Politics & Policy

The Unfairness of DACA

DACA supporters at a rally in Los Angeles, Calif., September 1, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kyle Grillot)
It’s compassionate to people from Mexico, but not to people from Dhaka.

President Trump’s recent decision to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program has provoked strong reactions. The Washington Post’s editorial board calls the decision “heartless.” Silicon Valley CEOs have also strongly condemned the decision, and now are urging Congress to act. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued a statement: “This is a sad day for our country. The decision to end DACA is not just wrong. It is particularly cruel to offer young people the American Dream, encourage them to come out of the shadows and trust our government, and then punish them for it.” Sam Altman, CEO of Y Combinator, tweeted

Imagine for example that you are a sweatshop worker in Bangladesh. You make a few cents an hour, working twelve hours a day, seven days a week. This is barely enough to provide for your most basic necessities, but the alternatives to working in a sweatshop are even worse. Would you want to move to the U.S.? Say, Los Angeles, California? Of course you would! Even the poorest workers in L.A. have a much better standard of living. The minimum wage there is $12 an hour — almost as much as a Bangladeshi textile worker earns in a week. Even controlling for cost of living, this is an enormous boost.

The infrastructure, health care, schools, and other public goods are much better in L.A. as well. Indeed, it would be foolish of you not to want to move. Bangladesh has a population of 163 million people. Of course, not all of them would want to move to the U.S. (wealthy government officials and the like might want to stay put), but many would. Nigeria, a similarly poor country, has a population of 186 million. India, with a per capita nominal GDP of $1,850, has a population of 1.33 billion.

GDP isn’t everything, certainly, but GDP adjusted for purchasing-power parity (PPP) is an extremely accurate predictor of human development and social progress. Bangladesh’s GDP per capita, PPP adjusted, is $3,891, according to the IMF; that of the U.S. is $57,436 – about 15 times higher.

The point I’m trying to illustrate here is that fairness in immigration policy has to be understood in the context of scarcity. The demand for U.S. residency, given how wealthy the country is, vastly outstrips the supply of immigration spots that America offers or can realistically offer. Moreover, no country on earth has a fully open-borders policy as a matter of law.

The question of justice that arises, then, is this: Is it fair to all those people who want to come to the U.S. but cannot (owing to oceans and immigration laws) that people in violation of U.S. immigration law are allowed to stay? You might say that the fact that DACA-eligible individuals were brought as children defeats these considerations of fairness. But what of the millions of Bangladeshi children, many of whom have nothing but a sweatshop to look forward to? They would have loved to grow up in the U.S.

And what of the children who were brought into the U.S. legally? DACA offers no protections to such individuals. Many of the visas the U.S. offers, including the F-1 student visa and the H1-B, are temporary, and many children are brought to the U.S. as dependents by parents who have such visas. Such a child can be in the same situation as a DACA recipient: She grew up mostly in the U.S., but would have to leave once her parents’ visa ran out.

DACA’s sister program, DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans), creates even more puzzling incentives. Writing for Vox in 2015, William Han described his struggle with the American immigration system and highlighted how tough it can be to immigrate legally. He’d been educated in American colleges, had a law degree from Columbia, and had spent a total of 15 years in the U.S. Yet he had no means to obtain legal citizenship. Was his mistake to fail to have a child and overstay his visa, so that he could qualify for DAPA?

The sympathy that many feel toward DACA recipients is understandable. But let’s not pretend that it’s obvious what justice requires in this case. Recently, pro-DACA activists entered Trump International Hotel chanting, “No justice, no peace!” But doesn’t justice involve treating everyone by the same rules? Isn’t that why Lady Justice wears a blindfold over her eyes?

Think about what the situation looks like from the point of view of the average Indian peasant. Life in America would make him and his family much better off. But America tells him that he cannot immigrate there because he cannot get the right visa. Airport security will stop him if he tries to board a plane to the U.S. But if someone succeeds in evading border regulations — which, for him, would be quite difficult to do — then their kids will eventually be able to stay. Is this situation fair to him? He has kids that he’d love to be able to raise in the U.S.

Consider the following analogy. Suppose that a drug is invented to cure a type of cancer. It seems highly successful, and therefore many people want to participate in the testing phase (time is running out for them, let’s say). Because the demand for these testing-phase spots outstrips supply, spots are given via lottery. The people who are not successful in the lottery are disappointed, but they realize a cutoff must be made somehow. Now suppose that I work for the drug company and am able to bring my friend into the trial because of my connections, outside of the lottery rules. I act out of sympathy for my friend. Is my action just? Is it fair to people who couldn’t get a lottery allotment?

The DACA program and the proposed legislative action from Congress to legalize the order raise many complex issues of fairness and justice. There’s much to be said for both sides of the issue. Let’s not pretend otherwise.


    Trump Has Not Ended DACA

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