Congressional Research Service (CRS)
Unauthorized Aliens: Policy Options for Providing Targeted Immigration Relief
Andorra Bruno, Specialist in Immigration Policy
February 13, 2013
[full-text, 24 pages]
The 113th 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
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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