“Immigrants have such great economic potential,” says Mexican-born economist and healthcare consultant Luis Arzaluz. “They come here, they learn the language — they buy cars — and they could contribute even more.”
Why did he mention buying cars? Because Arzaluz has the automotive industry to thank for his U.S. citizenship.
Arzaluz’s family first came to the United States in 1999 with his father, an automotive engineer who received an H-1B visa for high-skilled workers. The H-1B via program allows U.S. employers to temporarily hire high-skill foreign workers to fill positions that the employers cannot fill with U.S. workers. The program allows companies to grow, thus creating jobs for U.S.-born workers. By 2020, an estimated 700,000 American jobs will have been created as a result of the H-1B visas awarded between 2010 and 2013.
In 2003, Arzaluz’s father was offered another job, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and after several years the company agreed to sponsor him for permanent residency. Arzaluz finally became a citizen in 2016. “We were working and productive, and we had the benefits of the H-1B visa, but it still took a long time to become a citizen,” he says.
Just imagine the growth in the housing and construction markets if even half of those who are undocumented were allowed to stay.
Arzaluz made good use of the time in between, earning a bachelor’s degree in business and managerial economics from the University of South Carolina and a master’s degree in applied economics from Marquette University. A 2011 fellowship with Student Action with Farmworkers, where he worked with rural North Carolina health clinics, gave him “front-line experience” with the barriers to healthcare access experienced by foreign-born workers and helped cement an interest, and later expertise, in health insurance markets and mental health. After working as fellow in the U.S. Senate, he was hired by a Washington, DC, healthcare consulting firm.
Even as someone whose family did everything by the book, Arzaluz believes that creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and others is advisable and could be successful if approached cautiously. “There should be criminal background checks, and certain conditions, such as working for a certain period of time,” he says. “But they should not be heavily penalized.”
He points out that undocumented immigrants and other foreign-born workers pay taxes, “but get none of the benefits of citizenship,” Arzaluz says. A 2016 report from the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated that South Carolina’s undocumented immigrants pay $67.8 million a year in state and local taxes alone, and that allowing those immigrants to work legally would increase those tax contributions by an estimated $18.4 million annually. “They have such great potential, and it surely makes more sense to embrace that rather than try to get rid of them,” Arzaluz says.
Arzaluz’s instinct and education tells him that providing more pathways to citizenship would be win-win. “The people I know in Rock Hill are all hardworking people, but they are afraid to buy houses in case they are deported,” he says. “Just imagine the growth in the housing and construction markets if even half of those who are undocumented were allowed to stay.”
When Arzaluz worked with the Congressional Caucus, he had a “great experience” being involved in bipartisan negotiations, with Republican and Democratic staffers. Arzaluz hopes that as an increasingly diverse citizenry exchanges experiences they will find common ground. Young people, he says, “are learning to see the world in different ways.”