Creating a Path to Citizenship Is Within Our Grasp

Senate Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget resolution includes $105 billion allocated to creating a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, many of whom have lived in the United States for decades.

A Defend DACA march in Los Angeles in September 2017. (Molly Adams / Flickr)

Both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have forced this country to take a long hard look at itself and to ask: How can we truly live up to the ideals of our Constitution?

One part of the solution is to level the playing field for unauthorized immigrants, many of whom have lived in the United States for decades, perform jobs that are essential to everyone’s well-being, and often have U.S. citizen children or other family members. Despite their contributions, they risk deportation every day.

The Senate has just passed a $3.5 trillion budget resolution designed to bring to fruition many of President Biden’s campaign promises to improve the lives of families and children, including a $105 billion allocation of funds to create a pathway to citizenship for these immigrants. The next steps are fraught with difficulty, as the resolution must not only pass the House, but then the actual implementing language for this provision and all the other elements of the bill will have to be drafted, fought over and voted upon.

Still, this is an incredibly important first step towards offering almost 11 million people—47 percent of whom are women—a chance at legal status and ultimately, citizenship.

Prior votes in the House on legal status for DACA recipients, farmworkers and other essential workers offer a good roadmap for the language the Senate Judiciary Committee will likely propose, but because this language will be part of a budget bill, the rules are governed by a process known as reconciliation. Authorized by the Congressional Budget Act of 1974, reconciliation requires only a majority vote to move forward in the Senate, thus bypassing the filibuster,  and may be used to address fiscal legislation like budget and tax bills. The bill may also include high priority legislation as long as that legislation has a demonstrated impact on government revenue or spending. 

And legalization has been shown time and again to add to the government coffers, as the change from unauthorized to legal status leads to higher earning power and greater investment, leading to increased tax revenue, job creation and community revitalization.  

For the 2.5 million undocumented immigrant women working in the United States today, legalization offers a chance to improve their own lives and their families. Legal status helps to close wage gaps, increases access to a broader range of jobs, and improves the ability of families to own homes and start businesses. New opportunities will also open up for those women who aren’t currently in the workforce, from greater educational and job opportunities, to access to needed benefits, to the chance to vote.

Further, after years of harsh enforcement, many unauthorized women have seen their spouses deported, creating an even greater need to support their families—often including U.S. citizen children on a single income. 

The benefits of legalization flow both ways, however. Undocumented immigrants make up a significant portion of the essential industries workforce, particularly throughout health care and food production and distribution. During the height of the pandemic, many undocumented immigrants risked their own lives to help ensure the country kept going.  At a minimum, legalization is a recognition of their hard work and sacrifices.

Equally important, creating a path to citizenship would reduce the anxiety and uncertainty that people without legal status live with every day. 

As Sinthia, a DACA recipient, explains, the temporary protection provided by DACA allowed her to pursue her education and feel safe. But for many of her family members who are undocumented, the fear and trepidation remains even as they continue to work in health care throughout the pandemic:

Sinthia’s testimony illustrates yet another important reason for including immigration in the reconciliation bill. She came to the U.S. as a child, and is American in everything but that official recognition, but those who came here as adults have made the U.S. their home as well. The vast majority of undocumented immigrants have lived in the U.S. for decades,  have U.S. citizen children, and are deeply connected to their communities.  The U.S. is their home, giving them a chance to live and work here lawfully with a chance to become citizens recognizes that reality.

Finally, legalization can help to reduce the racial divide. While we can’t simply wipe away the racism and fear mongering that has long been a part of anti-immigration rhetoric, a broad legalization agenda reduces the reach of immigration enforcement and strips away whatever pretextual justifications state legislatures offered for passing anti-immigrant bills that blocked access to education, housing, and healthcare. The fight over providing COVID-19 relief to undocumented workers, for instance, illustrates how often legal status becomes the lynchpin for denying benefits to black and brown people. Legalization doesn’t change that sentiment, but it makes it far more difficult for the system to impose artificial barriers that ignore the basic humanity and dignity of individuals.

In fact, legalization and the path to citizenship are insufficient on their own to redress all of the systemic problems within our immigration laws. Even the legalization provisions are likely to include compromise language on criminal bars to eligibility that will disqualify some people for reasons that have more to do with systemic failures than their own culpability.

Take Action

Much more needs to be done, but this is a critical first step towards a better future for Sinthia and millions of others.

There are ample opportunities in the next few months to support a path to citizenship.  You can let Congress know that legalization is good for women, vital to mothers, and important to everyone in this country who cares about ensuring a strong economy, a vibrant culture, and a just system.

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Mary Giovagnoli is an immigration attorney and policy expert who has worked for over 25 years in both the federal government and nonprofit advocacy to improve the immigration system. She is a former executive director of the Refugee Council USA. She served as the DHS deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy from 2015 to 2017.