Leiden Law Blog

Legalisation of US undocumented immigrants: towards a better future?

Legalisation of US undocumented immigrants: towards a better future?

In an attempt to improve the US ‘broken immigration system’ Barrack Obama recently announced that many illegal immigrants in the US are to be offered a chance of temporary legalisation. It provides many illegal immigrants the chance to come ‘out of the shadows’ and to ‘get right with the law’. Furthermore, this legalisation scheme promises better futures for them and their children. However, to what extent their futures will in fact be better is a question open for debate. Empirical research on the fate of amnestied immigrants so far remains inconclusive.

Fixing broken immigration systems

In many other countries, one-off collective amnesties have been issued in which undocumented immigrants were regularised if they could meet specific criteria. Among developed migration-receiving countries, such practices are widespread. In fact, over the last 30 years, more than 8 million immigrants in the European Union and the US have been regularised by means of 34 mass regularisations (Duman 2014). Like in the case of Obama, countries legalise immigrants through such collective amnesties, in part, to put an end to the social exclusion and marginality that many undocumented immigrants face. However, do such amnesties indeed improve the lives of the immigrants in question? This is an empirical question that so far remains inadequately explored. We do not know whether or not collective amnesties improve the lives of the immigrants involved, and, more importantly, for what reasons (Van Meeteren et al. 2014).

Better lives?

When research does not give us answers, we should ask ourselves, how could legalisation have the potential to improve the lives of illegal immigrants? The answers are pretty obvious and straightforward. After legalisation, immigrants no longer have to live in constant fear of deportation. They will find better jobs because they can no longer be exploited as undocumented workers. Whilst their diplomas and job competences were worthless as illegal migrant workers, they can now access jobs that better match their educational level. Legalisation makes them less vulnerable to exploitation and less dependent on their own ethnic community. They have better access to health care. In addition, there are all kinds of ‘smaller’ benefits like being able to buy a house or drive a car.

Existing research indicates that, overall, amnesty is indeed associated with better pay, higher job status, increased job mobility and better returns on qualifications. However, it also shows that legalisation does not necessarily improve the lives of all immigrants involved (see Van Meeteren et al. 2014). Whereas some manage to find their way into the formal labour market, others continue in the same job they had as an undocumented immigrant, or become unemployed. In addition, some immigrants face difficulties, not with their newly acquired rights, but with their duties. They may struggle with practicalities related to the bureaucratic welfare state, that require understanding of filling out forms and paying taxes, which is why some eventually end up in debt. Moreover, before legalisation, some immigrants earned wages that may not have been very high but that allowed them to live well considering that they did not pay taxes. After legalisation, they report that with the minimum wage they now earn, after paying taxes, there is hardly enough left to make ends meet. Thus, at a general level, amnesties are shown to improve the status of immigrants, but outcomes vary considerably between immigrants.

Towards a better future?

How differences after collective amnesties come about is not well understood. The prospect of legalisation is of course very encouraging for the immigrants in question. However, as not all lives actually improve after amnesty, and certainly not in all respects, research is needed that can explain how these differential outcomes come about. The insights offered by such research not only provide valuable understanding, but may also help policy makers to turn more amnesty outcomes into positive outcomes for the legalised immigrants in question. After all, was that not one of the main purposes? In the Netherlands, a one-off collective amnesty (‘generaal pardon’) was issued in 2007 targeting asylum seekers and former asylum seekers. About 27,000 immigrants were regularised. Dutch government, do we know what has become of these people? Is it not about time we found out?

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