the country over time. More recently, there has been discussion of developing policies to provide targeted immigration relief to unauthorized aliens. Immigration relief is a broad term that encompasses relief from removal from the United States without the granting of a legal immigration status as well as relief in the form of a legal immigration status.

A main focus of recent discussions has been making eligibility for legal status available to certain segments of the unauthorized population. Aliens with approved immigrant visa petitions, especially those with U.S. citizen or LPR family members, seem to be of particular interest. Selected segments of the unauthorized alien population without an affirmative pathway to legal status, such as students who entered the United States as children and beneficiaries of long-term humanitarian relief, have also been the subject of policy proposals.

Policies to provide targeted relief to unauthorized aliens could be legislative or administrative. Legislative options could include amending existing statutory provisions to make it easier for certain unauthorized aliens to obtain LPR status. They also could include establishing statutory mechanisms to enable certain subgroups of unauthorized aliens to become LPRs who may not have pathways to do so under current law, as in the case of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

Unauthorized aliens also could receive temporary relief from removal through administrative action. The Department of Homeland Security’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which was established in the absence of congressional action on DREAM Act legislation and includes similar eligibility criteria, provides a recent example. Such administrative actions can provide temporary relief, but, unlike legislative enactments, cannot provide beneficiaries with a legal immigration status.

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