Early every morning, Gustavo Gómez travels to 69th Street in Queens and waits on the corner. On good days, a contractor comes looking for workers and Gustavo gets hired for construction work and other manual labor. On bad days, he waits for hours without an offer. His goal is simple: to work as many days as possible to support his family.
Gustavo, a member of Make the Road New York, came to the U.S. seeking opportunity, but has been unable to find consistent employment because he is an undocumented immigrant. Though he has lived in this country for several years, there is no way for him to obtain legal status or get a work permit under current immigration laws.
As Congress moves closer to passing long-overdue comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), Gustavo is excited about possibly benefiting from a path to citizenship. But one element of pending CIR legislation could exclude Gustavo from receiving a Green Card, an essential step to citizenship. To convince some skeptics, policymakers in both parties have insisted that, to get a Green Card, CIR require currently undocumented applicants show a history of continuous employment and a minimum income. Their argument is that immigrants should have to show that they have been contributing economically to the country to benefit from CIR.
These troubling provisions would require immigrants who seek a Green Card, when eligible ten years after registering for legal status with the government, to show they have spent no more than 60 days unemployed in the preceding decade and that they currently earn above-poverty income.
Today, undocumented immigrants are more likely than other workers to be employed in the informal economy where few records, if any, are kept. Even after years of work here, Gustavo has virtually no employment records; and despite his ongoing work, he has no current employer who can attest to his employment.
Should CIR pass with strict work requirements, this inability to prove employment could pose a big problem—and not just for Gustavo. Tens of thousands of immigrant day laborers – mostly men – toil in cities and suburbs around the country each year. Similarly, thousands of undocumented immigrant women are hired as short- and long-term domestic workers and would face similar obstacles in demonstrating their work history in coming years.
And, while workers like Gustavo would benefit from work authorization through registered provisional immigrant (RPI) status in the short term, a national unemployment rate of 7.6 percent provides no certainty that even the hardest working individuals can be continuously employed in sufficiently well-paying jobs immediately after CIR is passed.
Work and income requirements would harm immigrants like Gustavo and our country as a whole for several reasons.
First, a work requirement will likely make the pathway to citizenship inaccessible for exactly those people CIR should be helping. Such a requirement could further bias the path to citizenship against low-wage workers like Gustavo, who, if they could not get a Green Card, would remain in legal limbo. Such immigrants would be more likely to continue in low-paid, unstable employment and be vulnerable to exploitation and employer abuse.
Second, work requirements would undermine important legal requirements in some states like New York, where employers are required to keep records of hours worked and wages paid to their employees, but routinely fail to do so. Forcing individuals to self-document their work history would essentially shift the record-keeping burden from the employer to the employees.
Third, the income requirement reflects a clear anti-poor bias. While studies suggest positive economic benefits from CIR to immigrants and our economy, certain immigrant families – no less than our national economy – will surely fall on hard times in the future. Excluding them would be patently unjust.
Fourth, should immigrants like Gustavo be excluded from the path to citizenship on work history or income grounds – guaranteeing that many hard-working immigrants remain with only RPI status – legislation may recreate the problem that CIR seeks to solve by ensuring that a large segment of the population permanently is left with limited rights and protections.
Indeed, this potential flaw is one of the key lessons from our nation’s last comprehensive immigration reform in 1986. That law included a “continuous presence” requirement that immediately disqualified 1.6 million undocumented immigrants who did not meet the timing requirements. As a result, this “once and for all” legislative solution created demand for a further legislative fix, which Congress has not been able to achieve in 27 years.
Ideal CIR legislation would eschew all work and income requirements to ensure that all immigrants benefit. If work requirements are included as part of CIR, they must be flexible to accommodate the many different jobs held by undocumented immigrants like Gustavo. A potential approach would be to accept sworn declarations from applicants or a combination of a self-declaration and additional circumstantial evidence.
If Congress fails to provide this flexibility, and instead gives in to restrictionists’ calls for strict work and income requirements, we will once again end up kicking the can down the road. And, as in 1986, the next opportunity to reform our immigration system could be decades away. Let’s avoid further protracted policy battles and instead get it right this time.
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Deborah Axt is the co-executive director of Make the Road New York.
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