Symposium | Humane Immigration Reform Now

Path to Citizenship: It Benefits All of Us

By Nicole Prchal Svajlenka Claudia Flores

Tagged economyimmigrationpandemic

For the past year and a half, the United States has been battling the COVID-19 pandemic along with the ensuing economic fallout. Now, Congress and the Biden-Harris Administration’s biggest task, along with tackling the virus itself, is to chart the course for our country’s economic recovery. One way to boost the economy for all? Put the approximately 10.4 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States on a pathway to citizenship. Doing so would magnify their fiscal and economic contributions while adding up to $1.7 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) and creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs. It would also ensure that families can remain together, a case that is particularly urgent for the hundreds of thousands of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and their loves ones, who, after living under a cloud of constant legal uncertainty, are now faced with the greatest threat to their livelihood and well-being after a negative court ruling out of a federal court in Texas in mid-July.

It is easy to make a sound economic case for protecting undocumented immigrants through legalization and a pathway to citizenship. Not only are undocumented immigrants a major force in the U.S. economy, both as workers and consumers, but a pathway to citizenship would further strengthen the economy for all. It would be good for undocumented immigrants themselves along with their families, but also for all other Americans who would feel the ripple effects of tax revenue and spending power.

The undocumented community also has longstanding ties to the United States, with the average undocumented immigrant having lived in the country for more than 15 years. And among young undocumented immigrants, sometimes referred to as “Dreamers,” the average DACA recipient arrived in the United States at age 7. These individuals have built lives and families here—an estimated 10.2 million people, including children who are U.S. citizens, across the country live with a family member who is undocumented.

As the country has been mired in the greatest public health crisis of our time, communities of color continue to face the disproportionate impacts from the coronavirus, compounding longstanding disparities for many, including among the Hispanic or Latino community and particularly undocumented immigrants. Discrimination and racism in the United States means that communities of color are at higher risk of the COVID-19 virus. Black and Hispanic workers and their households are more likely to work in jobs that require in-person work over telework, placing them at increased risk of exposure in their work environments.

An economic recovery that is just and equitable must address these inequities and include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including the many essential workers who must continue to physically show up to their jobs and are most vulnerable to health risks. This is the right thing to do for the United States, for working families, and for communities of color across the country.

Undocumented Immigrants Are Already an Integral Part of the U.S. Economy

Undocumented immigrants are already an integral part of the U.S. economy
Undocumented immigrants are already economically integrated into the United States, and the country relies on their economic and fiscal contributions. Each year, undocumented immigrants and their households pay billions of dollars in taxes—somewhere to the tune of $80 billion to the federal government and another $41 billion to state and local governments. On top of these fiscal contributions, undocumented immigrants’ employers pay $17 billion for Social Security and $4 billion in Medicare through payroll taxes to buoy the social safety net.

With $315 billion in annual take-home pay after taxes, they are not just the proprietors of our Main Street businesses, they are also the consumers keeping them open. In addition, they own 1.6 million homes and are currently making $21 billion in mortgage payments as well as $49 billion in rental payments each year. It’s important to remember that this is not a zero-sum game, and the economy is dynamic, not static. Undocumented workers complement others in the workforce rather than compete with them. The argument that immigrants take jobs away from others has been regularly disproven, meaning that if undocumented immigrants were to disappear, so too would these economic contributions. Analyses of Arizona’s Legal Arizona Workers Act, a 2007 state policy mandating E-Verify, show that regulations targeting undocumented workers didn’t result in U.S.-born workers filling newly vacated jobs. And in such cases these job losses could have repercussions further along the supply chain in many sectors. For example, the workers who pick crops in the field also sustain those in downstream activities such as packing the food, transporting it to stores, and selling it.

The argument that immigrants take jobs away from others has been regularly disproven. If they were to disappear, so would their contributions.

At the end of the day, we are talking about 10.4 million people who are already long settled in the United States. The data above quantify their economic contributions, which, while large, could be even more so with a pathway to citizenship. For more than 30 years, the United States’s policy approach has been to largely do nothing, leaving these individuals and their families vulnerable to deportation and changing political tides. Such a dynamic is true to an even greater extent when it comes to DACA recipients, and it’s a very real possibility that they could lose their protections. Despite a June 2020 ruling from the Supreme Court against the previous Administration’s attempt to end the program, in July 2021, Judge Andrew Hanen in the Southern District of Texas ruled against the legality of DACA—one of the biggest legal threats to the program thus far—locking out of protection tens of thousands of young, eligible DACA applicants and thus partially ending the program. While the Biden-Harris Administration has vowed to appeal this latest DACA ruling, as this case potentially works its way through the appeals process, current DACA recipients remain able to renew their protections, but eligible Dreamers are barred from applying for the first time. But it shouldn’t be this way, and with an overwhelming majority of Americans in support of a pathway to citizenship for immigrants, Congress has an opportunity to solve this issue and in doing so grow our economy by boosting the significant economic contributions that undocumented immigrants make to the United States each day.

The reality is that we are closer than we’ve been in a generation to achieving permanent protections for undocumented Americans. The coronavirus underscored this urgent need when it made us, as a society—especially those who could work remotely—think more closely about those workers who must show up to work each day, making sacrifices for themselves and their families, to keep our country open. Across the United States, an estimated 5 million undocumented workers—that’s nearly three out of four of those in that workforce—are considered to be essential workers, according to the federal government’s own definition. They are the health-care professionals working in hospitals, the grocery store clerks and shoppers filling our delivery orders, the nursing home staff caring for our loved ones, the farmworkers and restaurant staff helping to feed us.

The role of undocumented immigrants is especially noteworthy in certain sectors of the economy. Nationwide, more than one in ten construction workers, who work to ensure our roads are safe, our lights stay on, and homes are being built, are undocumented. From agricultural fields to grocery stores and restaurants, 1.7 million undocumented immigrants work at every step of our food supply chain. And approximately 346,000 undocumented immigrants are working as health-care providers or in other roles to keep hospitals, long-term care facilities, and labs running smoothly. When it comes to providing care to our children and our elderly, an estimated 142,000 undocumented workers are part of the essential care economy, often facilitating family members’ ability to remain in or return to the workforce.

Past Lessons

Protections via legalization and a pathway to citizenship is not a radical idea—nor is it even a new idea. In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), granting legal status and a pathway to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants. Research shows that those who legalized under IRCA we able to move into better jobs and earned higher wages.

Unfortunately, it’s been more than 30 years since IRCA, and the United States once again finds itself in a similar spot. In 2012, recognizing that Congress was not going to act on immigration despite broad public support for legislation, the Obama-Biden Administration issued the DACA policy, which deferred deportation and granted work permits to eligible young immigrants who arrived to the United States as children. As the most recent example of successful immigration policy, DACA shows us that access to protections from deportation and work authorization has myriad benefits for undocumented immigrants. Annual surveys of DACA recipients show that these protections provide stability for those in the program and their families and communities, and can stimulate economic activity through taxes, business generation, and other major investments.

And after receiving DACA, more than half of respondents reported that they moved to jobs with better pay, working conditions, benefits, and health insurance, as well as to jobs that better align with their education, training, and long-term career goals. When DACA recipients move into these types of jobs, the ripple effects can be seen throughout the economy. Having DACA means an individual is more likely to make large investments, both in themselves and the economy, like purchasing a car or a home or even starting their own business. Approximately 6 percent of DACA recipients have started their own business and employ an average of 4.5 employees—meaning they’ve created more than 170,000 jobs, while recent analysis estimates that DACA recipients own 56,000 homes and pay $567 million in mortgage and $2.3 billion in rental payments each year.

The gains we see as a result of DACA are just the floor, and still temporary until its beneficiaries are granted a pathway to citizenship that allows them to fully participate in the U.S. economy and broader society. But imagine what permanent legal protections and, better yet, a pathway to citizenship, would give to these individuals and the full universe of undocumented immigrants.

A Pathway to Citizenship Would Add Trillions to the Economy

While DACA showed us what economic benefits work authorization and protections from deportation could yield, studies estimating the benefits of full legalization and citizenship estimate the potential gains to be even higher. As the country is struggling to dig itself out of the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing economic downturn, now is the time to move forward on policy solutions that will help our recovery. A recent report from the Center for American Progress and the University of California, Davis’s Global Migration Center finds that creating a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants would, over the course of the next decade, increase annual wages for all workers by $700, add a cumulative $1.7 trillion dollars to the U.S. GDP, and create nearly 440,000 new, permanent jobs—jobs that would be available to Americans in all sectors of the economy.

Even legalizing a subset of these individuals would bring big economic benefits. For example, enacting the Dream and Promise Act and providing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and those eligible for Temporary Protected Status would add $799 billion to the GDP, create close to 285,000 new jobs, and raise annual wages for all workers by $400. Legislation protecting undocumented essential workers would net an additional $989 billion in GDP and 203,000 new jobs.

These impacts are largely the result of increased worker productivity, higher levels of educational attainment and on-the-job learning, and increased capital investments. But everyone benefits from this. In addition to the job creation and GDP gains, in both of these scenarios, annual earnings would increase not just for the eligible undocumented, but for all other workers as well. Furthermore, legal protections for all workers ensure fewer in the workplace are vulnerable and can lead to better working conditions for all.

The United States is in a critical moment as it charts what economic recovery will look like for millions of American families. We can and must ensure that such recovery is equitable and robust, and includes all Americans, including our undocumented community members. Doing so won’t just help these individuals; all Americans would reap the benefits. As mentioned, providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants would deliver a $1.7 trillion boost to the U.S. economy and generate more than 440,000 new jobs. For too long Congress has stalled in delivering long overdue reforms to create a functional immigration system that best responds to the country’s needs. As the Biden-Harris Administration works with Congress to enact critical investments for the nation’s future, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is essential for a strong, post-COVID-19 economy. At the end of the day, everyone can win, but only if Congress acts. Whether that is achieved through the budget reconciliation process or otherwise, Congress is sitting on a valuable tool to further our recovery.

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Nicole Prchal Svajlenka is the associate director for research with the immigration policy team at the Center for American Progress.

Claudia Flores is the associate director for policy and strategy with the immigration policy team at the Center for American Progress.

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