Where Poverty and Immigration Policies Intersect

By Helly Lee

On May 21, 2013, after two weeks of hearings and dozens of votes on amendments, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744) by a bipartisan vote of 13-5. Although the word “poverty” does not appear in the title of the bill, it was at the core of some of the committee’s most contentious debates and will likely remain a focus when the bill reaches the Senate floor in June.

Under the Senate bill, undocumented immigrants who meet the numerous eligibility criteria would have the opportunity to adjust to a new Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status, which would allow them to work and obtain social security numbers. They must be in RPI status for 10 years (and must renew their RPI status at 6 years) before they can apply for Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) status. After an additional 3 years in LPR status, immigrants on this path can finally apply to become naturalized citizens. At a minimum, assuming no processing delays or inability to pay fees, this is a total of 13 years. There is no doubt that the path to legalization will be long and arduous for all undocumented immigrants, but low-income immigrants will face particularly strong obstacles.

In order to renew RPI status at the 6-year mark, applicants must demonstrate that they have been regularly employed (no more than 60 days of unemployment), or must demonstrate resources or an average income at 100 percent of the federal poverty level throughout their RPI status. Once applicants are eligible to adjust to LPR status after 10 years,  they must again meet the employment requirement and demonstrate an average income of 125 percent of the federal poverty level. For many low-wage, contract, and seasonal workers, these standards may be difficult to meet and create additional barriers along the path to citizenship. In addition, S.744 explicitly prohibits immigrants in RPI status from accessing any federal means-tested benefits, including TANF cash assistance, SNAP food assistance, and Medicaid. Aspiring citizens in RPI status will also be prohibited from premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions in the Affordable Care Act. This means that families who fall on hard times will have no supports available to them for the 10 years in RPI status, on top of the existing 5-year ban on federal means-tested benefits for LPRs.

In addition to what’s already in the bill, numerous amendments have been filed that would further restrict the ability of low-income immigrants to access critical income and work supports. While many harmful amendments were defeated in committee, a number of them are expected to be offered again when the bill reaches the Senate floor in June. Prohibiting low-wage immigrant workers from accessing resources leaves families struggling to make ends meet in the short-term, and could detrimentally impact families and children, most of whom are U.S. citizens in mixed status households, over the long haul.

We know that poverty remains one of the most important problems in the U.S. today, especially among children. We need to support strong anti-poverty policies and programs that support low-wage workers and low-income families without using nuanced immigration status to put people in different categories. As the bill comes to the Senate floor, and as the House continues working on its own version of the legislation, Congress will have additional opportunities to improve immigration reform. CLASP will continue to monitor the impact various provisions will have on low-income individuals and families and advocate for policies that help support low-wage earners and keep families out of poverty.