Immigration policy needs a fundamental overhaul. Instead of focusing on punishment, enforcement should redirect immigrants who break laws toward viable pathways for entry and citizenship.
A rational middle ground exists between mass deportation and amnesty. Congress should tweak immigration policies regularly to respond to changing conditions. Moreover, the nation’s labor shortages should be addressed with an earned pathway to citizenship.
Unauthorized immigrants are those who live in the United States without legal authorization to do so. This group includes individuals who entered the United States without passing through immigration issues (unauthorized entry) and those who were legally admitted to the country for temporary periods through programs such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Temporary Protected Status but failed to renew their authorization or otherwise violated the terms of their stay.
Immigrants who meet certain criteria can seek asylum, political asylum or refugee status in the United States based on their persecution for reasons such as race, religion, membership in a social group, political opinion or national origin. However, many of the people who enter the country through unauthorized channels do not qualify for these special statuses or cannot pass rigorous evidentiary requirements to gain them.
Undocumented adults are disproportionately likely to have low socioeconomic status. Their demanding work schedules can lead to poor nutrition and stress, exacerbated by their lack of access to health care. Granting these workers permanent legal status would increase their labor force participation and, if they comply with tax regulations, raise tax revenues.
Those with undocumented status comprise one-in-four noncitizens in the United States. They include individuals who entered the country without authorization, as well as those who were admitted lawfully but stayed beyond their visa or status expiration dates and others who are waiting for decisions on asylum or refugee applications. They also include individuals with deferred action (DACA).
Undocumented immigrants are disproportionately likely to be employed, and many work in high-skilled occupations where they can earn higher wages. Yet they can be subjected to negative working conditions such as physical labor, long hours and low pay that can lead to negative mental and physical health outcomes.
A path to legalization can help alleviate these negative effects and contribute to greater economic productivity. Indeed, evidence from other countries shows that faster access to citizenship encourages immigrant families to improve language skills and invest in education and training, making them more productive citizens. This can also boost children’s socioeconomic outcomes.
Documented dreamers are people who came to the United States as children in legal, temporary statuses and have been unable to gain permanent residency. They are often among the most talented and productive citizens in America, and letting them stay would create tens of billions of dollars in economic growth for the country.
These young immigrants face a harsh choice when they turn 21, known as “aging out.” They can leave the United States and return to the countries they barely remember or attempt to find another path to permanent residency, such as entering the H-1B lottery and becoming an employee of an American company.
Lawmakers from both parties have introduced legislation to help these individuals, including the America’s CHILDREN Act. This bill has rare bipartisan support and could pass the Senate this year. If passed, it would guarantee that any documented dreamer who had lived here for 10 years and graduated from college will have a path to citizenship.
The economic impact of immigrants – and particularly those who work on temporary contracts, such as those working for a temp staffing agency – is significant. They boost GDP and raise incomes, even when they are a small share of the total labor force.
But our immigration system is dominated by precarious pathways like temporary work visa programs that give employers millions of on-demand workers with limited rights and little opportunity to become lawful permanent residents or citizens. The many flaws in these programs have been criticized by migrant worker advocates, government auditors, and the media for decades.
Congress could pass laws to update and simplify these visa programs, ensuring transparency in the recruitment process abroad for migrants who participate in visa programs; requiring all workers with temporary visas are paid no less than the local average or median wage for their job; uncoupling the visa status of migrants from their employers, so they can change jobs more easily; appropriating more funding to labor standards agencies to monitor and enforce a reformed system; and regulating foreign labor recruiters.