Currently, one of the most heated topics of debate, capable of eliciting a strong and emotional argument, is how to best address the masses of illegal immigrants currently residing undocumented within the United States. With an estimated eleven to twelve million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States, the question of how to deal with individuals who are living and working in the country illegally is certainly no small one (Bardes 146; Schmidt 81). The basis for various viewpoints range from calm and logical economic analysis to the more primal: an impassioned and territorial, if not aggressive need to defend one’s home or area from the threatening “other.” There are two primary reasons or sets of reasons that strongly make the case for why illegal immigrants ought to be granted legal status. One is primarily ethical or moral in nature and relates to the values the United States of America was founded upon and arguably still holds. The other is largely related to economics and pertains to the financial boost the nation as a whole, not to mention individual immigrants, would receive from granting noncitizen immigrants legality.
The United States is a nation built by immigrants. Throughout the past few centuries up to the present day, immigrants mostly come to the United States illegally to work, providing a pool of unskilled, low-wage labor that the economy has come to rely upon. The citizens and representative government of the country have an obligation to recognize that illegal immigrants do exist and are being utilized and arguably even exploited by society while being forced to remain in a lower, un-empowered caste. Legalization provides immigrants with numerous rights that can improve standard of living and ensure safe working conditions. A constant fear of being deported can affect an undocumented immigrant’s access to health care, education, and other services. Granting unauthorized workers legal status helps to protect workers from exploitation, suppressed wages, and other mistreatment by employers.
Granting illegal immigrants legal status would provide a boost to the nation’s economy while also improving the economic lives of individual immigrants. Robert Lynch and Patrick Oakford author an article summarizing a study produced by the Center for American Progress that examines the potential economic impacts of granting legal status and potentially or eventually citizenship to undocumented immigrants. Legal status allows undocumented immigrants to earn and produce much more than when they remain illegal. The increased taxes the legal immigrant pays as well as their increased wages ripple through the economy as the immigrant spends wages on products and services, expanding the economy and creating more jobs. The study includes three possible scenarios: one in which undocumented immigrants were granted both legal status and citizenship immediately (in 2013 when the study was produced), a second in which undocumented immigrants are granted legal status immediately and gain citizenship after five years, and a third in which the undocumented immigrants gain legal status immediately but are not eligible for citizenship for another ten years. Each of the scenarios results in significant cumulative gain in the United States’ gross domestic product between 2013 and 2022, although the gains are much greater in the first scenario than in the last. In the first scenario, the study projects that the gross domestic product over that time period would grow by an additional $1.4 trillion while the economy would create upwards of an additional 200,000 jobs annually and personal income would rise by $791 billion. This personal income, of course, would be taxed and result in additional tax revenue of $184 billion divided between federal, state and local governments. The mass of unauthorized immigrants, it is estimated, would earn more than 25 percent more than they currently do.
Under the third scenario, where undocumented immigrants are not eligible for citizenship for another ten years, the cumulative gain in gross domestic product over the ten years would be an estimated $832 billion. An additional 121,000 jobs would be added annually and the annual increase in the incomes of Americans over the ten years would total $470 billion.
While the scenarios all serve to fortify the view that granting legal status and citizenship to undocumented immigrants would bring more money and jobs to the United States’ economy, comparing the different scenarios also makes a strong case for legalization and citizenship sooner, rather than later.
Lynch and Oakford also summarize the results that granting legal status and a road map to citizenship have on the investment by noncitizen immigrants in education and training and labor mobility and increasing returns. Legal status and the possibility of citizenship, essentially guaranteeing membership in American society, encourage noncitizen immigrants to invest in education and training, including improving their English language skills, in order to upgrade their human capital and receive increased wages. Madland and Bunker cite a Department of Labor study which found that newly legalized immigrants had significantly improved their English language skills and educational attainment within five years of gaining legal status.
When undocumented, immigrants, regardless of any specialized skills or educational attainment, tend to pursue employment in fields with low wages such as in agriculture, cleaning services and child care where they are unlikely to be discovered as undocumented. This forces unauthorized workers to receive lesser market returns on their skills than similarly-skilled legal workers. Legalization would, thus, ensure that skills and training are used more fully, increasing the efficiency of the labor market. Additionally, granting legal status would allow noncitizen immigrants to fully take advantage of entrepreneurial activities, as legal status is necessary to obtain the permits and licenses, insurance, and credit to start legitimate, taxable businesses and create jobs.
It cannot be ignored that the argument about the legalization of illegal immigrants is also quite political, with conservative Republicans often staunchly anti-legalization and liberal Democrats more likely to favor legalization and a “path to citizenship.” Republicans fear that granting legal status and then, inevitably, citizenship, to a largely-Hispanic group of voters would grant Democrats greater power. Democrats, then, must not be unaware that Hispanic voters tend to support Democrats. This may be beginning to change, or so some Republicans may hope, judging by recent bipartisan efforts to tackle immigration reform.
These political motivations serve to highlight that the debate about illegal immigrants may be less ideological or based-upon-economics than many in power claim it is and is fueled more by a quest to achieve or maintain political power. Educating anti-legalization proponents about the differences between legal status and full citizenship could prove critical, as granting legal status but not necessarily citizenship has become an agreed-upon middle ground.
Opponents to granting legal status to illegal immigrants cite various reasons, some more valid and based in logic than others, for their stance.
One argument is that newly-legalized immigrants would work for low wages and displace native-born United States citizens working in fields calling for unskilled labor. Additionally, forcing companies that currently exploit illegal immigrants pressed to work for low wages could result in those companies cutting costs by offering fewer jobs.
David Madland and Nick Bunker, in a March 2013 article titled “Legal Status for Undocumented Workers is Good for American Workers,” disprove this fear. They discuss studies that examined the large-scale legalization of 1986 and reached the conclusion that the legalization did not “reduce wages for native-born American workers and, in some cases, actually raised wages.” Marshall Fitz and Philip E. Wolgin further expand upon this positive effect, stating that: “Immigrants tend to complement, rather than compete with, native workers; are consumers who spend money in the economy, stimulating business demand; and are entrepreneurial, starting businesses and helping to employ American workers.”
Another argument held by opponents to legalization is that granting legal status would result in a rush of hopeful new illegal immigrants to the United States, lured by the opportunity to work legally with less potential for deportation and exploitation. There may be some valid basis for this point, according to the findings laid out in the CRS Report for Congress authored by Ruth Ellen Wasam, “Unauthorized Aliens in the United States: Estimates since 1986.” Following the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, the estimated number of unauthorized resident aliens dropped, then began to grow again, so that the estimated number of illegal aliens had more than doubled from its pre-IRCA numbers between 1986 and 2000. While immigrants may be lured partially by the potential for eventual legal status and citizenship in the United States, it is still, no doubt, the greater economic opportunities that the United States grants—even to illegal immigrants—that has the greatest pull for potential immigrants.
Finally, there is the feeling granting legal status to illegal immigrants would undermine immigrants who have struggled or are struggling to enter the United States through the proper legal channels. There may be some truth to this, but it is hardly enough of a basis to deny legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants. Instead, it more likely highlights the need for a comprehensive reform of the immigration and legalization process.
One question that must be posed to opponents of granting illegal immigrants legal status is this: What should be done with the millions of illegal immigrants that are currently in the United States? Large-scale deportation is not a viable option and certainly, allowing or forcing illegal immigrants to remain in the country illegal is not desirable for anyone save, perhaps immoral employers and others who exploit illegal immigrants in order to selfishly achieve greater profits.
A country that still dares to revere the Statue of Liberty as a national symbol must duly note and should likewise observe in practice the words written by Emma Lazarus and held sacred in the statue’s pedestal: ‘“Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore; Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”’
It is in this spirit that the tired, poor, yearning masses should be given at least a portion of the same opportunities as those who preceded them to the United States received and be granted legal status, if not eventually citizenship.
Bardes, Barbara, Mack Shelley, Steffen Schmidt. American Government and Politics Today: The Essentials 2008. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2009. Electronic.
Fitz, Marshall and Philip E. Wolgin. “The Top 4 Reality-Defying Arguments Against Immigration Reform.” Center for American Progress 11 July 2013. Web. 24 April 2014. < http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/news/2013/07/11/69282/the-top-4-reality-defying-arguments-against-immigration-reform/>
Lynch, Robert and Patrick Oakford. “The Economic Effects of Granting Legal Status and Citizenship to Undocumented Immigrants.” Center for American Progress 20 March 2013. Web. 24 April 2014. < http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/report/2013/03/20/57351/ the-economic-effects-of-granting-legal-status-and-citizenship-to-undocumented-immigrants/>
Madland, David and Nick Bunker. “Legal Status for Undocumented Workers is Good for American Workers.” Center for American Progress 20 March 2013. Web. 24 April 2014. < http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/labor/news/2013/03/20/57428/legal-status-for-undocumented-workers-is-good-for-american-workers-2/>
Schmidt, Steffen, Mack Shelley and Barbara Bardes. American Government and Politics Today. Boston: Wadsworth, 2013. Electronic.
Works Cited (cont.)
Wasam, Ruth Ellen. “Unauthorized Aliens in the United States: Estimates Since 1986.” The Library of Congress 15 September 2004. Web. 24 April 2014. < http://fpc.state.gov/documents/ organization/39561.pdf>