Exclusive Commentary

Immigration Reform as a Way to Reduce Poverty

Andrew Wainer, Bread for the World Institute - Posted April 8, 2013


Offering a chance to escape poverty is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the American immigration system. Over centuries, immigration has provided economic opportunity to tens of millions of impoverished families from around the world. We don’t often talk about U.S. immigration policy as a mechanism for lifting people out of poverty, but that’s what it has been to people from Galway, Ireland, to Guangzhou, China, to Guadalajara, Mexico.

At least since the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, poverty and hunger have been a major driver of immigration. And while some families come to America for better opportunities, they may face additional barriers once they reach the U.S. Changes to our country’s immigration policies could help us better deal with unauthorized immigration, in addition to helping more immigrants lead economically secure lives.

In recent decades, most migration – both authorized and unauthorized – to the United States has come from both Latin America and Asia. But when it comes to unauthorized migration today, most – more than 80 percent – comes from Latin America. Mexico alone is the home country of about 60 percent of all unauthorized immigrants.

Poverty is a significant driver of this trend. Although Mexico has made economic strides in recent years, World Bank figures indicate that, in 2010, 51 percent of Mexicans lived below the national poverty line. Rural Mexico supplies a disproportionate percentage of unauthorized immigrants, perhaps in part because poverty is even more widespread – 61 percent – and deeper. Escaping poverty and inequality is not the only motivation for unauthorized immigration, but it’s a major “push” factor.

Another factor leading to unauthorized immigration to the U.S. is the related challenge of malnutrition in Central America. This problem leads parents to try everything in their power – including international immigration – to earn more money for food. Between 1990 and 2008, the number of malnourished Guatemalans rose from 1.4 million to 2.9 million, an increase of 113 percent. In 2007, UNICEF reported that Guatemala had the fourth-highest percentage of chronically malnourished girls and boys in the world—and the highest rate in Latin America.

Finding comprehensive solutions for unauthorized immigration requires us to acknowledge that immigration is an international issue, driven partly by inequality and a relative lack of economic opportunity. Even today, when there is a robust national dialogue on immigration reform, this international dimension is often absent from the discussion.

Although many immigrants come here seeking economic opportunity – a hope that is often fulfilled –today’s unauthorized immigrants face obstacles to escaping poverty once they arrive in the United States. The poverty rate for our country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants is estimated at anywhere from 21 to 35 percent, despite the fact that they have higher workforce participation rates than both citizens and legal immigrants.

Unauthorized legal status isn’t the only barrier to economic advancement, but it poses a significant obstacle.

That’s why legalization for certain unauthorized immigrations would facilitate their ability to find better jobs and pursue further education, helping them get out of poverty. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act legalized the status of nearly 2.7 million immigrants. Looking at the data following legalization, social scientists across the political spectrum documented wage increases in the range of 6 to 13 percent, with some finding larger gains.

Researchers speculate this historical trend could hold for today’s immigrants. A 2010 RAND study on the effects of legalization found that it could, by removing barriers, make the labor market more efficient, helping both workers and employers. "Illegal status generates barriers that constrain the choices of both workers and employers," the study stated. "In this sense, legalization could be interpreted as a removal of such barriers, which could potentially improve... the overall efficiency of the labor market."

The advantages aren’t difficult to comprehend. Analysts have identified what they call a "wage penalty" for unauthorized immigrants, primarily because they must keep a low profile. According to a University of Michigan study, "The risk of apprehension... provides incentives to work in jobs that require little investment and training, and have flat experience profiles. These features of employment impede future investment.”

If we really want to improve opportunity, however, more must be done. A reformed immigration policy must also change current guest worker programs. Both employers and workers will benefit from an orderly and legal way to manage the flow of temporary immigrant workers. Guest worker policies should be based on U.S. labor-market needs and should also promote broad-based economic development in immigrant-sending communities.

Finally, immigration reform should be complemented by investments in education and workforce training for U.S.-born workers who also suffer from poverty.

It’s time we thought about immigration in a different way if we are to help all immigrant families lead more financially stable lives. Immigration reform can and should aim to reduce poverty and boost our country’s economic strength.

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Andrew Wainer is the senior immigration policy analyst at the Bread for the World Institute.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at info@spotlightonpoverty.org.