In late 2013, when Speaker John Boehner hired path-to-citizenship veteran Rebecca Tallent as a senior staffer, it indicated an imminent immigration reform push from the GOP. Republican leadership seems to be gravitating toward granting unauthorized immigrants provisional legal status, giving them the right to work and live in the U.S. and eventually apply for a green card.
There’s been speculation that Republicans fear Democrats will use the immigration issue in the 2014 midterm elections, when anything that takes the immigration issue off the table will be considered a “win” for the dems. The deeper issue among conservatives is how immigration reform might interact with the welfare state. Some fear today’s immigrants will become as dependent on America’s social programs as they have in the past.
Immigration skeptics point out that in earlier eras, the U.S. didn’t have an expansive welfare state assisting less-skilled people to lead decent lives. Many early immigrants eventually returned to their native countries after receiving no assistance. The current concern is that granting legal status to unauthorized immigrants gives more than a right to live and work in the U.S.; it’s also about green cards and citizenship that will lead to access of the full complement of benefits that assists disadvantaged Americans in climbing up to middle class. Critics cringe at the anticipated cost of food stamps, earned-income tax credits and other benefits of full citizenship.
Life at the lower levels of U.S. income distribution is preferable to life at the middle or top in many poorer countries. In light of the flood of hard-working foreigners eager to settle in the U.S., it’s not obvious that the U.S. immigration policy shouldn’t favor those who are likely to thrive in America. These immigrants will pay higher taxes than those who earn lower incomes, adding more to social programs for all Americans.
While some argue higher levels of immigration diminish support for the welfare state, other evidence shows this thesis doesn’t hold. Sociologists Ryan Finnigan and David Brady published a paper in the American Sociological Review pertaining to public opinion data from 1996 through 2006. It was found that immigration does not, in fact, reduce support for welfare; surprisingly, a high level of immigration plus a rising foreign-born population makes people more supportive of the welfare state.
Studies by both the Centers for American Progress and The Kaufman Foundation have also found that the path-to-citizenship options would yield the most benefits for all concerned, most notably a significant contribution of entrepreneurship by the foreign nationals.