Immigration Reform 2013: Legalization Of Undocumented Immigrants is Incredibly Important

ByHawi Assefa

For the most part, the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform package being proposed by the Senate is attractive. No one seems to be arguing much against border control, better employment verification, work visas tailored to immigration needs of the U.S. labor market, or a new USCIS bureau in charge of overseeing the process. It's the bit about providing legal status to undocumented workers that just doesn't sit well with a lot of people.

Three concerns come to mind: First, that the undocumented have, in crossing the border, violated U.S. law and should be held accountable. Second, that so-called "amnesty" could possibly encourage more illegal immigration in the hopes of obtaining legal status at a later date. And finally, legalization for the undocumented could depress wages for low-skilled American workers. A closer look at the proposed reform shows built-in "safety provisions" that adequately address these issues. In fact, considering the incentives a legal status creates for the undocumented and their employers, legalization is integral to a functional immigration system.

The legalization process under comprehensive immigration reform is a middle ground between granting immediate legal permanent resident status, which yields the most economic benefit but is not politically feasible, and mass deportation, which would cost $2.6 trillion over 10 years. Undocumented workers will gain a temporary legal status, eventually leading to permanent residence and citizenship. But they don't get off easily for crossing the border either. After paying $500 in fines, they obtain registered provisional immigrant (RPI) status, conditional on continued work and a clean background. It is only after ten years of maintaining RPI status and paying another $1,000 fine that undocumented workers may obtain green cards and eventually apply for citizenship. RPIs then fall between LPRs who have entitlements like welfare and non-immigrant workers who can petition for LPR status in the future.

Why not just scrap the "path to citizenship" part and provide temporary work visas to undocumented workers? Here it is important to consider one difference between legal, non-immigrant and undocumented workers. Those who enter the U.S. with work authorization do so after securing jobs that match their skills and level of education.  There is no similar process matching undocumented workers to market demands. Instead, they are locked into low-skill jobs regardless of their skill level to avoid detection.

Granting temporary worker status alone is not enough to get undocumented workers to reshuffle themselves in the U.S. economy. Rather, the choice to become part of the society they work in provides a greater incentive to invest in their skills and education and better integrate into the U.S. economy. A path to citizenship, eventual as it may be, gives security and hope for the undocumented to take economic risks like leaving a secure but ill-fitting low skill job, taking courses, or opening a business. It is through these activities that undocumented workers can suitably fill current and future gaps in U.S. labor demands.

The fear that a path to citizenship could trigger a new wave of illegal migrants is valid, but blown out of proportion. A 2011 study finds that border apprehensions, and by extension attempts to cross the U.S. border, fell in the wake of the 1986 amnesty, which unlike the 2013 bill awarded LPR status in 18 months. Aside from the long wait and penalties, the comprehensive immigration reform bill provides two further safety checks to discourage illegal immigration. These are a cut-off for date of entry and tying the path to citizenship to border control. No undocumented worker will be able to adjust to LPR status before specific border control and employment verification strategies have been met.

Provided that these conditions will be enough to deter a good share of would-be undocumented immigrants, there is no substance to the claim that legalization will harm local low-skilled workers. Currently, undocumented workers earn below minimum wage, which yields higher profits for employers but lower wages for low-skilled workers. With RPI status, undocumented workers can demand higher wages and better conditions. This makes them almost as expensive to hire as local workers, leveling out the playing field. Consequently, low-skilled workers would benefit from wage increases under comprehensive immigration reform, as the undocumented also move towards other types of jobs.

Without legalization, reform becomes a recipe for failure. It means setting up a new system with 30% of the people it is meant to regulate already on the wrong side of the law. This undermines gains from the other components of the bill: market-adjusted work visas, tighter border control, and employment verification. Besides, rewriting the laws alone is not incentive enough for employers to automatically switch out of hiring undocumented workers, at least not in the short run. This is because once employers begin hiring undocumented workers, the process instigate a vicious cycle whereby other employers also hire undocumented workers to remain competitive. But when 11 million undocumented workers simultaneously gain status, employers will have to collectively begin paying higher wages to stay in business. In this way, legalization jump-starts the revised immigration system.

Source for info on Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Summary from American Immigration Lawyers Association