Why America should extend permanent legal status to unauthorized immigrants

July 20, 2022

The United States is renowned for being the land of immigrants: where dreams come true. Except for Native Americans, the vast majority of Americans are immigrants, the descendants of immigrants, or enslaved people. This diversity has translated directly into American culture through cuisine, language, and the arts, among many other influences. The seamless integration of cultures woven into American society reinforces the power America possesses internationally.

Immigrants also make an essential contribution to the U.S. economy. Most directly, immigration increases potential economic outputs by increasing the size of the labor force.

Furthermore, Immigrants contribute to increasing productivity. Economists find that immigrants are more mobile than natives in response to local economic conditions, perhaps because of “fewer long-standing familial and community ties, helping labor markets to function more efficiently. Immigrants boost innovation, a critical factor in improving living standards.” Specifically, a one percentage point increase in the population share of immigrant college graduates increases patents per capita by 9 percent to 18 percent.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates the population of unauthorized immigrants to be roughly 11 million. This estimate that researchers’ use include beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS), even though both groups have legal authorization to temporarily live and work in the United States. This diverse population includes individuals who either entered without passing through immigration (unauthorized entry) or legally came to the United States temporarily and then overstayed their visas. Most individuals may not legally work or receive safety-net benefits—or only under substantial restrictions.

Allowing unauthorized immigrants a permanent legal status would guarantee a certain degree of freedom to pursue and take up jobs for which their passion and skill levels align. Rather than being restricted to the economy’s agricultural, construction, leisure, and hospitality sectors, where wages are significantly lower. For example, around one-half of workers in the U.S. dairy industry—which in 2018 paid between $11 and $13 an hour for general labor—are immigrants, most of whom are thought to be unauthorized. Without legal status, job mobility and opportunity are significantly restricted: a critical pathway in ensuring that workers find more excellent and productive employers over their careers that personally benefit American society and themselves is obtaining legal status.

Many comparisons of earnings made by various economists suggest a disparity in job opportunities between authorized and unauthorized immigrants causing skills and talent to be misallocated, reducing productivity.

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