“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Emma Lazarus’ poem makes me tear up. I’m proud of America’s immigrant history, and grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.
I am instinctively and emotionally pro-immigration. I enjoy living in a diverse and culturally rich atmosphere that is Los Angeles. But a review of serious, nonpartisan research reveals facts– some uncomfortable –about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular. If we are going to respond effectively to anti-immigrant demagogues, we have to acknowledge those facts.
Some Facts About Mexican Illegal Immigrants:
There are approximately 12 million unauthorized Latino immigrants living in the United States.
Mexico is by far the leading country of origin for U.S. immigrants, accounting for a third (32%) of all foreign-born residents and two-thirds (66%) of Latino immigrants. The U.S. is the destination for nearly all people who leave Mexico, and about one-in-ten people born there currently lives in the U.S.
The Los Angeles Times reports that over 6,000 migrants have died in the Arizona desert since the mid-1990s, when border enforcement in California was tightened and migration routes shifted east into barren, deadly territory.
The average wage in Mexico is about $4.15 an hour and those in the agricultural industry make even less. Individuals can barely survive on those wages and families cannot. Currently about 40% of the Mexican population is below the poverty line.
Once a Mexican immigrant successfully crosses the border into the United States, they generally have two main goals. Their first aim is to send part of their earnings back home to their family and their second goal is to bring more family members to the United States. Eventually they hope to gain permanent residency (green card) and possibly U.S. citizenship status. Other illegal immigrants come with a different purpose. They emigrate to the United States with the sole intention of finding a job that will allow them to save enough money to buy a house or set up their own business upon their return to Mexico. Whatever the specific intentions of the Mexican immigrant are, we can agree that their main desire is to come to the United States in search of a better life.
Immigrants prop up metro areas. Despite a slowdown fueled by fewer jobs in construction and service industries, immigrants are helping metro areas such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and New York make up for the net loss of residents to other parts of the USA.
O’Reilly, Dobbs and other hate-fear mongers are wrong that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes. In fact, according to the Congressional Budget Office and the Social Security Administration, undocumented immigrants pay all kinds of taxes, including individual income, sales, property, and social security taxes.
Fiscal Implication of Mexican Immigrants From the Center for Immigration Studies (2004):
Households headed by illegal aliens imposed more than $26.3 billion in costs on the federal government in 2002 and paid only $16 billion in taxes, creating a net fiscal deficit of almost $10.4 billion, or $2,700 per illegal household.
Among the largest costs are Medicaid ($2.5 billion); treatment for the uninsured ($2.2 billion); food assistance programs such as food stamps, WIC, and free school lunches ($1.9 billion); the federal prison and court systems ($1.6 billion); and federal aid to schools ($1.4 billion).
With nearly two-thirds of illegal aliens lacking a high school degree, the primary reason they create a fiscal deficit is their low education levels and resulting low incomes and tax payments, not their legal status or heavy use of most social services.
On average, the costs that illegal households impose on federal coffers are less than half that of other households, but their tax payments are only one-fourth that of other households.
Many of the costs associated with illegals are due to their American-born children, who are awarded U.S. citizenship at birth. Thus, greater efforts at barring illegals from federal programs will not reduce costs because their citizen children can continue to access them.
If illegal aliens were given amnesty and began to pay taxes and use services like households headed by legal immigrants with the same education levels, the estimated annual net fiscal deficit would increase from $2,700 per household to nearly $7,700, for a total net cost of $29 billion.
Costs increase dramatically because unskilled immigrants with legal status — what most illegal aliens would become — can access government programs, but still tend to make very modest tax payments.
Although legalization would increase average tax payments by 77 percent, average costs would rise by 118 percent.
The fact that legal immigrants with few years of schooling are a large fiscal drain does not mean that legal immigrants overall are a net drain — many legal immigrants are highly skilled.
The vast majority of illegals hold jobs. Thus the fiscal deficit they create for the federal government is not the result of an unwillingness to work.
While immigration may have raised overall income slightly (about 1%), many of the poorest native-born Americans are hurt by undocumented immigrants. Because Mexican immigrants have much less education than the average U.S. worker, they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans. A study of this effect, by George Borjas and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, estimates that U.S. high school dropouts would earn as much as 8 % more if it weren’t for Mexican immigration.
It is intellectually dishonest to say that immigrants do “jobs that Americans will not do.” This is true in good times and more so in these times. The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays — and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.
Basic decency requires that we provide immigrants, once they’re here, with essential health care, education for their children, and more. As the Swiss writer Max Frisch wrote about his own country’s experience with immigration, “We wanted a labor force, but human beings came.” Unfortunately, low-skill immigrants don’t pay enough taxes to cover the cost of the benefits they receive.
From Paul Krugman, writing about the Bush-proposed “guest worker” program and about the fiscal issues in a 2006 editorial:
Worse yet, immigration penalizes governments that act humanely. Immigrants are a much more serious fiscal problem in California than in Texas, which treats the poor and unlucky harshly, regardless of where they were born.
We shouldn’t exaggerate these problems. Mexican immigration, says the Borjas-Katz study, has played only a “modest role” in growing U.S. inequality. And the political threat that low-skill immigration poses to the welfare state is more serious than the fiscal threat: the disastrous Medicare drug bill alone does far more to undermine the finances of our social insurance system than the whole burden of dealing with illegal immigrants.
But modest problems are still real problems, and immigration is becoming a major political issue. What are we going to do about it?
Realistically, we’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants. Mainly that means better controls on illegal immigration.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush’s plan for a “guest worker” program is clearly designed by and for corporate interests, who’d love to have a low-wage work force that couldn’t vote. Not only is it deeply un-American; it does nothing to reduce the adverse effect of immigration on wages. And because guest workers would face the prospect of deportation after a few years, they would have no incentive to become integrated into our society.
What about a guest-worker program that includes a clearer route to citizenship? I’d still be careful. Whatever the bill’s intentions, it could all too easily end up having the same effect as the Bush plan in practice — that is, it could create a permanent underclass of disenfranchised workers.
Earlier this month, President Obama held meetings on immigration reform with immigrant advocates and labor and religious leaders, with Senators Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham, and with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. He came out reiterating his “unwavering” commitment to comprehensive immigration reform.
Some Immigration Reform Proposals
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) creates a path to citizenship for undocumented students who entered the U.S. as children, provided they have finished high school and attend college or serve in the military. Passing the DREAM Act would better enable hardworking students to attend college, find good jobs and further contribute to our economy and society. The DREAM Act would not completely overhaul our immigration system. The bill would only affect students who entered the U.S. before 16 years of age; the Senate version includes an extra requirement that the student be under age 35.
An estimated 65,000 undocumented students graduate high school each year to face an uncertain future in this country. Only 10 to 20 percent of those who graduate high school are able to enroll in higher education. Though the bill directly affects a fraction of the undocumented population, it’s in our shared interest to see that it goes forward. Recent analysis from DMI’s Cristina Jimenez shows that passing the DREAM Act would boost our economy, strengthen our workforce and expand the middle class.
Schumer & Graham
Senator Chuck Schumer has been deputized by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — himself a strong advocate of reform — to be point man on this issue for the Democratic Majority. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has worked with Schumer for more than a year to create a bipartisan immigration reform bill.
Not much detail has been released about the Schumer/Graham proposal, but it is likely to track fairly closely to previous bipartisan efforts at compromise:
1) Stepped up border and interior enforcement targeting smugglers, criminals, and employers;
2) A worker verification system to allow employers to easily determine who can and can’t work legally in the U.S.;
3) A process for getting people who have been waiting for permission to come to the U.S. legally through the processing backlog that can stretch to 20 years currently;
4) Legal immigration channels for workers and family members as an alternative to illegal immigration; and
5) A requirement that people who are in the country illegally register with the government, pay fines, pass a criminal background check, and fulfill other criteria to get legal status that would eventually allow them to apply for U.S. citizenship like other immigrants.
Representative Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat of Illinois, already has offered a bill that legalizes immigrants who show that they have been employed, pay a $500 fine, learn English and undergo a criminal background check, among other things.
Wrong Immigration Reform
Two words: Joe Arpaio.
Sheriff Arpaio in the federal 287(g) program, which deputizes local law enforcement to act as immigration agents in street patrols and in jails. This program must stop. Sheriff Arpaio has a long, ugly record of abusing and humiliating inmates. His scandal-ridden desert jails have lost accreditation and are notorious places of cruelty and injury. His indiscriminate neighborhood raids use minor infractions like broken taillights as pretexts for mass immigration arrests.
To the broader question of whether federal immigration enforcement should be outsourced en masse in the first place, the answer again is no. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano unveiled a plan to repair the rotting immigration detention system. The Bush administration had outsourced the job to state, local and private jailers, with terrible results: inadequate supervision, appalling conditions, injuries and deaths.
Napolitano wants to centralize federal control over the system that handles detainees. But she insists on continuing to outsource and expand the flawed machinery that catches them, including 287(g) and a system of jailhouse fingerprint checks called Secure Communities, which increase the likelihood that local enforcers will abuse their authority and undermine the law.
Programs like 287(g) rest on the dishonest premise that illegal immigrants are a vast criminal threat. But only a small percentage are dangerous felons. The vast majority are those whom President Obama has vowed to help get right with the law, by paying fines and earning citizenship. Arpaio and other Nazis like him should be stopped by reform, and they must be.
Why Democrats Should Pick A Fight On Immigration
Finally, there are very practical political reasons for the Democrats to spearhead immigration reform. Besides the clear moral arguments for fixing our corrupt, exploitive system, the long-term politics are plain: Latino communities nationwide are young, growing and increasingly ready to show up at the polls. And the certain-to-be xenophobic reaction of the GOP’s loudest voices today will not only motivate Latinos this November, it might alienate independent voters as well.
Obama’s embrace of immigration reform helped elect Democrats in 2008. Latino voters arguably made victory possible in places as disparate as Indiana and Florida, and their political networks have only matured since. Throughout both the South and the Midwest, motivated Latino voters can strengthen Democrats’ hand. If the Democrats fail to address the immigration issue – an issue to which Latino voters are particularly sensitive and which helped drive their increased turnout in 2008 – the Democrats face even longer odds with voters in 2010.
President Obama is determined to pass immigration reform, but has acknowledged the challenges, saying, “I’ve got a lot on my plate.” He added that there would almost certainly be “demagogues out there who try to suggest that any form or pathway for legalization for those who are already in the United States is unacceptable.”
Almost 400,000 immigrants were deported last year. Those deportations touch legal immigrant families — voters — throughout America, and they increase the pressure building within the Latino community for action. On March 21st, a huge national march will take place on the Mall to express the frustration of the immigrant community that even as deportations continue, there has been little action on immigration reform. The American people have been far out front of the politicians on this issue, overwhelmingly supporting comprehensive reform. Washington can still catch up.