The Question: What should be done about illegal immigration in the United States?
The United States is, as the famous cliché goes, “a nation of immigrants.” And it always has been, since the first colonist stepped off his boat at Jamestown in 1607. (Or, if we want to go back even farther, since the first humans figured out how to jump the border between Siberia and Alaska at the Bering Land Bridge way back in the day.) Either way, this is a country (and economy) that has, for centuries, benefitted hugely from a steady influx of newcomers from abroad.
That said, immigration has almost always been controversial. Any group of foreigners that started showing up here in large numbers tended to freak out the people who are already here. Even before the American Revolution, for example, Ben Franklin was seriously worried that Pennsylvania was being taken over by Germans. Later rounds of anti-immigrant hysteria targeted the Irish, the Chinese, the Jews, the Italians, the Slavs… basically, any group of people who seemed “different” and happened to be coming into the country in big numbers at the time.
Over the past few decades, that has meant (mainly) people from Latin America (especially Mexico), now the largest source for immigration to the United States. Because Mexico is significantly poorer than the United States and right next door, the pull of opportunity in the North has been strong enough to lure millions of people across the border. Those who came legally, following the normal immigration procedures of the U.S. government, tend not to be too controversial. But 11 million or so illegal immigrants – people who just crossed the border without papers, who have no legal right to be in the country – are now estimated to be living in the United States, and their presence has sparked a firestorm of political controversy.
Over the past few years, in particular, as the American economy has gone into the tank and native-born workers have found jobs harder and harder to come by, we have seen a huge upwelling of anger against illegal immigration. States like Arizona have already passed harsh new laws to crack down on illegals, and many Americans now see illegal immigration as a crisis – sparking crime, draining government resources, and undercutting American workers. In states with large foreign-born populations, illegal immigration is shaping up to be a hot-button issue in the election of 2010 and beyond.
So… is illegal immigration really a major problem in America today? If so, what should be done about it?
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Why You Care:
How’d you like to pay $5 for an apple. Well, if we didn’t have immigrant labor – and largely illegal immigrant labor – working in the fields for low wages, then apples might cost about that much.
Then again… need a job? Have you net yet finished college? If so, immigrant labor might not seem so great to you; it’s going to make it harder for you to find work and drive down your pay if you do get a job.
And what about the huge costs placed on local governments by illegal immigration. Free public education, health care for the uninsured in hospital emergency rooms, added police costs, and so on? Don’t the rest of us have to pay for that?
On the other hand, though, there’s the somewhat amazing fact that illegal immigrants are pumping a pretty substantial subsidy into the Social Security system. Yep, most illegal immigrants do pay taxes; together, they’re paying billions of dollars into Social Security. But because they don’t have real Social Security numbers, they can never cash out. So for the federal government, at least, illegal immigration is good for the budget.
And what about the American Dream? Is it really fair for the rest of us to just slam shut the door of opportunity now that we (or our ancestors) have made it safely inside?
But then again, what about respect for the rule of law? Is it really fair for people who enter the country illegally to be able to children who then gain American citizenship? If the government can’t control its own borders, what can it control?
So what do we do? Stick with the status quo? Reform immigration law to make it easier to come in to the country legally? Or beef up enforcement to try to force illegal immigrants to go back home?
Immigration to the United States has always been, at heart, an issue of economics.
Going all the way back to the colonial era, the same pattern has held true: as Foreign Country X goes through an industrial revolution, its population grows more rapidly than its job base; the “extra” workers who can’t find decent jobs at home leave for better opportunities in America. In the 1700s, Foreign Country X was England; in the 1800s, it was Ireland; in the early 1900s, it was Russia or Italy. Since the 1960s, Foreign Country X has mostly been someplace in Latin America or Asia… especially Mexico.
Starting in the 1920s, the United States capped the number of immigrants allowed to come into the country each year. But setting that cap didn’t stop millions more from wanting to come. Since the 1960s, we have witnessed a big surge in both legal immigration (people with green cards) and illegal immigration (people who cross the border without papers). Since at least the 1980s, illegal immigration in particular has been a source of serious political controversy. Is it okay for all of these people to be in the country without documentation? If not, what are we supposed to do about it?
To answer that question, we need to know the facts. Here’s a snapshot of the current state of illegal immigration in America:
The number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States soared from an estimated 3.5 million in 1990 to 8.4 million in 2000 to a peak of 12 million in 2007. It then fell to 11.1 million by 2009 – the first significant decline since the 1980s.
The rate of illegal immigrant inflow began slowing even before that 2007 peak. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that an average of 850,000 illegals entered the country each year between 2000-2005, falling to 550,000, from 2005-2007 and 300,000 from 2007-2009.
Most economists believe that illegal immigration provides a small net positive to the American economy as a whole, but it really is small: less than 1% of GDP. Basically, illegal immigration is good for shoppers (it helps keep prices low), bad for high-school dropouts (it lowers wages for the least skilled jobs), and bad for state and local governments (it increases costs for education, health care, and so on). If you have an education and a job, you’re probably just a little bit richer because of illegal immigration; if you don’t have an education or a job, you’re probably a bit poorer. Either way, other economic factors almost certainly make a much bigger impact on your wallet.
But illegal immigration doesn’t only impact the economy. Other areas of controversy include crime, government services, and culture.
Illegal immigrants commit crimes (other than the crime of being an illegal immigrant, of course) at significantly lower rates than native-born citizens – probably because they’re afraid of being deported if caught up to no good. But some illegal immigrants do commit crimes, of course, and a handful of criminal organizations rooted in immigrant communities– like the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) street gang, for example, which started with Salvadoran immigrants in LA and later spread across the country – have become a serious problem for American law enforcement.
Most illegal immigrants do pay taxes, but they don’t pay enough, as a group, to cover the cost of the government services they consume. In education and healthcare, especially, states with large populations of unauthorized immigrants face high costs. And with many states and local governments already facing severe budget crises due to the recession, those costs are a big problem.
Finally, illegal immigrants – and legal immigrants, too – contribute to important shifts in American culture and demographics. The immigration surge of recent decades has brought a huge surge in the country’s Latino (as well as Asian) population. And children born in the United States are American citizens, whether or not their parents are in the country legally; these so-called “anchor babies” have recently become a matter of political controversy, with some conservative politicians even suggesting a Constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship.
Key Arguments About Illegal Immigration:
Just about nobody is happy with the current situation. Having 11 million undocumented aliens in the country really isn’t good for them, or for the rest of us. But opinion over how to change things is sharply divided. The two main camps might be described as the enforcement camp (folks who think current immigration law is fine and just needs to be enforced more strictly, and that illegals already in the country need to be kicked out) and the reform camp (folks who think that immigration law needs to be changed to allow more people to enter the country legally and to provide some kind of amnesty to allow a “path to citizenship” for illegals already here, in addition to strengthening border security to reduce illegal immigration in the future).
Arguments for Tougher Enforcement of Immigration Laws:
- Rule of Law: Illegal immigration is a crime. The existing law should simply be enforced. Security at the border should be beefed up to block people from entering the country. And illegals already inside the United States should be deported..
- Economic Damage: Labor competition from illegal immigrant workers who are often willing to take jobs for less than minimum wage drives down living standards for native-born Americans.
- Anchor Babies: The 14th Amendment, passed after the Civil War to ensure civil rights for freed slaves, guarantees citizenship to anyone born on American soil. That law, well-intentioned as it was, is now operating as a giant loophole giving illegal immigrant families a foothold in the country. That law needs to change so that it doesn’t reward illegal immigrants for having children inside America.
Arguments for Reform of Immigration Law:
- Enforcement Alone Doesn’t Work: As long as the financial incentives for immigration remain strong, migrants will figure out ways to get around even stronger border patrols. The problem of illegal immigration will never truly be solved without a more comprehensive set of reforms.
- Path to Citizenship: The worst thing about illegal immigration, really, is that it is illegal, which makes undocumented immigrants vulnerable to all kinds of exploitation, including low-wage labor. There is no realistic way to deport 11 million people; the best solution is to allow those people to gain citizenship, which will boost their wages and thus reduce the undercutting of native-born wages.