Upgrading Our Workforce: Shifting Undocumented To Skilled Labor

By: Robert Gore

The number of illegal immigrants living in the United States has decreased from its peak in 2007, but remains stable at 11.1 million.[1] Laborers belonging to this group find themselves limited, by their legal status, to unskilled sectors of the American workforce. Unfortunately, current channels toward citizenship, offered to illegal immigrants, provide help to very few.[2] Moreover, recent attempts to address immigration reform have been met with tough opposition in the Republican controlled House of Representatives.[3] Members of Congress again consider the issue this fall, but they need not start from square one.

This past June the Democratically controlled Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill, aimed at integrating immigrants currently living in the United States, who wished to legally join American society.[4] The bill called for the establishment of a Border Security Commission;[5] and restructured the naturalization process for unauthorized immigrants, creating a 13 year path to citizenship.[6] Despite 68 supporting votes in the Senate, the bill did not survive the House of Representatives.[7] Although they disagree on which course of action the country should take, more and more House Republicans agree that Congress should take up the issue of immigration reform.[8]

Many House Republicans believe that the debate over a path to citizenship fails to address the core problem presented. For example, Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, opposes a special pathway to citizenship for those immigrants already in this country illegally; however, he supports establishing a system to grant them legal status.[9] Goodlatte’s approach would help integrate illegal immigrants into more sectors of the American workforce, by removing a major barrier to entry, namely their illegal status. Opposition to the creation of a pathway to citizenship specially tailored for immigrants already living in the United States illegally is grounded in a fear that it will reward those that came to this country illegally and punish those that waited for the chance to make use of existing, legal channels.[10] Congressional action of this nature, presumably, would incentivize the use of illegal channels of immigration.

At first glance, Republican concerns about misplaced incentives seem convincing; however, upon closer examination, they may not be so serious. Rewarding or punishing past decision makers, does not necessarily incentivize future decision makers to select the ‘wrong’ decision, especially if the system in which these decisions are made is overhauled. Moreover, under existing regulations, immigrants who have remained in the United States illegally for more than one year are required to return to their country of origin for ten years, before they may begin the citizenship process.[11] Leaving this structure in tact could motivate many, who would otherwise seek legal status to remain ‘off the books’ and relegated to a lifetime in the unskilled labor force.

Providing a path to citizenship is closely tied to reworking the face of the American labor force. Consider the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, enacted by the Obama administration in 2012. That program provides immigrants between the ages of 15 and 30, who were brought to the United State illegally as children, the opportunity to temporarily avoid deportation and obtain a work visa.[12] While this program affords a measure of temporary relief, it is just that: a temporary solution to a protracted problem. The vast majority (over 90%) of illegal immigrants say they would apply for U.S. citizenship, if a method for doing so were available.[13] Until Congress considers systemic immigration reform, millions of our nation’s laborers will remain unauthorized and unskilled.


[1] Julia Preston, Decline Seen in Number of People Here Illegally, N.Y. Times, July 31, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/31/us/31immig.html?partner=rssnyt.

[3] Id.

[4] S. 744, 113th Cong. § 2(1) (2013).

[5] S. 744, 133th Cong. § 4(c) (2013).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Mark Lopez and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, If they could, how many unauthorized immigrants would become U.S. citizens?, Pew Research Center, June 27, 2013, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/06/27/if-they-could-how-many-unauthorized-immigrants-would-become-u-s-citizens/.

[13] Id.

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