Don’t expect Congress to dive too deeply into the politically unforgiving topic of how the United States treats poor people as it begins debating immigration legislation. But that question is always lurking beneath the surface.
The undocumented immigrants who would be given legal status under the Senate’s bill tend to be poor, work in low-paying jobs, and have less education than the average American. What happens to them will say a lot about how much of a safety net policymakers think they should have, and whether they will be treated differently than other Americans.
“Most people who are pissed off at immigrants are not pissed off that they are here. They’re pissed off that they are poor and have benefits,” said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute.
The Senate’s bipartisan “Gang of Eight” has already agreed on tough economic criteria for undocumented immigrants who would be legalized under their bill. People granted status as “registered provisional immigrants,” or RPIs, would be required to maintain earnings above 125 percent of the poverty level. That’s about $29,400 for a family of four. They also would be required to stay employed. More than 60 days in a row of unemployment would render them ineligible for renewal of their RPI visas or a green cards.
The economic requirements are carefully worded to ensure that immigrants given legal status are employed on a regular basis, said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. There also are exceptions to the criteria for students and the “derivative” family members of the principal applicant.
“If people don’t meet the requirement, they’ll presumably lose their RPI status—hardly a positive outcome since we’ll just be creating a new pool of quasi-undocumented folks,” Kelley said in an e-mail.
Immigrant advocates like Kelley will be keeping a close watch on the amendment process as the immigration bill moves through the Senate Judiciary Committee to make sure the path to citizenship actually works. If it doesn’t, the newly legalized population could quickly find themselves right back where they started.
The committee will begin voting on amendments to the bill Thursday. Sponsors will be on the lookout for “killer” amendments that would destroy their carefully balanced framework. As a counterweight to giving the unauthorized population legal status, for example, the bill also includes severe tightening of immigration enforcement at the border and in the workplace.
In the midst of the amendment flurry, Cato’s Nowrasteh is offering a bold and brusque answer to the public’s worries about giving immigrants welfare resources: Let them come and stay, but don’t give them any means-tested benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, or unemployment. He is circulating a memo on Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to “wall off public benefits to noncitizens” instead of simply opposing the bill.
“It’s much more beneficial to the unauthorized to give them legal status. They don’t want welfare,” Nowrasteh said. “One of the worst things about the welfare state is that it makes people think that people are bad.... It blinds them to the economic benefits” of immigration.
The right-leaning Heritage Foundation estimates that one-third of households headed by unauthorized immigrants have incomes below the poverty line. If those incomes stay that way after the heads of households get legal status, some 2 million people could find themselves in a quasi-undocumented state when they try to renew their visas. What would happen to them? Would they get deported?
“They won’t be able to adjust their status or get a renewal. So, yeah,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the bill’s architects.
Republican members of the Gang of Eight say the economic criteria are necessary to answer the concerns that immigrants will be a drain on the economy. That was the main point of Heritage’s much-hyped research paper, released Monday, which stated that legalizing the undocumented population would cost the country $6.3 trillion, a figure disputed by many other economists and analysts.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the economic requirements for undocumented immigrants in the bill point to the value of legal residency in the United States, and eventually, of citizenship.
“It’s not an easy path to citizenship. You may disagree with it. I think it’s important,” he said. “The whole argument is to bring these people out of the shadows so they can be productive members of our society. This is a reasonable criterion for doing so.... The overwhelming majority of people can comply with that.”
This article appears in the May 9, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.