Any meaningful comprehensive immigration reform in the United States must establish a pathway for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants to become eligible for legal residence and eventual citizenship. Getting unauthorized immigrants to some form of legal status, however, will require more than just legislative action; the nonprofit sector must mobilize and help them navigate the complex bureaucratic and legal hurdles that will inevitably accompany any reform. That, in turn, will require more funding for the critical network of NGOs and community groups already active in the field—support for which, until now, has not been seen as an essential element of reform.
The benefits of a broad-based legalization program, both to immigrants and to society at large, are not in dispute. A host of studies demonstrate that immigrants who achieved legal status under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) experienced substantial wage gains, and improvements in educational attainment, occupational status and homeownership, as well as reductions in poverty rates—all as a result of the change to their legal status.1
A recent study estimates that today, legalization could produce an increase of over $1 trillion in GDP, more than $144 billion in higher tax revenues, and significant wage and employment growth over 10 years.2
But these benefits will occur only if three-quarters or more of those eligible successfully complete the program. Experience from IRCA shows that Congress will have to do more than change the law—it must support NGOs taking on this work.
In the 1986 legalization and several smaller programs since then, nonprofit organizations served as a critical buffer between undocumented applicants and the government. That process led to the legalization of nearly 2.7 million undocumented immigrants out of more than 3 million applicants. Of the approximately 75 percent of those eligible who applied, close to 90 percent were approved.
Of those who were approved, about half received some assistance from a nonprofit organization, and more than a fifth received intensive application assistance, which typically involved one-on-one counseling to help applicants collect documents and complete the required forms. A key subset of these nonprofits, the so-called “voluntary agencies” (VOLAGs), were simultaneously engaged in resettling the enormous wave of Indochinese and other refugees who came to the U.S. over the period of 1975 to 1990. These resettlement organizations accounted for a large plurality of legalization applicants assisted by nonprofits under the 1986 law. The U.S. Catholic Conference, the largest of the VOLAGs, invested more than $25 million in its legalization program, a figure that likely was matched by contributions from other refugee resettlement groups, although around half was later recouped from government grants and applicant fees.3
Who will be there to assist this time around? The Congressional Budget Office estimated that under legislation passed by the Senate last year, about 8 million applicants might be expected to apply—50 percent more than the number of applicants under IRCA. Analysis suggests that this time, nonprofit costs for assisting a legalization program could be as much as $270 million. But unlike before, the funds of VOLAGs and other nonprofits to invest anything even approaching $25 million ($50 million in 2013 dollars) no longer exist.
Currently, the only anticipated revenue sources for this work would be $50 million from a government grant program included in the Senate bill and an estimated $165 million from fees paid by applicants, leaving a gap that could surpass $50 million.4
Some of this gap can be filled by technology-based efficiencies in case management that have developed since the 1980s. Assigning volunteers from AmeriCorps and other programs to immigrant service providers could also usefully augment nonprofit staff capacity. Foundations might be expected to shoulder a major part of this load. The largest potential source of support is public funding, but this area is also subject to the greatest uncertainty. Potential House legislation could provide higher levels of federal support than the $50 million in the Senate-passed bill, but this appears unlikely. State and local governments are another possible source of support, although prospects for new grant programs to support immigrant service providers are unclear at best, given that most jurisdictions are just now emerging from severe, recession-induced budget cutbacks.
As a result, even a highly optimistic projection of support from these and other conceivable sources would leave a substantial shortfall, meaning that hundreds of thousands of eligible immigrants could be left out of the program.
One might argue that implementation planning is premature, given highly uncertain legislative prospects for immigration reform in the near future. But even if legislation is not enacted, many believe the Barack Obama administration will use its executive authority to extend some administrative relief to a substantial portion of the unauthorized, as it did in 2012 through its Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA provided a means for up to 1 million undocumented people who arrived in the U.S. as children to become eligible for deferral of deportation and work authorization for renewable two-year periods. Expansion of the program could extend relief to potentially millions more.
It would be tragic if after decades of an often wrenching and ugly debate, the nation finally finds the political will to enact immigration reform legislation or its administrative equivalent, but then fails to implement it fully. Given the clear economic and social benefits of legalization, all stakeholders in the campaign for meaningful comprehensive immigration reform should consider this period of delay and uncertainty as an unexpected “gift of time” to redouble efforts to mobilize the resources and infrastructure required to bring 8 million previously undocumented people out of the shadows.