The Biden-Harris administration is being urged to grant legal status to the roughly 5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States who served as essential workers during the Covid pandemic.

This is simply the right thing to do for people who have lived in this country for years and served heroically during a time of need. In this case, doing the right thing would also have economic benefits for immigrants who would newly have work authorization and for government revenues that would increase as well. A letter signed by over 60 experts, including me, explained what the economic benefits to the United States would be. What, though, would be the economic benefits to New York State?

There are an estimated 380,000 essential workers who are undocumented in New York State. Given legal status, they would be less likely to be underpaid by employers, more likely to invest in their own further education and training, and more likely to advance in their careers. Their household income is as a result likely to gain by $3,300 over the course of a few years, from $33,000 to $36,300.

And, as a result, these workers and their families will contribute more to state and local tax revenues. Undocumented immigrants already pay taxes—all pay sales tax, all pay property tax if they own a home and support for the property tax paid by landlords if they don’t, and about half file income tax returns, usually using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs).

Very roughly, this group currently pays about $500 million in state and local property taxes. If granted legal status, they would pay $100 million more, for a total of $600 million. 

How do we know?

The Fiscal Policy Institute recently calculated the benefits of granting a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants. That analysis gives us a basis for a rough estimate of the gains New York can expect from legal status for essential workers.

That report calculated two steps for economic gains to immigrants and to the government. The first of these, from undocumented to legal status is what is relevant for the proposal to give legal status to essential workers. For that, we see the gain of $3,300 per household. This is an overall measure, and it is a measure for households, but it nonetheless gives a reasonable rough estimate of the gains immigrants would see.

Granting legal status to essential workers would encompass a little more than half of undocumented immigrants in the state, and so as a rough approximation we can say that a little more than half of the tax revenue benefit would result from this bill. More exactly: 56 percent of New York State’s undocumented immigrants are essential workers—380,000 essential workers out of a total of 680,000 undocumented immigrants overall. We use this ratio of the overall taxes paid now, and what the gains would be if the group had legal status. Again, this is a rough estimate that does not account for potential differences between essential workers and immigrants overall, but it is a reasonable first approximation that gives a sense of the gains the state would see.

David Dyssegaard Kallick