As the Obama administration and Congress gear up to fix our nation’s deeply flawed immigration system, the fight over immigration reform will revolve not simply around the question of what to do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country, but how to resolve their status.
Over the past few months, a number of prominent senators such as Marco Rubio (R-FL), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) have floated the idea of offering permanent legal status for unauthorized immigrants living in the country with no direct path to citizenship as a “compromise” solution instead of full comprehensive immigration reform. By creating a permanent underclass with little chance of full integration into the nation, these proposals have rightly received strong backlash from advocacy groups such as United We Dream, elected officials such as San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Here we review the top five reasons why citizenship—not just legal status—is of critical importance to our society and to our economy.
1. Big gains to the economy. A December 2012 study by Manuel Pastor and Justin Scoggins of the University of Southern California found that a path to citizenship leads to higher wages for naturalized immigrants both immediately and over the long term. Naturalized immigrants earn between 5.6 percent and 7.2 percent more within two years of becoming a citizen, and peak at between 10.1 percent and 13.5 percent higher wages 12 years to 17 years from the time of naturalization. Higher wages means more consumer spending, and more spending means more growth for the overall economy. Pastor and Scoggins also found that even if only half of those eligible to become citizens do so, it would add $21 billion to $45 billion to the U.S. economy over 10 years.
2. Economic gains for the native born.Numerous studies have found that immigrants raise the wages of the native born—for example, by complementing the skills of the native born and by buying goods and services, all of which expands the size of the economy. And with even higher earnings after naturalization, more money would be moving through the economy. The $21 billion to $45 billion in extra wages would be spent on things such as houses, cars, iPads, computers, and the like, and as people buy more products, businesses see more revenue and are more willing to hire new workers. Put simply, more money in the system creates economic growth and supports new job creation for all Americans.
3. Certainty for both immigrants and employers. A number of scholars working on the economics of citizenship have pointed out that naturalization sends a signal to employers that their workers are fully committed to life in the United States, while also giving immigrants the certainty that they will never have to worry about suddenly uprooting their lives and moving elsewhere. This certainty gives employers the peace of mind that they will not have to retrain a new worker—often at high costs—if the immigrant employee loses their visa or chooses to move elsewhere, and gives individuals the stability to invest in more schooling and more job training, both of which ultimately lead to higher wages and better careers.
4. A stronger, more integrated United States. Since the founding of our country, we have granted citizenship to newcomers and have actively worked to ensure that they are fully integrated into everyday life. Nations such as Germany that historically denied citizenship to many immigrants have struggled to integrate those individuals into society, leading to blocked social and economic mobility. On the other hand, in countries such as Canada that expressly view immigration as a part of their national and economic success, studies find a greater sense of belonging and attachment to the nation among newcomers. Our goal should be the full integration of new Americans, not the creation of a permanent underclass.
5. Forward, not backward, on equality. The United States was founded on the idea that we are a nation of immigrants and that we gain strength from diversity. Over the past half-century—since Congress removed de jure racial discrimination from American life with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965—we have moved toward broader equality and a recognition of the power and strength that diversity brings to the nation. Instead of moving backward toward an idea of America as a country club that accepts some people as full members and rejects others, we must move forward toward greater equality. Creating a group that can legally reside in the United States but can never naturalize, can never vote, and can never become full and equal members goes against the very ideals that founded our nation.
As Congress takes up immigration reform this session, it would be wise to keep in mind the social and economic benefits that come with granting a pathway to full citizenship. The United States has always been a nation that thrives from fully integrating immigrants into the national polity, a nation of immigrants uniting around a common purpose. Anything less than granting a pathway to full citizenship is both un-American and runs counter to our nation’s best interests.
Philip E. Wolgin is an Immigration Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.