Since the failure of the DREAM Act back in 2010, we have yet to see any meaningful or progressive immigration reform policy. While legislation like the KIDS Act is in the works, none offers a solution to the heart of the issue of immigration reform- a comprehensive path to citizenship. Without offering undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, not only does the U.S incur serious societal and economic costs, but it also risks creating a second class citizen population in the land of supposed opportunity and equality.
At present, the U.S has an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants residing in its borders, out of which 1 million are brought here illegally as children. Before delving into the issue of extending citizenship for these 12 million, it is important to understand why they don’t have the proper documentation in the first place. Attaining a visa to become a permanent citizen is already a restrictive process, but the main problem is that the government doesn’t issue enough visas. With only 5,000 work visas reserved for low-skill workers – which is what many undocumented immigrants are applying as – it doesn’t allow for flexibility in an economy in which the service sector finds itself increasingly lacking in employees. Applicants and employers face long waits of ten years for work visa approvals and eighteen to twenty-five years for family visas. This severe backlog on visas demonstrates the inefficiency of our visa system and explains why those desperate for work or to reunite with their families will still enter the country without authorization – they don’t have a choice.
Fixing the process of obtaining a visa would be one long term solution in reforming the immigration system, but the most important issue right now is what to do with the undocumented immigrants that are already in the U.S. It would be unrealistic and costly to deport 12 million people, and the majority of the public recognizes that. Furthermore, while the majority of these unauthorized immigrants may not be considered “refugees” by the U.S Bureau’s definition, many of them are fleeing impoverished economic, educational, and political conditions in their home countries, so to force them to return to those environments or go elsewhere would be inhumane. Since the U.S. cannot logistically deport that many people, and increased border security will not change the status of those already in America, the only sensible thing to do is offer these people a path to citizenship.
Citizenship offers both economic benefits and relief for these immigrants living life in limbo. The majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S have been in the country for more than ten years. Green cards and visas aside, they are in many ways regular citizens. This is especially true for those who were brought here illegally as children. They have grown up in the States and consider themselves as American as their birthright counterparts – yet, they find themselves displaced and living as second-class citizens when they grow up and find difficulty in applying for driver licenses, financial aid, and jobs due to their inability to be verified by the government. According to the New York Times, this has very serious implications as they are “at risk of lower educational performance, economic stagnation, blocked mobility and ambiguous belonging” because of their status.
Without a path to citizenship, these people are deprived of crucial opportunities and are further alienated from society. Fearing deportation, undocumented immigrants often refuse any service or opportunity that could lead to the discovery of their illegal status, such as healthcare and other medical service, or sometimes even schooling. They are also subject to working for employers that may take advantage of their lack of rights to overwork and underpay them. If they try to protest these unfair conditions or quit, employers could threaten to expose their illegal status. As a result, undocumented immigrants often find themselves with extremely limited economic opportunities or mobility, thus creating a growing underclass population. These undocumented immigrants want to attain legal status and become citizens; however, there is no legal avenue available for them to do so, and consequently their fear of deportation keeps them at the periphery of society.
When looking at the economic aspect of immigration, the numbers also point in favor of a path to legalization. According the Immigration Policy Center, the U.S would gain $4.5-5.4 billion dollars in tax revenue, revenue that it is currently losing out on due to the “higher earning power” of legalized immigrants and immigrant workers. In California, a University of Southern California report found that the California state government was losing $310 million dollars in income tax while the U.S government lost $1.4 billion because of the lower wages that unauthorized immigrant workers are often subject to. So coming from both an economic and humanistic perspective, offering a path to citizenship is the most practical solution to pursue.
With our immigration system in its current state of affairs, the increasing undocumented population in the U.S finds itself with limited rights, opportunities, and mobility. The negative economic, developmental, societal, and human implications of their precarious, second-class status necessitates a path to citizenship. A path to citizenship would clamp down on irresponsible employers who have been exploiting workers and level the competition among companies who have been following the rules. More importantly, with the expansion of social and economic opportunities, it would allow undocumented immigrants to fully realize and achieve their human potential. These 12 million are essentially Americans, going about daily life and living among us. The only thing separating them from us is a piece of paper.