This week the Senate began debate on an immigration-reform plan that includes a road map to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants striving for a formal place in American society. The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Reform Act of 2013, or S. 744, proposed by a bipartisan coalition of senators, outlines an arduous 13-year pathway to citizenship through which undocumented immigrants may gain legal status and citizenship. Opponents of reform have already proposed amendments that would undermine the basic economic security of people on the road to citizenship.
In particular, senators have proposed limiting the eligibility of immigrants in Registered Provisional Immigrant, or RPI, status—a temporary legal status that is the first step on the path—to receive the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit. In addition, senators have proposed amendments that would bar even legalized immigrants who adjust to legal permanent resident status from receiving supplemental nutrition assistance (formerly known as food stamps) and have in the past attempted to bar anyone from receiving supplemental nutrition assistance unless every member of their family is a citizen or permanent resident (green-card holder).
But traveling the road to citizenship will already be a financial challenge for most families. Under S. 744 an undocumented immigrant will have to pay a total of $2,000 in fines—$4,000 for a couple—just to obtain a green card, in addition to hefty application fees. These fines and fees also come on top of a stringent requirement that immigrants, in order to adjust to permanent resident status, must either prove that they have worked throughout their entire time in RPI status or have resources totaling at least 125 percent of the federal poverty line. Denying these aspiring Americans access to critical tax credits and vital nutrition assistance would severely undermine their financial security and would make the path to citizenship impossible for some.
What’s more, legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants will lead to economic gains for the country in terms of growth, earnings, tax revenues, and jobs, resulting in a $832 billion cumulative increase in U.S. gross domestic product in 10 years. But if fewer undocumented immigrants acquire citizenship, the potential economic gains for our nation will be far less than they otherwise could be. Curbing access to supports such as supplemental nutrition assistance and the earned income and child tax credits therefore not only undermines economic security for millions of undocumented immigrants, but also denies potential economic gains to millions of Americans.
We cannot allow newly legalized immigrants to go hungry
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, provides nutrition assistance to 47 million low-income people in a typical month, helping fight hunger and keep millions of families and children out of poverty. But SNAP is also a net gain for American communities and businesses: Every $5 in federal SNAP spending generates $9 in economic activity, while every $1 billion in SNAP benefits creates 3,000 new farm jobs alone. These benefits arise as people spend their money at supermarkets, local food and retail stores, and farmers’ markets, creating jobs for those who grow, process, ship, and sell food. In turn, these jobs lead to increased taxes paid by workers, and increased spending by workers, which further stimulates the economy.
No family, whether composed of current citizens or those on the road to citizenship, should be left to go hungry, for both moral and economic reasons. Hunger has detrimental effects on children’s long-term development, from performance in school to future work preparedness and performance, which threatens the economic success and output overall of the nation.
Currently, most immigrants are eligible for SNAP benefits after they have been a lawful permanent resident for at least five years, though all U.S. citizen children, even of undocumented parents, are eligible. One amendment from Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) would bar even legalized immigrants who adjust to lawful permanent resident status from SNAP benefits. Moreover, previously proposed amendments, such as those proposed on the 2012 Farm Bill, attempted to limit the ability for anyone—even a U.S. citizen child—to receive supplemental nutrition assistance unless everyone in their family is a citizen or a legal permanent resident. Making such a change would mean that even native-born citizen children of Registered Provisional Immigrants would be ineligible to receive SNAP benefits.
Allowing access to supplemental nutrition assistance and other forms of food assistance is necessary to promote family economic security and the economic health of the nation. We should not be playing political football with hungry children.
Tax credits are vital for working families and children
The earned income tax credit and the child tax credit keep families from slipping into poverty by helping working families make ends meet, as well as encouraging and supporting work. In 2011 the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit lifted nearly 9.5 million people, including nearly 5 million children out of poverty. Most taxpayers who claim the earned income tax credit do so for no longer than two consecutive years and end up paying hundreds of billions of dollars more in net federal income taxes than they receive from the credit over time.
Both credits boost the economy, as low-income families use their refund checks to purchase groceries and school supplies, child care, housing, and more, supporting local businesses. In fact, for every earned income tax credit dollar received, $1.50 to $2 is generated in the local economy. Both credits also enable and encourage families to save and build their assets in order to lay the foundation for future economic security.
It is extremely troubling that legislators seek to deny these credits to newly legalized working immigrants throughout the at least 10 years they must spend in RPI status, since these credits increase access to basic needs and improve the financial well-being of low- and middle-income families and children, the majority of which are native-born U.S. citizens. The benefits of the earned income tax credit also extend to future generations, as children of families who claim the credit are more likely to attend college and earn more as adults, and are less likely to succumb to disabilities or illnesses—consequences disproportionately associated with child poverty.
Currently, all legal workers in the United States are eligible to receive the earned income tax credit when they meet the income-eligibility requirements—and note that the word “earned” in the title means that this credit is only given to people earning income and filing their taxes. Failing to extend the credit to immigrants on the long road to citizenship would create two tiers of legal workers in the tax code, and more importantly, would create an incentive for people to continue working in the underground economy, knowing that without the credits, working in the legal economy could end up costing them more in taxes.
Denying legal workers this credit would in effect make them second-class residents who will have to pay higher taxes then their native-born counterparts. Failing to extend these credits to legalized workers—considering how difficult the path to citizenship already is, as well as the high penalties, fees, and work requirements the bill already contains—may constitute too high a burden for these immigrants, ultimately knocking them off of the path to citizenship and back into unauthorized status. Denying tax credits in an attempt to save money may therefore in practice do nothing more than undermine the broader goals of immigration reform. Instead we should work to ensure that the greatest number of people can become full and equal members of our society.
Perhaps most importantly, though, restricting eligibility for the child tax credit would jeopardize families’ ability to provide their children with basic necessities. As it is now, many families living in poverty are either ineligible for the credit or only eligible for a partial credit, and those that are eligible for the full credit only get an annual maximum credit of $1,000 per child, which covers a mere fraction of the expenses associated with having a family. The brunt of the consequences of denying eligibility will fall on the children—the majority of whom are U.S. citizens—who will not reap the long-term benefits of claiming the credits, including better health, better jobs, and higher incomes. Both credits, contingent on work, would position newly recognized immigrant families on more stable economic footing.
Immigration reform and a road map to citizenship must include access to effective services and tax credits that promote family economic security. Denying this access would betray the nation’s commitment to its people and would be detrimental to the well-being of future generations. By removing supports such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the earned income tax credit, and the child tax credit, the nation would be placing additional and unnecessary obstacles on the long road to citizenship and hurting our nation’s future economy as a result.
We must seize the economic and moral opportunities that come with reform. It is crucial that our focus remains on the big picture and that we prioritize investments in potential, rather than jeopardizing economic security by removing the first few rungs on the ladder to economic prosperity and the American Dream.
Sarah Baron is Special Assistant for Poverty and Half in Ten, and Philip E. Wolgin is Senior Policy Analyst for Immigration at the Center for American Progress.