November 12, 2015
A Practical Approach to Unauthorized Immigration
Virginia is now home to more than a million immigrants. That’s the eighth highest number in the country, and is almost one in eight Virginians. Virginia immigrant workers and business owners make significant contributions to the state’s economy. And, taking a pragmatic approach to the fact that there are unauthorized immigrants living in Virginia could further strengthen it.
That’s the bottom line comparing Virginia’s current policies to the recommendations in a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The report looked at how state policies that better integrate unauthorized immigrants into the mainstream of society can improve state economies and wages for workers across the board.
By making sure all workers feel safe to come forward and report wage theft and other violations of labor law, states can make sure employers who play by the rules and pay workers a fair wage aren’t undercut. But, like too many other states, Virginia has underfunded its wage enforcement office for many years.
By broadening access to driver’s licenses, states can improve the share of drivers on the road who are trained, tested, licensed, and insured. This helps businesses who need their existing workers to be able to lawfully drive. But Virginia does not offer any type of driving permit to unauthorized immigrants, unlike 12 other states and the District of Columbia.
By providing in-state tuition and access to state financial aid to all state residents who have graduated from a high school in the state, regardless of immigration status, states can improve high school graduation rates, boost future earnings and tax revenue, and attract more businesses that rely on high-skill workers. Virginia has recently begun recognizing deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA) status as a lawful presence status that makes the students eligible for in-state tuition, but the state has not expanded access to other Virginia residents who have graduated from the state’s high schools and may wish to attend the state’s colleges.
Beyond these specific policy areas, creating a more welcoming environment for immigrants and bringing unauthorized immigrant workers and their families out of the shadows would strengthen Virginia’s economy and communities. Despite some fears, having more immigrant workers in the economy has no impact on the wages for most workers, and may even slightly increase the wages of native-born workers overall. Immigrants who are able to fully participate in society are more able to buy things from their local stores and otherwise purchase more goods and services, which can increase employment overall. And if families feel safe, they’re more likely to be able to be active participants in their children’s schooling and the life of their community.
We know that immigrants – of various legal statuses – have been a critical part of building the vibrant society and economy that exists today in Virginia and throughout the United States. While states cannot control federal immigration policy or enforcement, they can and must deal with the reality that unauthorized immigrants are a part of their economies and communities. The job of Virginia policymakers is to try to build the best state possible for Virginia residents, and an inclusive approach to unauthorized immigrants is the most practical and broadly beneficial way to do so.
–Laura Goren, Senior Policy Analyst