Why Citizenship Is Better For America Than Legal Status

CREDIT: Esther Y. Lee

Less than 24 hours after House Republicans released a “principles” document that outlines a piecemeal approach to immigration reform, undocumented immigrants have been cautiously optimistic about the prospects of living in America legally and without the threat of deportation. The document specifically provides an opportunity to apply for legal residence and citizenship for undocumented youths brought to the country as children. It also suggests that other undocumented immigrants would be eligible for a lesser form of legal presence, “legal status,” after enforcement triggers have been met. But the details of what a proposal would look like remain unclear, and which immigrants are eligible for citizenship is one of the biggest points of contention among some House Republicans who have already condemned any path out of the shadows as “amnesty.” Yet such a provision could be one of the best, long-lasting investments to the American economy.

Legal status and citizenship are similar for a few reasons. Both types of statuses would mean that immigrants can no longer be subject to deportation solely because they’re undocumented, that they would have work authorization, and that they could have international travel authorization. But these are also several differences. For one thing, naturalized citizens can participate in American civics by voting. They also can’t be deported if they commit crimes, unlike immigrants with legal status. And they would be able to apply for some restricted jobs not open to non-citizens. The issue of not having full rights, but rather a policy that says “you are permanently one of them and can never be one of us” as immigration advocate Frank Sharry writes, is at the core of why citizenship is so important to undocumented immigrants.

But citizenship has also been associated with economic growth. Though the exact details of the House Republican immigration legislation are still unclear, expanding legal status with a citizenship provision beyond just so-called DREAMers could grow the economy. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the Senate immigration bill, which will not be taken up in conference, would reduce the budget deficit, so that by 2033, the U.S. federal budget will shrink by about $900 billion. Under the Senate bill, immigrants must pass a 13-year process in which they have to clear numerous hurdles like paying fines, penalties, learning English, and first qualifying as a registered provision immigrant status before they can apply to become citizens.

If the House proposal to give a path to citizenship to people who “meet certain eligibility standards, and serve honorably in our military or attain a college degree,” is anything like the federal DREAM Act proposed last year, estimates suggest it would contribute an estimated an additional $329 billion in gross domestic product (GDP), help to create 1.4 million new jobs, and increase federal revenues by $1.7 billion over a ten year period.

Legal status would boost the economy, but the resulting productivity and wage gains would be much higher if the vast majority of the undocumented population are granted citizenship. Researchers found that immigrants who are only eligible for legal status, but not citizenship, would contribute about $832 billion to the economy in a ten year period, add 121,000 more jobs per year, and pay $109 billion in taxes over a ten-year period. Compare that to a scenario where undocumented immigrants are granted legal status and citizenship at the same time, the U.S. GDP would grow by $1.4 trillion over a ten year period, immigrants would help to create an additional 203,0000 jobs per year, and add $184 billion in tax revenue. In another scenario where undocumented immigrants are granted legal status and citizenship after five years, the GDP would grow by $1.1 trillion, there would be an additional 159,000 jobs per year, and add $144 billion in tax revenue.

Still, although House Republicans are not uniformly in support of legalization, what’s clear is that the less obstacles to a pathway to citizenship, the greater the gains, with the optimal waiting period for citizenship at about five years, according to a Center for American Progress report released on Monday. That report found, “the number of years that an immigrant can work for higher wages as a naturalized citizen declines, and immigrants have fewer incentives to invest in training and new skills as they age. Also, the best and the brightest immigrants may leave for their home countries or other, more welcoming countries.”

For his part, President Obama remarked in a CNN interview on Friday that he wouldn’t “prejudge” a deal that doesn’t include a pathway to citizenship. He said, “I do know that for a lot of families, the fear of deportations is one of the biggest concerns that they’ve got. That’s why we took executive action, giving my prosecutorial discretion, making sure we’re not deporting kids who grew up here and are Americans for all practical purposes, but we need to get that codified.”