Will Dreamers Help Or Hurt The Economy?

There's a debate going on about whether President Obama's deferred action program for undocumented workers will help boost the economy, or hurt it. Guest host Viviana Hurtado hears two opposing views from Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute, and Vanderbilt University law professor Carol Swain.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado. Michel Martin is away. Just ahead, after being held captive by Somali pirates for over a year, a British couple gets ready to set sail again.

But first, we want to take a look at President Obama's Deferred Action Program. It will let some undocumented young people stay in the country legally for the time being. We want to know how the hundreds of thousands of people given relief from deportation could affect our economy.

To help make sense of this, we turn to Muzaffar Chishti. He's the director of the Migration Policy Institute office at the New York University School of Law. Also joining us is Carol Swain. She's a law professor at Vanderbilt University. Welcome to the program.

MUZAFFAR CHISHTI: Thank you for having us.

CAROL SWAIN: Yes, thank you.

HURTADO: Muzaffar Chishti, I'm going to start with you. Your office says up to 1.7 million people may qualify for the Deferred Action Program. Who are they?

CHISHTI: Well, we at the Migration Policy estimate about 1.2 million will be immediately eligible, and about 500,000 more will age into the program. These are young people who are brought in the country as minors by parents who are unauthorized, and they have now gone to school, frequently to college, but don't have lawful status in the country. And this program gives them not lawful status, but protection from removal and deportation for two years and possibility to work lawfully in the country for those two years.

HURTADO: And, Muzaffar, your office also says that 58 percent of this population is already in the labor force. What kind of jobs do they have?

CHISHTI: These are people who are mostly in jobs in the health care industry and hospitality industry, some in construction, some in elder care and infant care. So it's a broad spectrum, but mostly in the middle sector of an economic ladder.

HURTADO: Professor Swain, you've argued that this population is going to take jobs away from people that are already having a tough time finding one in this weak economy. Can you explain some more?

SWAIN: Well, first of all, I'd like to say that it's a band-aid solution to a problem that really deserves the attention of Congress. It does increase the competition for American workers, and there's no group that will be hurt worse than low-skill, low-wage Americans, particularly African-Americans and legal Hispanics.

HURTADO: Muzaffar Chishti, what's your take on Professor Swain's stance?

CHISHTI: Well, two parts. First of all, it clearly is not as good as statutory protection would be from Congress, but Congress has failed to enact legislation for this highly appealing group of people for more than 10 years. Now, in terms of the competition, as I said in the beginning, 58 percent of these people are already in the workforce. This is not a zero-sum game. Any job that an immigrant takes is not a job taken away from a native-born worker.

SWAIN: I disagree totally. The fact that they are already in the labor force tells you how broken our system is, because those jobs that they are holding now are jobs that they're not eligible to hold. Those jobs should go to American workers, and it is a Band-Aid remedy that doesn't solve the problem, nor does it help us with our unemployment situation.

HURTADO: Professor Swain, you've actually focused on how this hurts native workers, but you also don't think it's a good deal for undocumented workers. Can you explain?

SWAIN: If I were an undocumented alien and I entered into this program, it only gives me protection for two years. If a conservative Congress were to be elected, everything could change overnight. And it's not fair to the American public that emphasis would be placed on people who are not citizens of the United States at a time when so many of our own citizens are suffering and at a time that we do have legal immigrants in this country who are qualified to work, who have played by the rules.

And I understand these children were the young people - and they're not children, because it goes up to the age of 31. These are individuals that were brought to the country through no fault of their own, but their parents brought them here. Their parents put them in that situation. It was not the U.S. government.

HURTADO: Muzaffar Chishti, we just heard Professor Swain make a really strong economic argument. If you're looking at the fiscal glass, do you see it as half-full or half-empty with this Deferred Action Program?

CHISHTI: Well, I think it's more than half full, frankly. I mean, I think the argument that Professor Swain is making is a very old argument. And I think - I don't know what the recommendation she would have, as though she would think that we would round up these 1.7 million people or the 11.2 million people we have in the U.S. and get them out of the country. We don't have the moral will, the political will, the resources to move these people.

As long as they're here, the interest of the country - not only their interest - is to integrate them as quickly as possible. All of them were brought in here before they were the age of 16.

I think, from the fiscal point of view, we know that if people are doing higher-paying jobs, which I think what this program is intended to do, those people always pay more in taxes and get much less in services with a much bigger net gain.

SWAIN: And we can talk about this for hours, if not days, so we're going to have to leave it there. Muzaffar Chishti is the director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at the New York University School of Law. He joined us from our New York bureau. Carol Swain is a law professor at Vanderbilt University. She joined us from a studio in Nashville, Tennessee. Thank you very much.

CHISHTI: Thanks for having us.

SWAIN: Thank you.

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