What a Path to Legalization for Undocumented Immigrants Means for Pennsylvania

Maisum Murtaza |

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee conducted a markup for a legislative proposal that details a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status holders (TPS), and Deferred Enforced Departure holders (DED). This is a $107.5 billion instruction that will eventually be combined with the Build Back Better reconciliation bill federally. The markup focuses on the following categories:

  • Provides a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers who were 18 years old or younger when they initially entered the U.S. (There are additional criteria described in the bill that could make others eligible.)
  • Provides a pathway to citizenship for TPS immigrants and DED holders as long as the individual has not engaged in any conduct that would make someone ineligible for TPS or DED. Also requires them to have a continuous presence for at least three years in the United States.
  • Provides pathways to citizenship for farm workers and other essential workers per the criteria described in the bill.
  • Calls for recapturing unused Green Cards, making them available to others waiting to receive them and restoring availability of immigrant visas. The program
    • uses funding provided to the immigration and visa system to recapture visas lost due to slow technical processing.
    • offers diversity visas to people who were selected in the visa lottery but were denied due to Muslim, African, or immigrant travel bans and COVID-related travel issues.

Nationally, this policy will generate economic benefits by creating jobs, stronger local economies, and increased economic contributions from a population in the United States that is often overlooked for their role in strengthening our economy. The story is no different for Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center recently released a report on the aggregate contributions of Pennsylvania’s immigrants, including the roughly 160,000 undocumented immigrants in the state.

The report contains analysis from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), indicating the increased tax benefits of creating a path for legalization in each state. The Commonwealth currently receives about $135 million in state and local taxes from undocumented immigrants. ITEP indicates that this number could be $50 million higher if this population were to be given a path to legalization. These taxes include personal income tax, property tax, and state and excise taxes.

Alongside increased tax contributions due to better job matching and higher numbers of filed tax returns, Pennsylvania would also see an increase in the contribution of the undocumented populations to our state’s industries. This is specifically important to the agricultural industry in Pennsylvania as almost 9% of the annual output is contributions from undocumented immigrants. The table below shows the output in each of Pennsylvania’s industries from 160,000 undocumented immigrants in the state.

Agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting$360,000,0008.7%
Construction          $394,000,0001.8%
Manufacturing          $1,359,000,0001.8%
Wholesale and retail trade   $943,000,0001.3%
Transportation and utilities  $229,000,0000.8%
Financial activities      $887,000,0000.7%
Professional and business services$612,000,0000.7%
Educational and health services  $414,000,0000.5%
Leisure and hospitality    $660,000,0003.0%
Other services         $248,000,0001.7%
Source: Ryan Edwards and Francesca Ortega, “The economic impacts of removing unauthorized immigrant workers: An industry and state-level analysis,” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2016), available at www.americanprogress.org.  

Undocumented workers have been disproportionately contributing to many industries in Pennsylvania to their population numbers. There are 157,000 undocumented immigrants in Pennsylvania according to the Migration Policy Institute which is about 1.2% of Pennsylvania’s total population. Despite that percentage, the table above shows much higher output in several industries from undocumented immigrants. Despite their invaluable contributions, undocumented immigrants were left out of major federal relief efforts such as the stimulus payments. More than two-thirds of the undocumented immigrants in Pennsylvania have been in the United States for five years or longer and have long contributed to the states including during the COVID-19 pandemic. These contributions are staggering considering the risks that this population faces—any small trip to the store, a school, a doctor’s office, or a job could result in deportation. Policies like those discussed in the House Judiciary Committee markups would not only help this population but also help us recover from the pandemic recession. While it should be enough that pathways to legalization and immigrant-friendly policies would extend the basic rights we take for granted to an underappreciated population, they also serve as a way to grow our economy as we continue to recover from this pandemic.

Last week the Senate ruled that the immigration reform provisions do not meet the Byrd rule requirements for inclusion in a reconciliation bill. The parliamentarian provided no principled reason for excluding immigration reform from the reconciliation bill when, as we explain here, it clearly has an impact on the budget of both the federal and state governments. We believe that this decision should be reversed and, failing that, the Senate must find another way to move forward with enacting the immigration reform provision discussed here.