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RELEASE: Immigrant Essential Workers Who Lack Permanent Legal Status Have Earned a Pathway to Citizenship, Says CAP’s Tom Wong in Congressional Hearing

Washington, D.C. — Today, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety held a hearing on “The Essential Role of Immigrant Workers in America,” including more than 5 million people who currently lack permanent legal status. All of them have been on the front lines fighting the pandemic, working as health care practitioners and in health care support occupations, and working in the country’s food supply chain.

In his testimony before the subcommittee, Tom K. Wong, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and associate professor and founder of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California, San Diego, said that “providing these essential workers with permanent legal status will allow them to realize their full potential, to realize their American dreams. This is not only part of a just, inclusive, and robust post-pandemic economic recovery for all Americans, but can be done without increasing undocumented immigration to the U.S. Immigrant essential workers who lack permanent legal status deserve more than our recognition and our praise; they have earned a pathway to citizenship. They have kept us fed by working in our nation’s food supply chain. Workers deemed essential today should not live with the uncertainty and fear of deportation tomorrow.”

“With each day that goes by without meaningful immigration reform,” Wong added, “the fear of deportation or separation due to immigration status sits as an added burden on the shoulders of millions of immigrant essential workers and their families. Indeed, immigrant essential workers who lack permanent legal status have earned a pathway to citizenship. A pathway to citizenship for these workers is crucial not only for just keeping families together, but also for an inclusive and robust post-pandemic rebuilding of America.”

Critical data in Wong’s remarks included:

  • An estimated 1.7 million immigrants without permanent legal status work in the U.S. food supply chain, including an estimated 296,300 who work in farming or agriculture and an estimated 205,800 who work in food production.
  • An estimated 236,300 undocumented immigrants work as health care practitioners or in health care support occupations, such as registered nurses or home health aides. An additional 109,900 immigrant essential workers who lack permanent legal status work in health care settings as medical and health services managers, receptionists, housekeepers, janitors, and cooks in hospitals or other medical facilities.
  • These workers and their households pay an estimated $47.6 billion in federal taxes and $25.5 billion in state and local taxes. On average, they have lived in the United States for 18 years.
  • Immigrant essential workers will contribute more to the economy with legal status, benefiting all Americans. For example, wages increased by an estimated 6 percent among those who obtained permanent legal status in the years immediately following the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, commonly known as IRCA. More recently, research has shown that average hourly wages among recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) have more than doubled.
  • Providing permanent legal status to undocumented immigrant essential workers will not create a magnet for more undocumented immigration. For example, more recently, research has also shown that Temporary Protected Status—looking specifically at the Northern Triangle countries of Central America—has not increased undocumented immigration from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras.

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