Just How Large of an Amnesty Are We Talking About?

By Jason Richwine on January 24, 2018

The 1986 amnesty known by its acronym, IRCA, contained a late addition intended to legalize certain farm workers. The government expected no more than 400,000 illegal immigrants to even qualify under the provision, but applications flooded in and 1.1 million people ended up receiving amnesty through the farm exception alone. The 700,000 excess meant that, of the 2.7 million illegal immigrants granted amnesty through the main provisions of IRCA, roughly one in four received it unexpectedly (and perhaps fraudulently).

IRCA's much-larger-than-anticipated amnesty is relevant today as Congress ponders the fate of illegal immigrants who arrived as minors. The Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, since suspended by the Trump administration, granted work permits to illegal immigrants who arrived before the age of 16 and resided at least five years in the United States. Some lawmakers propose replacing DACA with a larger amnesty, and now many different size estimates of varying reliability are being tossed around.

This post lays out the estimated sizes of several major amnesty proposals, with an emphasis on the uncertainty. If Congress passes an open-ended amnesty — not limited to current DACA beneficiaries or not capped at a certain number — then the eventual count of amnesty recipients could easily eclipse what is promised when the bill passes.

Current DACA Beneficiaries: 689,800

For those who advocate a "DACA fix", the most natural population to target is the group of current DACA beneficiaries. They are the only people whose status would change when the program ends, and identifying them does not require a new application process. The number of active DACA beneficiaries on September 4, 2017 — the day before the Trump administration announced the suspension of the program — was 689,800. The current number is slightly different, as some beneficiaries whose status would expire before March 5 of this year failed to renew. In addition, DACA renewals started up again after a January 9 ruling by a federal judge. Nevertheless, a DACA fix limited to current beneficiaries would lead to a predictable number of people receiving amnesty, with no surprise surges. This is the approach of the compromise bill pending in the House, called the Securing America's Future Act.

Potentially Eligible for DACA: 1.7 Million

A large number of people who appear to meet the eligibility requirements for DACA are not beneficiaries. Some failed to renew their status or simply never applied in the first place, while others may be disqualified based on factors such as criminality or unauthorized trips abroad. Using Census data, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates that about 1.3 million people meet DACA's age and education criteria. In addition, another 400,000 who appear to be ineligible because they dropped out of high school could become eligible by simply signing up for an adult education class.

Earlier this week, McClatchy reported that the White House may be open to a bill that offers amnesty to the "1.2 million" people eligible for DACA. It is possible that this number reflects a new calculation, but it's more likely that negotiators are saying 1.2 million simply because that was the number of people assumed to be immediately eligible in 2012 when DACA began. The difference between the rhetoric (1.2 million) and the possible reality on the ground (1.7 million) illustrates the uncertainty that creeps into estimates once a proposed amnesty becomes unmoored from the actual DACA population.

Predicted Dream Act Beneficiaries: 2 Million

DACA should not be confused with the proposed Dream Act. "Dreamers" are a broader group of illegal immigrants who have not necessarily received deferred action of any kind. The latest incarnation of the Dream Act, sponsored by Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin, is more generous than DACA in that it allows eligible residents to have arrived illegally before the age of 18 (rather than 16), requires four years of residence (rather than five), and imposes no upper age limit on eligibility (unlike DACA's age limit of 31). The CBO predicts that "nearly 2 million people" would receive amnesty from the Dream Act. However, the CBO is just making an educated guess based on application and approval rates for DACA and IRCA. The Dream Act imposes no cap on how many people can receive amnesty.

Potentially Eligible for the Dream Act: 3.25 Million

The CBO and MPI believe that 3.25 million illegal immigrants qualify for the Dream Act based on their age at entry and continuous residence in the United States, although about a third of them would need to go back to school before receiving the amnesty. Of course, any changes to eligibility requirements that occur during negotiation would also change the number of people potentially eligible. For example, MPI estimates that 3.57 million people are potentially eligible for amnesty under Rep. Luis Gutierrez's American Hope Act, mainly because his bill requires only one year of residence rather than the Dream Act's four.

Gang of Six's Moderate Bipartisan Common-Sense Compromise Plan: More than Four Million

The title above is obviously tongue-in-cheek — a reference to how odd it is that a plan "negotiated" by a group that contains no immigration restrictionists is portrayed in the media as the essence of compromise. In fact, the Gang of Six plan would probably make the largest number of people eligible for amnesty on this list. Details are sketchy, but the plan apparently consists of a somewhat more restrictive Dream Act, plus amnesty (but not citizenship) for the parents of Dreamers, plus amnesty for illegal immigrants who hold Temporary Protected Status (TPS). If I had to put a number on how many people are potentially eligible for this amnesty, it would be 4.2 million (2.6 million Dreamers plus 1.3 million parents plus 300,000 TPS holders). Again, however, the details of the plan are not available.


All of the uncertainty surrounding who may apply for amnesty, what the details of a final bill will look like, and how DHS will handle fraud suggests that any "predicted" amnesty number attached to a piece of legislation is suspect. Only a simple DACA fix, which would limit amnesty to current DACA beneficiaries, offers real certainty. If lawmakers wish to go beyond a DACA fix, they should include a hard cap on the number of people who can receive amnesty from their bill.