Immigration relief is long overdue for the 10.4 million undocumented immigrants living and working across the United States. Over the past two years, undocumented immigrants have worked through a deadly pandemic to sustain the industries and services that the country relies on. They have risked their safety and the stability of their families as they faced substantial barriers to accessing health care and relief programs as front-line workers. It is therefore critical that the Biden administration and Congress work to create a pathway to citizenship and protections for these and other undocumented immigrants as they work to aid the country’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the fight to create permanent protections for millions of immigrants has been an ongoing debate, recent legislative attempts to grant citizenship to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, farmworkers, and essential workers have ultimately stalled in Congress. The latest effort to protect undocumented immigrants through congressional budget reconciliation—a process that has included immigration-related provisions in the past—has been met with several challenges, despite critical provisions that would significantly boost the U.S. economy and yield benefits to all Americans. The Senate parliamentarian ruled three times against including immigration protections for undocumented immigrants, creating an uncertain future for the millions of undocumented immigrant families waiting on reform.
It is in the nation’s public interest for Congress to seek every legislative avenue available to grant a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants. Creating a pathway to citizenship and protections for undocumented immigrants would allow them to live free from the fears of deportation and family separation, while also bolstering their important contributions to the country.
Legalization would help millions
Undocumented immigrants are part of the country’s social fabric, building lives and forming connections that render them no different from the average American citizen except in legal status. On average, they have lived in the United States for 16 years; they are parents, grandparents, and siblings to the 10.2 million U.S. citizens who live with at least one undocumented family member.
Number of undocumented immigrants living and working across the United States
For this reason, it is not only undocumented immigrants who would benefit from the creation of a pathway to citizenship. Indeed, approximately 6.1 million U.S. citizen children live with at least one undocumented family member. Studies have shown that the threat and reality of immigration enforcement negatively affects childhood development. In addition, the deportation of an undocumented parent exposes families and children to economic, housing, and food instability.
By offering undocumented immigrants a pathway to permanent protections, Congress could remove the cloud of deportation threat and alleviate the constant stress of living with fear and uncertainty for many families in the United States.
Undocumented immigrants are part of the country’s social fabric, building lives and forming connections that render them no different from the average American citizen except in legal status.
Immigrants are essential workers
Undocumented immigrants make up approximately 3.2 percent of the country’s population, but the 7 million who are employed make up 4.4 percent of the workforce. At great personal risk, immigrants—including Dreamers, DACA recipients, and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders—have played a crucial role during the pandemic, working alongside U.S.-born workers to ensure economic stability for the country. They have served as nurses, doctors and hospital staff tending to the sick; as agricultural and farm workers producing the country’s food; and as delivery drivers and grocery store clerks ensuring that Americans can still access basic necessities.
At the start of the pandemic, nearly 3 in 4 undocumented immigrants in the workforce were employed in what the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has deemed the “critical infrastructure workforce.” In other words, about 5 million undocumented immigrants can be considered essential workers, performing jobs that are necessary for maintaining the public health and safety of the country. Notably, social distancing is challenging in many of these essential workplaces—for instance, hospitals, farms, meat-processing plants, and grocery stores—leading to an increased risk of infection. Putting undocumented immigrants on a pathway to citizenship is therefore a matter of health and economic justice that would enable them to access protections that both they and their families deserve.
Despite the sacrifices and contributions of undocumented immigrants, they were excluded from federal pandemic relief efforts and unable to receive stimulus checks. This assistance would have been critical for undocumented workers who struggled as their hours were cut and they faced losses in income—challenges that were exacerbated by the exclusion of undocumented immigrants from federally funded safety net programs.
Importantly, undocumented immigrants’ lack of health care access has made them disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic: 46 percent of undocumented immigrants were uninsured before the pandemic, and it is likely that even fewer have coverage now due to job losses and pandemic-related financial challenges. For instance, COVID-19 outbreaks and the deaths of hundreds of workers in meatpacking plants—where noncitizens make up a majority of the workforce—are a sad reminder of the sacrifices made by many undocumented immigrants as they navigate the challenges of working during a pandemic without the economic protections that come with a legal status.
Creating a pathway to citizenship is a key part of both honoring the rich contributions of immigrants to the nation and ensuring a robust economic recovery for all Americans.
Immigrant contributions and spending power
Amount undocumented households pay in federal taxes each year
Amount undocumented households pay in state and local taxes each year
Amount undocumented households contribute toward the social safety net each year
Amount undocumented households pay in annual mortgage payments
A pathway to citizenship would increase stability for undocumented immigrants and their families, translating to better educational and employment opportunities for these individuals—and economic benefits for the United States as a whole. It is estimated that during the next decade, creating a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants in the country would boost U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) by $1.7 trillion and lead to 438,800 new jobs. Moreover, the Center for American Progress and the University of California, Davis’ Global Migration Center project that in 10 years, legalization would enable undocumented workers to earn $14,000 more in annual wages while increasing the annual wages of all other workers by $700, on average.
As the country seeks to recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress must pursue all avenues toward creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States. And if congressional efforts fail, the Biden administration must take immediate executive action to promote stability in the lives of undocumented immigrants, their families, and their communities. Creating a pathway to citizenship is a key part of both honoring the rich contributions of immigrants to the nation and ensuring a robust economic recovery for all Americans.
The author would like to thank Nicole Prchal Svajlenka, Claudia Flores, Philip Wolgin, and Silva Mathema for sharing their expertise in support of this article.