President Biden has announced draft legislation to be forwarded to congress to begin to normalize the lives of tens millions of people living in the US that today do not have a lawful immigration status to live and work in the United States.
The bill would allow undocumented immigrants who were in the United States before Jan. 1 to apply for temporary legal status after passing background checks and paying taxes. As newly minted “lawful prospective immigrants,” they would be authorized to work, join the military and travel without fear of deportation. After five years, they could apply for green cards.
Converting more than three times that many people into full citizens could open the door to one of the most significant demographic shifts in modern U.S. history, lifting millions out of the shadows and potentially into higher-paying jobs, providing them with welfare benefits, health coverage and Social Security eligibility while eventually creating many new voters.
In the past immigration reform has stalled in Congress time and again, primarily over what is widely known as amnesty. Despite beefed-up border enforcement and employer sanctions, Mr. Reagan’s overhaul failed to curb the arrival of unauthorized immigrants.
While Congress has wrestled with how to revamp the immigration system, the immigrants have continued to live, work and raise families in the United States. More than 60 percent have resided in the country for more than a decade and they have more than four million U.S.-born children. They account for 5 percent of the work force, representing the backbone of the agriculture, construction and hospitality sectors.
The largest share of unauthorized immigrants is from Mexico. Having survived treacherous river and desert crossings to reach the United States, they found a nation willing to look past laws that prohibit hiring them, to employ them in fields and factories, and in homes as nannies and housekeepers.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both championed comprehensive immigration reform with a strong enforcement component and a pathway to legalization for undocumented people. But the immigration packages that were debated in Congress — in 2006, 2007 and 2013 — all stalled.
Among the concerns raised by opponents are that new citizens will vote as a solid Democratic bloc, displace American workers and become a burden on the health care system and other public services. Some predict that any legalization program would encourage more people from impoverished Latin American countries to make the trek north.
Other experts argue there are benefits of legalization. Opening a pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million people, seven to eight million of whom participate in the labor force, is tantamount to “an economic stimulus,” according to Giovanni Peri, an economics professor at the University of California, Davis.
Between 2005 and 2015, new immigrants accounted for nearly half of the growth in the working-age population, and in the next two decades, immigrants will be key to offsetting an aging population that is retiring. Demographers say the increased educational attainment of Americans coupled with a shortage of blue-collar workers highlights the need for immigrants, in ever larger numbers, to perform low-skilled jobs. About five million of them work in jobs designated as “essential” by the government.
Among the biggest backers of the Biden initiative are employers who rely on immigrants. Through the years, meatpacking plants, dairy farms and a multitude of other worksites have been caught up in immigration raids targeting unauthorized workers.