The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 8, 2014

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Rep. Luis Gutierrez talk immigration reform at the Urban Institute

May 8, 2014

Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is enthusiastic about immigrants in the Windy City. Specifically, he’s eager to ensure that Chicago remains a welcoming place for immigrants and a leading voice for immigration reform.

“We have a history, deep in the DNA of our city, of inclusiveness,” Emanuel said during a discussion on immigration policy, held today at the Urban Institute.

Speaking about potential congressional reform legislation, he asked, “How do[es Chicago] make the most of this? How do we make sure we’re in the forefront? Because it’s in our economic self-interest. It’s how we accelerate. Sign [a bill] and we’re going to be ready in the city of Chicago to move!”

But will such reform actually happen?

Joining the mayor was moderator Jim Avila of ABC News, and US Representative Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), who believes action in one form or another is imminent.

“One of two things is going to happen,” Gutiérrez said. “Either the president will sign a [congressional] bill by the fall” or he’ll use executive orders to advance immigration reform.

Immigrants in the United States

Comprehensive reform may well be in Chicago’s economic interest, but it’s undoubtedly in the interest of millions of immigrants.

Over 11 million immigrants are living in the US without documentation – and Urban Institute research suggests that they’re subject to high rates of poverty, low educational attainment and low English language proficiency, on top of being barred from the formal labor market. These barriers make achieving economic security and stability difficult – and the pathway to citizenship included in most proposed reform legislation would improve their access to services like education, healthcare, and language and job training.

But the benefits of this pathway to citizenship and prosperity extend far beyond just 11 million undocumented immigrants. A new Urban fact sheet shows that nearly 9 million US citizens or legal permanent residents– many of whom are children under 18 – live with their undocumented family members. Only 22 percent of undocumented immigrants live in households where everyone is undocumented. Deporting undocumented immigrants splits families apart, separating children from their parents and putting strain on US safety net programs.

In fact, the current immigration system has many provisions that keep families apart in ways they wouldn’t otherwise choose. While this is no doubt difficult for families, and especially children, it also encourages US immigrants to send money abroad to their families rather than spending it here in the US.

Alternatives to comprehensive immigration reform

Emanuel suggested that through executive order Obama could lower the financial costs of applying for citizenship, which are so high that they frequently prevent low-income working immigrants from applying at all. One potential reform would allow families to apply as a unit, reducing bureaucratic costs to the government and lowering application fees for immigrants.

Representative Gutiérrez explained another idea that the Obama administration announced yesterday*: a simple reform to H-1B visas, which allow high-skilled immigrants to work legally in the United States. As currently structured, he said, H-1B visas do not permit workers’ spouses to find US employment. Expanding that permission would incentivize productive high-skilled workers to immigrate, and encourage spouses to add their productivity to the workforce.

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​​Photo by Ralph Alswang

*This post has been corrected to reflect that the H-1B idea comes from the Obama administration and not Representative Gutierrez.

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