According to recent estimates the United States hosts an astonishing 11 million undocumented immigrants. Not only is this number greater than that of any other country in the world, but it is also greater than the entire population of more than 100 countries, and it is easily larger than the population of any US city.

Deporting this many people within any reasonable time frame would mean chaos. Meanwhile, allowing these people to live indefinitely in legal limbo could be worse. A roadmap to eventual US citizenship would solve many of the problems created by undocumented immigration.

The Costs of the Current Regime

The current system of legal limbo punctuated by sporadic immigration enforcement initiatives generates both social and economic costs that are likely to be unacceptable to the American public in the long run.

Social Costs

The current legal limbo for undocumented immigrants carries immense social costs, not only for the immigrants themselves but for their families as well. Undocumented immigrant families are at the mercy of prevailing political winds, and the Trump administration has not been kind to them.

Over the past few years, for example, it has become almost a common occurrence for a US-born child (who the Constitution grants automatic US citizenship) to suffer the deportation of at least one of their parents. This state of affairs puts these US citizen children into a difficult dilemma — return to a homeland they have never been to (and may not speak the language of) or stay in the US without one or even both parents.

Not only the children but also the US citizen or permanent resident spouses and partners of deported undocumented immigrants suffer from depression, poverty, and other social and psychological problems. Humanitarian concerns alone dictate that something must be done.

Piecemeal remedies

To be sure, efforts have been made to address some of the social costs of the presence of millions of undocumented immigrants living in the US. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, for example, grants a forbearance against immigration enforcement, but not legal status, to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children. The Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program does the same for a different set of beneficiaries. Both programs, however, are lacking in a long-term solution. Some immigrant advocates even describe it as a throwback to the Jim Crow era of racial segregation.

The Shadow Economy

Regardless of whether their presence in the United States is considered legal or illegal, or whether they are legally allowed to work in the US, immigrants must eat and put a roof over their heads. This reality inevitably creates a “shadow economy” where undocumented immigrants work illegally, often in abysmal conditions. Due to their illegal status, such people have no incentive to file tax returns — after all, paying taxes could get them deported.

Creating legal status for undocumented immigrants, with or without a path to citizenship, could bring these people into the light. It would also increase state and local tax revenues by an estimated $2.1 billion per year. Finally, it would bring these people under the administration of labor laws that protect both undocumented immigrants and US workers.

Reform Proposals

Proposals for the legalization of undocumented immigrants are split along party lines. It is well known that undocumented immigrants who become citizens have a strong tendency to vote for Democratic Party candidates rather than Republican Party candidates. For this reason Republican lawmakers, whose approval might be necessary for any major overhaul of the nation’s immigration system, generally do not include citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Republican Proposals

Republican proposals would allow undocumented immigrants to live and work in the US. Undocumented immigrants would have to establish a priority date for permanent residence, which might mean qualifying for a green card in an independent basis and waiting years, even decades, for a green card that could actually lead to citizenship.

Democratic Proposals

Democratic proposals would generally allow undocumented immigrants to obtain US citizenship without having to apply for it independently. In other words, their current de facto residence in the US would be enough for eventual citizenship with no need to rely on educational or vocational qualifications or the presence of US citizen relatives in the US.

What Both Sides Agree on

Both sides agree that any legislation should not make it easier or quicker for undocumented immigrants to obtain immigration benefits, especially US citizenship, than for immigrants who came to the US legally. The reason for this consensus is that neither party wants to provide prospective immigrants with an incentive to enter the US illegally; nor does it wish to “double-cross” immigrants who came to the US legally.

Bipartisan legislation might even create a new type of permanent residency designed especially for undocumented immigrants. Three conditions will generally be required of would-be citizens under both Republican and Democratic reform proposals:

  • Pay taxes (perhaps including back taxes); and
  • Refrain from committing a felony.

Under such a proposal, obtaining US citizenship without an independent basis for it would take up to 18 years — the length of time that it takes a native-born US citizen to obtain full voting rights. Regardless of the exact terms that are included in reform legislation, it seems more likely than not that some sort of proposal offering legal status to undocumented immigrants is on the horizon.

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