What Does the Supreme Court Immigration Case Have to Do With Poverty in America?

CLASP has partly answered a question that’s been on my mind: Why should we who focus on poverty in America care how the Supreme Court rules on the immigration case it’s considering? Turns out we should care a lot and for a variety of reasons.

Simple Synopsis of the Case

As you may know, the case involves an “action” the President took in late 2014. Two parts, issued as directions through his head of Homeland Security in effect exempt certain undocumented immigrants from deportation for some indefinite time, unless they commit “serious crimes” or seem a threat to national security.

One expands the eligibility of people brought to this country when young — a group originally protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals guidelines.

The other, commonly referred to as DAPA, covers the parents of children born here — and therefore, American citizens — and those who’ve become lawful permanent residents, provided the parents have lived here continuously for at least five years.

Both deferrals, like the original DACA, enable the immigrants covered to apply for legal authority to work. Arguably, nothing new. A regulation issued during the Reagan administration allows any “lawfully present” immigrant to get a work permit.

Texas, joined by 25 other states filed a lawsuit, alleging that the President had exceeded his legal authority — and in a way that would cost them money.

The judge who heard the case at the district level ruled for the states. And he issued an order covering all states, not only those within his court’s jurisdiction. The appeals court majority upheld the order.

So the Justice Department appealed to the Supreme Court, saying basically that the President had merely exercised his authority to set enforcement priorities and that the alleged costs were either speculative or irrelevant.

The Supreme Court thus has to decide whether the order can stand — or decide it can’t, now that it’s shy a member.

Effects on Deferred Action Families

A ruling for the administration would mean that roughly 4.7 million people in this country will no longer live in constant fear of deportation. Most are parents who fear losing their children and vice versa.

Many of the families live in poverty, as CLASP says, because, as it doesn’t say, the parents often have jobs that don’t pay even the legal minimum — or sometimes anything — since undocumented immigrants will hardly file claims of wage theft.

The parents can’t get any federal safety net benefits to compensate — and still couldn’t, unless their status changed. In some cases, their children can because they’re citizens. But the parents are unlikely to claim those benefits because that too would alert the authorities to their presence.

So the children are likely to suffer from hunger, insufficient (or no) health care and other harms those benefits help prevent — for example, by providing affordable, high-quality early education.

A friend-of-the-court brief filed by CLASP and 75 other organizations engaged in children’s advocacy and/or education argues that children with parents at risk of deportation also suffer psychological harms — toxic levels of stress, for example, because both they and their parents fear separation.

These multiple harms, it says, “undermine their long-term prospects for self-actualization and educational and economic success.”

Even worse harms if a working parent is deported, including loss of most or all family income and the consequences thereof, e.g. homelessness, the instabilities of life in foster care.

Potential Effects on Other Poor and Near-Poor People

No administration — not even one headed by the candidate I need not name — is going to deport the millions of immigrants the contested action covers.

That would take an enormous investment of federal resources, while doing nothing to protect our country — and us, as we go about our everyday lives — from genuine threats. It would instead pose something more certain than threats to major sectors of our economy.

So we’ll have DAPA parents and DACA young adults — some now parents — either still living in the shadows or free to live as openly as thee or me. Many work, though how many remains unclear — for obvious reasons.

As I’ve already suggested, they’re highly vulnerable to exploitation. What this means, among other things, is that employers can pay minimal wages to other workers and deny them basic safety protections and benefits.

If the workers don’t like it, well, they’re readily replaceable by others who’ll just hunker down. So it’s not only the undocumented immigrants who’d have a better shot at a living wage – and lives with their lungs and limbs intact — if the Court upholds the action.

Giving DAPA children the security they lack could also benefit other poor and near-poor children because state and local governments would have to spend less on efforts to remedy preventable harms — remedial education, for example, and child welfare services.

Less need for such efforts too because the children who are citizens would be more likely to receive safety net benefits that help prevent the many well-known, lasting harms of hunger, untreated illnesses and the like.

And there’d be more tax revenues, of course — from both the workers and the businesses they buy from. Which could lead the latter to create more jobs — a potential opportunity for workers now legally-authorized, but under-employed.

Altogether then, more funds to spend on low-income families, regardless of immigration status.

A Stop-Gap Measure

The President’s action is no substitute for immigration reform, as he made clear. We have an estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the country — thus more who’d still be insecure and vulnerable than reprieved.

And a future President could rescind the action, using only the same power of the pen Obama used to create it. So the security it provides is tentative.

As everyone knows, we’ve long needed comprehensive reform of our immigration system — one that recognizes the realities of our population and our economy. We can hope it would also reflect the values most, though not all of us espouse — and that we would see it soon.

Not highly likely, but better to hope for that than contemplate what might happen after November.



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