A pathway to citizenship is key to boosting federal revenue

The U.S. Senate parliamentarian is considering arguments on whether a pathway to citizenship will be allowed to be part of the reconciliation bill moving through Congress. This is one of several key pieces needed to continue growing our economy, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Fully recovering will require meaningful, long-term investments in American families, workers, communities and infrastructure. That is why, on the heels of the American Rescue Plan, it is so important that Congress now pass the American Families Plan.

The American Families Plan includes long-overdue investments that are critical not only to getting our country back on track, but also in building a modern, sustainable economy. From universal preschool to two years of free community college to creating a national paid family and medical leave program, these are the policies our families, our communities and our economy need to move forward.

As with all investments, it will take time before we can see the full economic and social benefit. This is much like ensuring people with pre-existing conditions can buy health insurance, which saves money in the long term and keeps our families and communities healthy. Philosophically, that doesn’t change the fact that they are simply the right thing to do. Practically, however, it means that they will need to be paid for.

One option for increasing federal revenues — and yet again solving an overdue problem — would be the immigration reform proposals under current consideration. Just by providing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status holders, farm workers and essential workers, we could boost GDP by a cumulative total of $1.5 trillion over 10 years. In addition, we could create more than 400,000 new jobs and increase wages for all American workers by an average of $600 annually. Furthermore, undocumented immigrants would also contribute an estimated $149 billion of spending power each year if they were U.S. citizens. This added income could translate to an estimated $39 billion in combined federal, payroll, state and local taxes each year.

Despite misconceptions, undocumented immigrants pay taxes today — in part because of hopes of qualifying for a future legalization. But when they become citizens, they pay even more taxes. Currently, undocumented immigrants in America pay about $31 billion annually in federal taxes, plus an additional $18 billion annually in state and local taxes. Based on analysis of previous legalization outcomes, experts project that currently undocumented immigrants would pay an additional $24 billion annually in federal taxes ($240 billion over 10 years), an additional $14 billion in state and local taxes, and add an additional $150 billion to national GDP, if they were able to become citizens.

In other words, immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship and increase tax receipts is a smart way to balance new spending while also addressing the longstanding challenge of addressing the futures of millions of undocumented immigrants and their families — including U.S. citizens — living in the U.S. for decades. These new revenues would not only help in covering the costs of new policies, but could also be directed to targeted funds for investing in education and worker training programs.

Providing a pathway to citizenship would have a significant budgetary impact and can be done through reconciliation, as there is legislative history in past reconciliation bills for doing so. A Republican-controlled Senate included similar immigration provisions in a reconciliation bill, the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, that adjusted the status of individuals, modified who would be counted under the cap, recaptured unused visas and imposed significant new immigration processing fees. An amendment to strike the immigration provisions was defeated 85-14. Sens. Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn, along with nearly all of their Republican colleagues at the time, voted against efforts to strip the immigration legislation out of the 2005 deficit reduction act.


Congress has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make meaningful fixes to our broken immigration system and pass a pathway to citizenship for millions of people currently living, working, and contributing to communities across the country. Whether they choose to do so via reconciliation — like the Republican controlled Senate did with the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 — or separately, the Senate should act swiftly. It’s the right thing to do.

Mark Begich represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate from 2009 to 2015 and served on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee.

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