Immigration reform: how to turn a path to citizenship into a path to prosperity

Maria E. Enchautegui

One of the major issues of contention in the ongoing immigration reform discussion is what to do about the millions of immigrants residing in the United States without authorization. The most recent proposal contained in Senate Bill 744, passed on June 2013, put unauthorized immigrants on a 10-year pathway to legal permanent residency, with citizenship three years after that. 

It is not too early to start thinking about a second pathway: one out of poverty for unauthorized immigrants. Thirty eight percent of working-age adult immigrants who are "likely unauthorized" (see box) have incomes at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) (simply "poverty" for this commentary). Legalization could boost their earnings and reduce poverty by expanding job choices. But low levels of education and a lack of English language skills are still hurdles for immigrants trying to move up the economic ladder. 

The metropolitan level is a good vantage point to assess what moving up that ladder looks like. Workforce development - jobs training and search services, community colleges, and adult education offices - are nearly all at the state and local level. The same is true for nonprofit and non-governmental aid organizations. Given that reality, the challenges and policies inherent to supporting the immigrant workforce will be unique and highly varied by metro area.

Who are "likely unauthorized" immigrants?

These data come from the 2011 American Community Survey, which does not include information about the legal status of the foreign-born population. To estimate the "likely unauthorized" population, I start with foreign-born noncitizens and exclude from the analysis those who appear to be residing in the United States legally, based on information about the type of employer, year of arrival to the United States, country of origin, veteran status, receipt of Social Security and disability benefits, nativity status of spouse, employment in licensed occupations, and employment in occupations with a high share of temporary skilled workers. The remaining noncitizens are referred to as "likely unauthorized." This analysis focuses on likely unauthorized immigrants age 18 to 64 who are not attending school. To provide more precise figures, this analysis focuses on the 36 metros, out of the top 100 most populated metros, that have a likely unauthorized population of 50,000 or more.

Source: Tabulations by the author based on 2011 American Community Survey. See box for more information.

In the 36 metros examined, the highest rates of likely unauthorized immigrants living in poverty are in McAllen, Texas; El Paso, Texas; Fresno, California; Austin, Texas; and Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, with rates of at least 50 percent. The lowest poverty rates are in Washington, DC, and Boston. In the 10 metro areas with the highest poverty rates for the likely unauthorized, these poverty rates are up to four times higher than natives’ poverty rates (see figure 2).

Source: Tabulations by the author based on 2011 American Community Survey. See box for more information.

Figures 3 and 4 show a close link across metro areas between poverty rates and lack of English language proficiency and poverty rates and educational attainment. Metro areas with higher poverty rates also have larger proportions of likely unauthorized immigrants without high school diplomas and with little English language proficiency. In an economy more demanding of skills, low education and English language skills are hurdles to the economic mobility of noncitizens.

Source: Tabulations by the author based on 2011 American Community Survey. See box for more information.

Source: Tabulations by the author based on 2011 American Community Survey. See box for more information.

The combination of high poverty, low education, and a lack of English language skills suggest high levels of disadvantage. Metro areas with these disadvantages face significant challenges in moving unauthorized immigrants into a pathway of economic mobility. Figure 5 ranks metro areas according to where they stand in terms of these three factors of disadvantage-their poverty rate, share of high school dropouts, and share of residents with limited English language skills-with respect to the nation as a whole.

In figure 5, metro areas in red rank higher than the nation along the three indicators. Metro areas in orange rank higher than the nation in two out of the three indicators, and the light orange metros rank higher only in one indicator. The remaining metros do not rank higher than the nation on any of these indicators. A total of 11 metro areas are identified as highly disadvantaged, and they are all in just three states: five in Texas, four in California, and two in North Carolina. If a legalization program is enacted, these 11 metros will face the greatest challenges providing for newly authorized immigrants because their unauthorized population has a mix of very high levels of poverty, very low levels of education, and very low English language proficiency.

Source: Tabulations by the author based on 2011 American Community Survey. See box for more information. Disadvantage is measured relative to the United States as a whole. Metro areas where poverty rate, percentage without a high school diploma, and percentage that does not speak English well are above the values of these factors for the whole United States have a count of three. Values of two and one are calculated similarly. Metros below the United States in all three are not shown.

How to improve the economic status of noncitizens

Unauthorized immigrants are constrained to a very limited number of occupations: those where detection is less likely and those where employers are willing to hire unauthorized immigrants.  Research shows that legalization gives undocumented immigrants the opportunity to move to better jobs and get paid according to their skills and work experience.  But in a labor market that increasingly demands skills, improving the educational levels and English language ability of unauthorized immigrants is also necessary to reduce poverty. More important, legalization can facilitate the workforce development needs of the unauthorized population. Some local areas are already providing workforce development programs to undocumented immigrants, but the effectiveness and reach of these programs is limited, for several reasons.

First, unauthorized immigrants are not eligible for training offered through the Workforce Investment Act nor employment exchange services offered through the Wagner-Payser Act. Also, by virtue of their unauthorized employment, they are also effectively excluded from services provided through the Trade Adjustment Agreement Program.

Second, even if immigration status is not verified or if undocumented immigrants are eligible, many immigrants will not seek these programs for fear of being identified as undocumented. Unauthorized immigrants are especially unlikely to search for programs delivered by government entities or programs linked to other benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) or disability aid.

Third, many of these programs offer job referrals or are connected to employers, but unauthorized immigrants can’t benefit because their employment is restricted by law. Unauthorized immigrants may feel that workforce development is not worthwhile if they cannot access the jobs for which they are being trained.

Combine federal immigration policies with state and local integration programs

Legalization proposals under immigration reform can be seen not only from the point of view of immigration policy but also from the perspective of integration policies. A pathway to legalization is an important step toward economic mobility for unauthorized immigrants. But to place unauthorized immigrants on a path to prosperity, legalization proposals need strong workforce development components, particularly with regard to improving immigrants’ work and language skills.

If a legalization program is enacted, state and local agencies should be prepared to meet increased demand for workforce development programs as formerly unauthorized immigrants look for training. Demand for English language programs will also increase because basic  English fluency is a requirement for legal permanent resident status under various proposals. Employment programs may have to be restructured away from work-first approaches and toward skills development. They also may require better coordination with adult education programs and one-stop career centers.

With a legalization program, newly authorized immigrants will also benefit from the combination of English learning with occupational training. The federal government could allocate funding to assist state and local areas in providing this kind of skills development to the legalized population. Funding for English language and civics education was just $70 million in the 2013 budget and has stalled over the past few years. 

The long-standing divide between immigration policy (determined at the federal level) and immigrant integration polices (mainly left to state and local areas) needs to be bridged when it comes to improving the human capital of unauthorized immigrants. From the perspective of immigration reform, a slow process toward granting legal permanent residence to unauthorized immigrants delays the investments needed in human capital development and prolongs economic hardship for this population. Metro areas with high poverty rates, low educational levels, and limited English skills among unauthorized immigrants face the greatest challenges in trying to improve the economic status of unauthorized immigrants.


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