Policy Summary 

Immigration reform encompasses a range of policies designed to decrease illegal immigration while maintaining or increasing legal immigration. These policies are best thought of as a suite of polices that typically include addressing border enforcement, preventing visa overstays, addressing work permit issues, and creating a path to legal status for immigrants.

Case for Equity

America has a fractured immigration system. Individuals are faced with a conflicting set of policies in operation at the federal, state, and local levels. As a nation, we have yet to reconcile the nation’s economic interests with its ideals and commitment to being a refuge for those fleeing persecution and violence. The patchwork nature of our immigration policies reflects a historically inconsistent framework as applied to nations, a practice that has dire racial implications. By correcting these issues, America can address worker exploitation, poverty, health, public safety, and improve economic mobility for millions.

Return on Investment

The return on investment is rated as being MEDIUM for this policy area. There are conflicting findings with respect to fiscal and economic studies and relatively limited studies.  

There is mixed evidence regarding the cost-benefit of immigration reform (see Brookings and Urban studies in the Appendix for a review of the evidence). Very few studies estimate both fiscal and economic impacts. Within each of these types of studies, there are large differences across studies with respect to their methodologies, whether studies include federal, state, and local impacts, the length of time for which they estimate impacts, exactly what policy reforms they estimate, and a range of other assumptions. Generally, studies agree that addressing immigration reform would have tremendous impacts on economic growth as measured by GDP and overall economic activity. 

A recent study estimated $1.5 trillion in GDP growth over a ten-year span post-reform (CAP 2019). This positive impact finding is consistent across a range of studies. However, studies with a fiscal focus (government tax and revenues), have found both positive and large negative effects particularly at the federal level (Urban). Looking solely at state fiscal studies shows mixed results, with some studies reporting negative fiscal impacts whereas others report positive (NCSL). Very few studies that show positive impacts assess how immigration reform would affect state and local government revenues/expenditures (focusing solely on the federal dimension). Lastly, whereas these studies do show positive impacts on the overall economy, there is a significant level of uncertainty about how immigration reform would impact the wages and unemployment levels of domestic workers (for a summary see the report by the Congressional Budget Office in the Appendix). 


Research Base

The research base is rated as being MEDIUM due in part to major gaps in the literature and the lack of good data sources 

There are tremendous gaps in the research literature regarding the overall impacts of immigration reform. Generally, the literature is complicated by a lack of robust studies. Studies tend to have solely either an economic or fiscal focus, but with little attention paid to broader impacts. This is further complicated by the lack of consistent and reliable data regarding the behavior of undocumented immigrants. For instance, we have very little certainty about the potential impact of immigration reform on overall health care expenditures. Although, there are public health experts that argue that expanding access to undocumented residents would improve overall healthcare services for all (Pauly, 2007). Whereas, with respect to public safety, research suggests that immigration reform would lead to reduced costs in public safety outlays (Orrenius and Zavodny 2019) because of better integration into society and reduced local costs of enforcing federal immigration policies. Education studies show inconsistent results. 

Research indicates that increases in immigrant students are associated with higher graduation rates for nonimmigrant children (Hunt, 2012 see also a 2012 study from the Institute of Labor Economics). By contrast, the wide-ranging state-level fiscal impact studies show negative fiscal impacts due to the increased funding challenges posed by a discrepancy between tax revenue and increased educational costs. However, these studies do not tend to assess how reforms could shift that calculus. In contrast, research suggests the tremendous potential for growth by expanding higher education opportunities to immigrants (CAP). 

Ease of  State Implementation

This policy is rated as having a MODERATE level of feasibility. While there are a number of significant reforms possible at the local level, the federal barriers loom large with respect to realizing true reform. 

Exploratory Steps for State and Local Leaders

Taking Stock of State and Local Laws 

Immigration reform is a multi-faceted issue. The policy issues are intertwined and encompass policies related to official identification, access to and competency of public services, language, housing, employment, and law enforcement policies. A thorough examination of these policies is a necessary starting point for any community pondering immigration reform.  The City of Santa Clara, CA has a comprehensive assortment of reports and studies assessing the entire public policy matrix related to immigration.

Develop a profile of immigrant communities  

American immigrants come to the US from nearly every nation on the globe. Although there are commonalities, the experiences of each group are distinct and the issues most pressing to any one group may be somewhat unique. Understanding the specific demographics of a community is critical as is having knowledge of the social and economic trajectories of each. The city of San Diego and the state of New York are examples of localities that have approached this inquiry in a comprehensive fashion. 

Convene leaders from across sectors 

As is the case with many policy issues, it is impossible to operate or affect change within a silo. Moreover, successful policy initiatives are characterized by coordination and collaboration across sectors. The City of Chicago has a regional model for devising strategies related to immigration issues (Chicago’s Metropolitan Mayors Caucus).


Chicago Entrepreneurship Initiatives 

Action Space: City Level 

Cost: Varies by program  

Mechanism: City ordinances and contracts (Link to City Resource Page) 

The culture of entrepreneurship is stronger in many immigrant communities than it is in the US as a whole. The City of Chicago is noteworthy for its efforts to build bridges and create opportunities for immigrants in entrepreneurship. One of the primary focus areas is in lowering barriers to launching business ventures like streamlining permitting processes, creating targeted outreach materials, and identifying start-up funding for interested individuals.  

  • Creating Strong Partnerships: Implementation required concerted action between the business, nonprofit, and government sectors to address overt policies of discrimination and to set the foundation for a cultural shift in the community.  
  • Identify and Leverage Community Assets: These communities were successful in the identification of strategic assets in immigrant communities that can be used to create industrial networks to accelerate business growth.


Illinois Immigrant Health Initiative 

Action Space: State Level  

Cost: Estimated at $46 to $50 million per year 

Mechanism: Enabling 2020 Legislation HB0357  

The State of Illinois was the first in the nation to extend health coverage to undocumented senior citizens. The state’s program is a means-tested initiative that covers residents aged 65 and older who are undocumented or are legal permanent residents. The state was also the first to cover care for immigrant children. It is anticipated that the state will realize significant savings in indigent care down the road from the provision of preventive care services.  

  • Creating Broad Coverage: The program covers hospital visits, prescriptions, and dental and vision care to undocumented Illinois residents (and green card holders) who are at or below the poverty level.
  • Calibrate Program Scope with Costs: The Illinois program is projected to cover between 4,200 and 4,600 immigrant seniors annually.   


Texas Dream Act 

Action Space: State Level 

Cost: Program cost $12 million in 2016 

Mechanism: Enabling Legislation 2001 HB1403 

Texas Dream Act: At least 17 states offer some form of a Dream Act that allows unauthorized immigrant youth to pay in-state tuition rates for college. Because they feature varying eligibility criteria and other elements, these policies differ widely in their impacts.  In a 2015 report, the Migration Policy Institute assesses these differences and provides insights for localities seeking to adopt their own versions. 

  • Broad Eligibility for Impact: The Texas program was implemented in 2001 and provides in-state tuition and grant eligibility to students regardless of immigrant status. Students must only have dependent status in Texas for three years, be a Texas high school graduate (or obtain a GED), and seek permanent residency. 
  • Emphasizing the Big Picture: Supporters were strategic in their advocacy by providing estimates of the tremendous impact on the state’s economy via increased earning power of participants and higher taxes paid to state and local governments.

Appendix & Resources  

Pauly M., Jos A. 2007. Pagan, Spillovers and Vulnerability: The Case of Community Uninsurance, 26 Health Affairs. 1304, 1307-13  

Orrenius P, Zavodny M. Do Immigrants Threaten US Public Safety? Journal on Migration and Human Security. 2019;7(3):52-61. 

Hunt. J. 2012. The Impact of Immigration on the Educational Attainment of Natives.  

Working Paper 18047 

Cui, J. 2013. A Summary of Selected State Reports on Fiscal/Economic Impacts of Immigrants. National Conference of State Legislatures. NCSL Immigrant Policy Project.  

Enchautegui, M. Lindner, W. Poethig, E. 2013. Understanding the Economic and Fiscal Impacts of Immigration Reform. Urban Institute 

Hinojosa-Ojeda, R. 2010. Raising the Floor for American Workers: The Economic Benefits of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Center for American Progress 

Hinojosa-Ojeda, R. 2012. The Economic Benefits of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. Cato Vol. 32, No. 1 

Karoly, L., Perez-Arce, F. 2016. Understanding the Costs and Benefits of State-Level Immigration Policies. RAND Corporation  

Congressional Budget Office. 2015. How Changes in Immigration Policy Might Affect the Federal Budget 


Guaranteed Jobs

Massive Workforce Investment