Last week, eight U.S. senators released an 844-page proposal for comprehensive immigration reform. As the country was wrapped up in the upheaval in Boston, the fanfare around this long-awaited proposal was more muted than it may have been otherwise.
The realization that the bombing suspects were themselves immigrants made the issue a bit touchier. Republican Sen. Rand Paul suggested that the immigration reform effort pause until authorities could figure out how the bombers got into the country. That critique is largely empty, though, since Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev came over as children. Their father had a tourist visa and applied for asylum status after he arrived. The children were eligible along with him.
A rekindled debate about immigration is only beginning, and the proposal is just the start of a long process that won’t see a resolution for months, if at all. But whatever the Senate decides will eventually have enormous implications for cities across the country.
Pennsylvania is not a hub of undocumented immigrants, has no international border and has an unemployment rate so high that it doesn’t have particularly strong draw for foreigners seeking a better life. But immigration to Philadelphia specifically has grown in recent decades, and immigrants have played an essential role in repopulating the city.
Mayor Michael Nutter recently launched the Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs while citing that immigrants have helped Philly’s population increase for the first time after half a century of decline. And while Philadelphia has a lower percentage (12.5 percent) of foreign-born residents than other major cities like Boston and Washington, D.C. (26.5 percent and 13.5 percent, respectively) and the national average (13 percent), almost half of the city’s foreign-born population came to the city in the past 15 years.
As a consequence, immigration is returning to the front of the conversation.
Turning back to Capitol Hill for a moment, the proposed federal immigration reform is massive and suggests many policies, including increased border security, cutting back on some family-unification options by phasing out the sibling petitions, and shifting some work visas. The Washington Post has a good summary of what the proposal entails.
One of its central tenets is a proposed path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. This is that issue that some Republican leaders called “amnesty.”
The reform proposes a way for undocumented immigrants who were in the U.S. before and since December 31, 2011 to apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant status — if they pass required background checks and pay back taxes as well as a $500 fee. After 10 years, they could apply for permanent residency if they pay an additional fee, prove they are learning English, pay taxes and have worked continuously and earn 125 percent of the federal poverty level. After three years as a permanent resident, they could apply for naturalization.
So the “pathway” takes 13 years and several thousand dollars.
Immigration activists have lauded the proposal in general, mostly out of excitement to see the start of a discussion on addressing long-standing immigration issues in the country. But they have criticized, among other things, the long wait for the pathway to citizenship and the excessive fees.
“As it stands right now thousands of families will still be left out of this reform and will be forced to live further in the shadows,” read one statement released by Juntos, a Philadelphia organization for Latino immigrants. “Also, the 13-year wait to full citizenship is far too long, especially for families who have already lived and contributed to our society for many years.”
Mexican migration to the Philadelphia region has skyrocketed in the last 10 year and accounts for the second largest immigrant group after Indians, according to the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, an organization that supports the integration of immigrants. Mexicans also represent a significant part of the city’s undocumented community.
A 13-year wait to become a citizen may sound like a bureaucratic mess, but it’s important to understand that at present there is almost no way for “unskilled” workers to legally immigrate to the U.S. — aside from the limited “diversity visa” (consider the odds: 55,000 chosen from 12.6 million in 2013) and very limited visas for unskilled workers. If people come illegally, there is no way for them to change their status at present.
“The U.S. immigration system is not set up to have a pathway to citizenship [for unskilled workers],” explained Amanda Bergson-Shilcock of the Welcoming Center. “If you’re Mexican and don’t have an immediate family member… that has citizenship or a green card, then you don’t have much of a pathway to the U.S.”
Patience Lehrman of Project SHINE, a Temple University-based organization that works with immigrants to build skills and learn English, said that the pathway to citizenship will be essential for improving the lives of the undocumented.
“Most of them are working in menial and subpar conditions because they have to put up with it,” Lehrman said. “Once they come out of the shadows, employers can no longer take advantage of them the way they currently are doing. There is greater freedom for someone to… be able to take advantage of the entire labor market and find a job commensurate with their skills.”
Undocumented workers contribute significantly to the national economy. In the Philadelphia region, many immigrants are employed in the hospitality and restaurant industry, the second fastest-growing sector of the city’s economy. Many industries like farming, manufacturing and construction also rely on low-paid labor, and undocumented immigrants are often underpaid or cheated from their wages, as they have little to no legal recourse.
So, a major question for the city is, what would be the impact of a sudden increase in the legal workforce and a parallel decline in the undocumented workforce?
“Once you have people documented as workers, employers lose the ability to exploit a more vulnerable workforce,” Bergson-Shilcock said. “So when undocumented people move into the labor force, that raises the floor on wages for all workers.”
But in Philadelphia, debates over the cost of labor are already raging. Nutter has twice vetoed a city council bill legislating paid sick leave, the argument being that business owners can’t afford to pay for their workers to take time off when they are sick.
“Philadelphia already makes it pretty tough to be a small business,” explained William Dunkelberg, chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Business, on a talk show this month. “It will be expensive and it will be detrimental to employment. Especially since somebody can… always set up outside of Philadelphia and costs are a lot lower.“ City council and the mayor are also fighting over whether to enforce a higher standard wage for subcontractors in the city.
In years past, immigrant activists have held strikes called “a day without an immigrant” to highlight the importance of immigrant contributions to the workforce. As the debate evolves, cities may have to face just such a reality, and not just for a day.
Allyn Gaestel is currently a Philadelphia Fellow for Next City. Much of her work centers on human rights, inequality and gender. She has worked in Haiti, India, Nepal, Mali, Senegal, Democratic Republic of Congo and the Bahamas for outlets including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, Reuters, CNN and Al Jazeera. She tweets @allyngaestel.