Originally Published in The Hill
Douglas Holtz Eakin - March 9, 2021
Immigration reform offers the opportunity to heal partisan divisions and foster the prospect of growth and prosperity. Senators Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham have reintroduced the Dream Act, a bill that has sat on desks in Congress for 20 years and would provide a path for immigrants who came to the United States illegally as children. Any action with this group would be beneficial to our economy, not to mention humane, but immigration reform should not end there. Addressing the legal status of Dreamers has to be the first step in an immigration agenda that propels our economy forward in the era after the pandemic is over.
Dreamers are immigrants who came to America as children. Lots of them have no recollection of their native countries. They were educated in our schools, have jobs, own homes, and have started families here. Providing them with a pathway to citizenship allows them to pursue the occupation of their greatest productivity. So that bill from Durbin and Graham would allow the recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and eligible residents to apply for citizenship in a strict earned pathway. They have to graduate from high school, pass a background check, commit no serious crimes, pay an application fee, and be proficient in English.
Immigration reform bodes well for taxpayers, job creation, and economic growth. This is because immigrants are important factors with our market infrastructures. The more than 800,000 recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals contribute over $3 billion to the federal balance sheet and more than $40 billion in our economic productivity each year. Those numbers are estimated to balloon, as they are on track to add more than $430 billion to our economic growth over the next decade.
Far from stealing positions from native born workers, as Donald Trump continues to misleadingly assert to his followers, immigrants generally add to job creation and wage growth in the United States. For instance, 40 percent of recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals have finished secondary degrees. They are nurses, teachers, public servants, and business owners with communities around the country.
During the pandemic, over 30 percent of recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals have worked in essential jobs, as part of the 22 million immigrants nationwide who are essential employees. Five million of those essential workers are undocumented. Failing to move with their residency status hurts the economy and the industries we count on every day, while reform will fuel the economy at a time when it needs it most.
The Dream Act is one part of the ambitious legalization at the heart of the immigration reform of President Biden. But legalization should be the first move rather than the final objective. Conservatives have to insist that the core visa system be infused with a vision for growth that builds a globally competitive 21st century labor force. Immigrants already have the higher labor activity rate when compared with native born citizens.
They are also more likely to start a business. In fact, nearly 20 percent of self employed workers in the United States are foreign born. Diverse skill sets and talents from across the world have spawned innovation and job creation in this country for years, despite that under 10 percent of visas are awarded based on economic criteria. Think of the effects of making business central to the decision to award an immigrant visa.
Visa reform can also solve the growth problem. In the postwar period, an American saw the standard of living double in 30 years. In the course of your career, your ability to support a family and pursue retirement could become twice as large. The future is more bleak. The latest government estimates indicate it could take over 75 years to double income for each individual. The American dream is shrinking over the horizon.
More rapid growth will be essential to the welfare of American families. Congress can bolster economic growth by taking opportunities to seek common ground with smarter immigration policies. The Dream Act is a great place to start for our lawmakers, but the work should continue to harness immigration reform as one tool for economic ascent.
Douglas Holtz Eakin is president of the American Action Forum. He served as the director for the Congressional Budget Office under President Bush.