The debate over immigration is one of the key tenets of modern U.S. political discourse. The poverty aspect of the conversation, however, is frequently ignored.
But some academics have taken to asking an intriguing question: should poverty reduction through immigration legislation be taken more seriously as a proposal?
The data bears out how legal immigration can benefit both parties when it comes to alleviating poverty. Among Mexican immigrants, the largest foreign-born group in the U.S., those with legal recognition have a 12 percent lower rate of poverty than the undocumented. Average annual income is around $6,000 higher.
The domestic economy, and U.S. workers, can benefit from these influxes. The labor market becomes more efficient and managerial positions often appear and are usually filled by native-born Americans. Employers are also spurred on to comply with labor, health and safety regulations, unlike when undocumented migrants form their employment base.
The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act stands as a testament to what federally sponsored legal immigration can do to reduce poverty both domestically and abroad. The legislation legalized the status of 2.7 million immigrants and in the process increased their wages by 5 percent. A frequent criticism of a more liberal immigration policy is that it encourages poverty to ‘migrate’. This fails to account for the impact bills like the 1986 act can have to encourage poverty reduction through immigration.
More successful than some humanitarian and foreign aid projects, migration is capable of alleviating poverty among some of the most at-risk nations in the world. Haitians, the most poverty-stricken people in the Western hemisphere, have migrated in large numbers to the U.S. and Canada, often as refugees. Now, around four out of every five Haitians who are above the poverty line live abroad. These migrants, in turn, often repatriate wages back to Haiti to support their relatives.
Encouraging legal immigration as a policy goal could be under threat in 2017. The White House has made moves to significantly curb legal migrants and a new proposal endorsed by President Trump seeks to greatly limit the availability of green cards to family members of existing immigrants. The number of refugees will also be cut in half.
Congress appears unwilling so far to pass such a bill. Some Republican Senators have highlighted the economic benefits of legal immigration to their home states, such as South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham. They could join Democrats in universal opposition to the proposal and effectively kill it.
Treating immigration as a poverty-solving method could prove effective if taken seriously on Capitol Hill. While it appears any restrictions to legal immigration remain unlikely to pass, poverty still is a largely absent feature of the debate. The 1986 Immigration Reform Act, in particular, should stand out as an example of how to support poverty reduction through immigration.
– Jonathan Riddick