The Promise of a Path to Citizenship: What It Means for the Economy
When the pandemic decimated the American economy, an indispensable undocumented workforce was left to risk contracting coronavirus on behalf of a country whose government has dedicated billions to their deportation. A path to citizenship would finally recognize their contributions and boost our struggling economy.
When the pandemic hit, the workers we could not afford to lose—grocery staff, agricultural workers, health care workers, custodial staff, employees at meatpacking plants, and more—continued to risk COVID-19 exposure each day. Those people are disproportionately immigrants, many of them undocumented, and they kept delivering for America without access to protective equipment, the promise of hazard pay, or a safety net in the event of catastrophe.
Not only would a path to citizenship for the undocumented finally recognize their labor, it would unlock economic growth at a time when we need it most. For over a decade, almost five percent of the American workforce has been undocumented. If we had passed legislation that granted undocumented immigrants legal status and citizenship in 2013—the last time such a bill was seriously considered—the GDP would have grown by an additional $1.4 trillion cumulatively over the following decade. Over that same time period, Americans would have earned an additional $7.9 billion and the economy would have generated an average of 203,000 additional jobs each year. That spike in income would have meant an added $184 billion in state and federal tax revenue. Now, we are almost at the end of that decade, in which none of those projections were realized—but we have another opportunity to do so.
Not only would a path to citizenship for the undocumented finally recognize their labor, it would unlock economic growth at a time when we need it most.
That projected economic growth is the result of millions of people who, if granted legal status, would suddenly be eligible to work in any sector they choose. They could gain vocational training and college degrees, work in a wide array of industries, and substantially increase their earning potential. Their legal status would also grant protections against worker exploitation and would boost wages for immigrant and U.S.-born populations alike. That increase in wages—for those who stayed in sectors currently dependent on undocumented labor, those who pursued previously unavailable opportunities, and for the U.S.-born workers who benefit from the economic upswing—would increase spending power and tax revenue; every positive change helps build the next one.
Instead, we’ve wasted billions of taxpayer dollars trying to deport a workforce we cannot survive without. The United States spends more on immigration and border enforcement than all other law enforcement combined, an estimated $333 billion since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. And the size of our undocumented population remains largely the same.
Despite the political fixation on deportation, we are heavily reliant on the undocumented population: they fuel American industries, from agriculture to construction to hospitality—and employers repeatedly report that the undocumented people they hire are keeping their business afloat. Only an estimated 60 percent of the U.S.-born population are of working age (18 to 64), compared to 92 percent of undocumented immigrants.
Immigrants not only fill a labor gap, they simultaneously create additional opportunities for U.S. citizens. Millions of immigrants act as “complementary workers” who, for example, work as a cook or dishwasher and allow U.S. citizen workers to take positions as servers and managers. Immigrants aren’t taking jobs from Americans; they are contributing to the economic ecosystem that ensures those jobs continue to exist. If this critical labor force were granted legal status and eventual citizenship, that process would only accelerate.
As it stands, the real problem is not job stealing but industry-wide wage depression that can result from the exploitation of undocumented workers. When undocumented workers are forced to work for sub-market wages or in unsafe conditions, or are subjected to wage theft, the floor for all workers drops. Unscrupulous employers receive an unfair advantage over businesses playing by the rules and U.S. workers get deleveraged. The obvious solution is to level the playing field by enabling undocumented workers to earn the protections provided by legal status and citizenship.
When the U.S. economy was stripped to its bones by the pandemic, undocumented workers continued to keep supply chains alive without any basic labor protections and these structural inequities within our economy were laid bare.
Instead, immigration restrictions have thinned the labor supply for industries staffed primarily by undocumented workers. Outdated band-aid visa programs were never designed to fill systemic labor gaps and could never replace the millions of undocumented workers already relied upon by employers forced to operate in a clandestine labor economy. When the U.S. economy was stripped to its bones by the pandemic, undocumented workers continued to keep supply chains alive without any basic labor protections and these structural inequities within our economy were laid bare.
Although an estimated 75 percent of farmworkers in America are undocumented, the H-2A visa program provides an additional supply of temporary workers. Farmworkers—documented and not—are already subject to routine and egregious labor violations. Without the ability to enforce weak labor protections or earn a path to citizenship, immigrant farmworkers have always struggled to be treated fairly; because they are forced to work without adequate protective gear and face greater exposure to COVID-19, these essential workers are fighting to stay alive.
The same callous disregard for essential workers’ safety is rampant in meatpacking plants, which are largely staffed by undocumented immigrants and have been among the nation’s leading coronavirus hotspots, rivaled only by prisons and nursing homes. In April of 2020, President Trump issued an executive order declaring meatpacking plants to be “critical infrastructure,” thereby prohibiting their closure by state health authorities. And his administration provided company executives with legal defense from the liability claims of their employees, thousands of whom have fallen ill, many of whom have died.
An inclusive and equitable economic recovery will heed the central lessons of this moment: that essential workers come from all walks of American society, that everyone’s contributions must be recognized, and that marginalization of some means unfairness for all. A path to citizenship would strengthen our linked economic vitality in critical ways; it would honor everyone’s hard work and protect every worker on our road to recovery.