Why We Can’t ‘Split the Difference’: The Case for Citizenship

The prospects for comprehensive immigration reform are the highest in years. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are currently negotiating a bill, and President Obama has stated that it is one of his top legislative priorities in 2013. Speculation abounds as to what may be included in a final package but, generally speaking, comprehensive reform of our immigration system would consist of four interconnected parts: border security, internal and worksite immigration enforcement, a system to manage future immigration to the United States and a road map to citizenship for the undocumented population currently living here. The union movement has a unified framework, which addresses these points.

Peter Skerry, in a recent journal article for National Affairs, encouraged policymakers to “split the difference” on immigration reform by legalizing the undocumented population without offering any chance of eventual citizenship. While Skerry is right to recognize that something must be done to address the crisis facing more than 11 million people who call this country home, lawmakers need to make a road map to citizenship a priority.

A road map to citizenship for those who aspire to it will have a more significant impact on working families than any other aspect of immigration reform. It may also be the most controversial aspect. On the political right, extremists push the divisive message of “self-deportation” and advocate for harsh enforcement policies, like the discriminatory state immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama. However, this does not mean we should “split the difference” with those who practice the divisive politics of exclusion. Legalization without a chance at citizenship would create an underclass of workers, who would not have access to all of the opportunities, responsibilities and rights that come with citizenship. This does not reflect our shared values as Americans and it also does not make economic sense.

As the vast majority of working people and union members recognize, our current policies are dysfunctional, they divide families and allow for the exploitation of workers. Almost four out of five voters support a system that requires immigrants to pay taxes, holds employers accountable for hiring legal workers and prevents them from exploiting immigrant labor, improves border security and ensures that aspiring citizens have a chance to work toward citizenship.   

Further, several reputable studies find that there is a “citizenship premium” on economic outcomes for immigrants, even when controlling for other factors such as education and language ability. Citizenship allows immigrants to access and pursue more opportunities in both the private and public sector, permits international travel (a requirement of many jobs), facilitates integration into the workforce and signals to employers their commitment to invest in this country. 

According to Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute, the average income of adult citizen immigrants is almost 15% higher and the poverty rate is 3% lower than that of adult noncitizen immigrants, after controlling for other variables. As we reported recently, Manuel Pastor and Justin Scoggins found naturalization could add up to $45 billion to the economy over 10 years and the impact on GDP would likely be even larger once the secondary effects of higher incomes on spending and demand are taken into account. Researchers at the Migration Policy Institute found that the citizenship premium was even larger for Latino immigrants and women, which could help close persistent wage gaps in these communities. Immigrants with citizenship also fared better in the economic crisis than those without it.

For a number of reasons, ranging from higher wages for workers in the United States to job creation, to added tax revenue, comprehensive and inclusive reform is crucial—not just for immigrants’ rights, but for the rights of all workers who strive to make a decent living for their families. With a process in place, immigrant workers will have a voice in the workplace and can pursue more economic opportunities, which will improve the economy and working standards for all workers. Hardworking immigrant families came to this country for the promise of freedom and the opportunity to provide a better life for their children. We're all the better for having hardworking new immigrants as contributing members of our communities, with full rights and equal protections.