Amnesty for Undocumented Workers: We Did it Before. Could We Do it Again?

A major force driving the election of Donald Trump were many voters who at least want to slow immigration, if not stop it and deport all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. At the same time, the President-elect has promised to rapidly expand the economy. A past amnesty for undocumented workers has shown a way to eliminate many of those with an undocumented status (by allowing them to stay legally), at the same time growing the economy.

The website Quartz shows why another amnesty is worth considering. Francesc Ortega and Ryan Edwards, economists at Queens College in the City University of New York (CUNY), have published research showing the following:

  • Undocumented workers contribute 3% of the country’s private sector gross domestic product (GDP) each year, or nearly $5 trillion over a ten-year period.
  • That percentage varies depending on the part of the country and the industry in question, some of which are more dependent on immigrant labor than others. California’s GDP may be impacted by 7% due to undocumented workers, while 8%-9% of the economic contribution by agriculture, construction, leisure and hospitality may be due to the undocumented.
  • This impact is considered “substantial” by researchers, but the economic benefits could be far greater if those working in the “underground economy” were able to work openly. Undocumented workers are about 25% less productive than documented foreign-born workers.
  • This may be due to limited job options, because many jobs require a license or are more stringent in looking into a worker’s status, so they earn less than their documented counterparts. This “productivity penalty” could be overcome at least partially through legalization.

Instituting amnesty is not new. In 1986, under a conservative Republican President, Ronald Reagan, the federal government provided amnesty to nearly three million undocumented immigrants.

  • Ortega states this boosted the economy because legalization increased these workers’ productivity and income by providing new job opportunities.
  • An earlier study estimates there was a 15% increase in productivity after the 1986 legalization, then another 10% to 12% increase when formerly undocumented immigrants became citizens.

The CUNY study also estimates that providing amnesty to undocumented workers would increase their economic contribution by 20% — a boost of about 0.6% to the GDP. Economic studies of Salvadoran immigrants showed that those whose status was temporary, but legal, earned more than those living in the U.S. long-term but not legally.

Economically, a downside of providing amnesty is that it could encourage millions of additional undocumented immigrants into the country. There are also many practical and political roadblocks to more amnesty.

  • During the Republican presidential primaries, there was no quicker way for Mr. Trump to show scorn for another candidate than to accuse the person of wanting amnesty for immigrants.
  • On the other hand, deporting millions of people in a short time span will also be difficult, if not impossible. The costs in time, energy and finances as well as in political and legal upheaval will probably make mass deportations impractical if not impossible, any time soon.

If you live in Kentucky and want to discuss how you or a family member may be able to achieve documented status and improve your chances of earning a better income, contact our office so we can discuss your situation, the applicable laws, whether you might qualify and how we can help you through the process.

Attorney Kirby J. Fullerton

Mr. Fullerton’s practice is focused on immigration law. He speaks Spanish, and represents clients in cases before the immigration courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals. He began his career practicing criminal defense, and understands how matters in criminal courts can affect a client’s immigration status. [Attorney Bio]