This analysis, extracted from MPI President Demetrios Papademetriou’s “The ‘Regularization’ Option
in Managing Illegal Migration More Effectively: A Comparative Perspective” (Policy
Brief No. 4, September 2005), points to the following “things to watch
for” in thinking about and setting up regularization programs. First,
such programs must capture the behavior and needs of both migrants and their
employers accurately if they are to succeed in their administrative goals.
Second, they must learn from the lessons of past programs. The fact that
there has been remarkably little evaluation of, and even less systematic
experimentation with, regularization programs is a big obstacle in this regard.
Third, regularizations must be deployed jointly with the other tools
that one finds in the full migration management toolbox.
For instance, the requirement that an illegally resident person should demonstrate
formal sector employment in order to receive or maintain legal status has not
been shown to be an effective measure in drawing migrants out of vibrant informal
labor markets. An alternative, and as yet formally untested, approach might
be to grant regularized migrants unconditional work permits and then target
the sectors and companies in which they worked for greater enforcement of labor
and immigration laws.
Another example of an area where too little reflection and even less experimentation
has taken place is the duration of residence permits. Underlying decisions
in this regard is the political anxiety about granting the very important privilege
of permanent residence too readily to people who have entered or stayed illegally.
Yet, this understandable anxiety perverts a program’s logic and undermines
Most regularizations also fall victim to a false dichotomy by assuming either
that all unauthorized migrants would decide to return home within a few years
or that all migrants somehow desire and “deserve” to live permanently
in the host country. As with all binary arguments about complex social and
economic behavior, both assumptions are partially false. In fact, many regularized
immigrants drop out of legal status yet stay on, while others, a smaller number,
return to their homes, especially if their visas allow back-and-forth movement.
Both Italy and Greece have had this latter experience with Albanians after
granting them work visas that allowed reentries. Of course, geographic proximity,
and especially contiguity, play a large role in this regard.
The concept of “earned” regularization shown in the chart, “Notional
Earned Regularization Program: The Credit System,” takes
the policy discussion beyond the political dead-end of whether or not to
offer illegally resident migrants “amnesty” by addressing many
of these and related problems in a practical and clear-headed way. Earned
regularization has received the most attention in the United States, but
has also entered the policy lexicon in the United Kingdom. In such a program,
unauthorized migrants enter a three-tiered process. Of course, the criteria
for qualifying for each tier and the exact privileges, rights, and responsibilities
awarded can vary without altering the basic concept.
In the first tier, applicants would qualify virtually automatically for a
probationary status that grants them temporary residence and work permission
by registering with the government and submitting to full background checks.
The all-important security concern would thus be met first.
After a reasonable length of time, say, three to five years, migrants would
be able to move to the second tier by applying for permanent residence and
work permission on the basis of meeting a number of criteria. Among them would
be having a record of stable formal-sector employment, paying taxes, passing
a basic language skills test, engaging in the life of the community of which
they are part, being willing to work in economic sectors and parts of the country
where the population is declining and workers are needed, and so on.
would be awarded “credits” or “points” for
meeting those and other reasonable requirements, and would earn permanent status
if they gain enough points within the pre-agreed time frame. A “bonus” year
might be offered to those who are within a point of the pass mark at the end
of the pre-agreed time frame in return for agreeing to a higher pass mark.
Both scenarios would stretch out the period during which tier-two applications
would be filed. Doing so would make the administrative end of things more orderly,
manageable, and less subject to the fraud associated with massive programs
having to be delivered in very compressed periods of time. The fact that many
applicants will meet the pass mark before the deadline and would be able to
apply whenever they do so will contribute further toward the goal of programmatic
orderliness and manageability.
The third tier would be for those who fail to meet this test and “graduate” into
legal permanent status. These individuals would receive a two-year extension
to their residence and work permit and be required to return to their homes.
Earned regularization thus offers the following advantages.
• First, by setting the bar for gaining temporary legal (first tier) status
relatively low, it can pull the largest possible number of unauthorized migrants
out of the pool of the unknown population and, hopefully, with time, out of
the informal economy.
• Second, from a security perspective, the vetting of applicants allows
the government to dramatically reduce the “haystack” of unknown
foreigners into a more manageable-sized one. The resulting smaller haystack
makes it more likely that the application of reasonable, but always limited,
investigative resources would stand a better chance of identifying the few
proverbial “needles” that are of legitimate security concern.
• Third, by being very generous in allowing applicants to achieve the
first-tier probationary status (that of legal temporary status with full work
privileges and all applicable labor and social protections and obligations),
the host society removes the biggest social problems associated with illegal
residence and work. These include gross violations of labor laws, disregard
for social and related protections, and unfair competition by those employers
who systematically trawl the waters of illegal work.
• Fourth, earned regularization takes into account, without prejudging
whether unauthorized migrants are primarily interested in temporary or permanent
status, that many migrants may want to stay and work toward earning permanent
residence status — and that they could be an asset to the host nation
if they were allowed to do so. In fact, a well-designed earned regularization
program would grant permanent residence rights only to those migrants who demonstrate
the desire and ability to succeed economically and integrate socially into
the society in which they have been living.
• Fifth, a transparent system of earning “credits” toward
legal status, the barring of felons from the program, the full reimbursement
of all administrative and investigative costs the government incurs through
the collection of fees, and the fairness and reasonableness of the criteria
one chooses make the entire process clear, both to the American public and
the program’s users alike. Such clarity leads to realistic expectations
and predictable outcomes for the latter while reassuring the public that a “tough-but-fair” system
is in place to address the issue of the illegally resident population.
• Sixth, a policy-savvy earned regularization program would place most
of the burden of evidence on criteria that are a matter of public record, and
thus less prone to fraud (e.g., tax receipts), and are otherwise easily proven
(e.g., not having a criminal record or having the necessary language skills).
• Seventh, an earned regularization system offers the government the best
means to remove failed applicants effectively and at relatively modest cost,
in a manner that the US public considers fair and to which most civil society
groups can acquiesce.
• Eighth, by focusing on evaluating how individuals behave after they
have been granted probationary legal status, an earned regularization program
creates incentives for ongoing positive behaviors. Not incidentally, such a
program becomes, in effect, a transition belt or a bridge to “selecting” permanent
immigrants according to requirements that can predict long-term success both
for the immigrant and the receiving society.
• Finally, by requiring applicants to pay a very substantial additional
fee to offset near-term social expenditures by states and localities, two critical
goals are met. The first one is getting state and local governments actively
on board the regularization bandwagon, a political priority of the first order
if such a program is to be enacted. The second is the very real one of creating
a pool of money for use by services provided to immigrants in the fields of
health, education, and, more generally, immigrant integration. These are areas
where money will be the most effective — on the ground in our cities,
where the need is most pronounced and funds most scarce. Better integrated
immigrants, in turn, contribute to stronger communities that benefit all of
Notional Earned Regularization Program: The Credit System
By Demetrios G. Papademetriou, President, Migration Policy Institute
||Applicants would have between three and five
years to earn the required number of credits. (This chart assumes
three years). The countdown starts when one receives a temporary
|The Registry would be updated to
|Any applicant convicted of a felony
would be barred from participating in the regularization program.
|A dedicated fee would be collected
by the federal government to fully offset expected program administration
|A fee of $1,500, payable in annual
installments, would be required of all applicants to offset expected near-term
social expenditures to state and local governments.
|The three- and ten-year immigration
eligibility bars would be waived for all participants, as would selected
other provisions enacted in and since 1996.
||Total Possible Credits
||A three-year formal relationship with employer(s) and an
employer letter of intent to continue to employ the applicant
||Two credits for each year of a formal relationship with an
||Demonstrates likelihood of long-term attachment to the US
labor market (a proxy for future labor market "success")
||No conviction for illegal act other than one related to illegal
||Each misdemeanor conviction leads to a deduction of one credit
(can refine futher)
||FELONY BAR (felony definition returned to pre-1996 legislation
||Three years of "on-the-books" employment
||One credit for each year of "on-the-books" employment
||Partial credit system recognizes the transition from the
informal to the formal economy may take time
||Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) spouse would qualify applicant
for full credit
||US citizen child(ren) would earn the applicant one credit
||Addresses the issue of unreasonable delays in the adjudication
of immigration benefits (if delays are reduced greatly, the "pass
mark" can be adjusted)
|Service to America
||Military, Americorps, or similar form of governmental service
(any level of government)
||One credit for public sector service, e.g., mentoring, skills
building, school programs, youth development programs, etc.
||Integration proxy showing extraordinary commitment to the
|Civic Engagement I
||Documented basic English fluency
||One credit for completion of an English instruction course
||This is a basic integration indicator
|Civic Engagement II
||Document volunteerism at the community level, e.g., volunteering
in churches, food banks, hospitals, (interpretation, customer relations),
youth sports, community projects, etc.
||Rewards participation in the life of the community in which
an applicant lives
||Employment in sectors where demand is highest (US Department
of Labor designates)
||One credit for work in sectors projected to show continuous
employment growth by Bureau of Labor Statistics
||Recognizes the realities of and rewards employment in the
labor market sectors where the jobs are
||Willingness to live and work in parts of the country where
population may be declining and labor needs are (or are projected to be)
most pronounced (US Department of Labor designates in consultation with
||Addresses the needs of many Midwestern and other states,
such as Iowa, Kansas, the Dakotas, etc., which have been experiencing or
are projected to experience declines in their working-age population due
to aging and outmigration
|Years in Country
||Continuous residence in the US for at least three years prior
to registering for program
||Those who meet the new Registry Date need not participate
in the earned regularization system
|Maximum Credits: 25
|Required Credits for Eligibility
("pass mark"); approximately 75 percent of the maximum number
of credits (notional): 18
|Unsuccessful candidates get
a final, two-year temporary work visa: <18
The complete pdf of this Policy Brief, “The ‘Regularization’ Option
in Managing Illegal Migration More Effectively: A Comparative Perspective,” is
available online at: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/PolicyBrief_No4_Sept05.pdf.