Shmoop Politics Guide: Illegal Immigration Law & Reform

The Question: What should be done about illegal immigration in the United States?

At Issue:

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?

Dive Deeper in Shmoop US History:

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.

15 thoughts on “Shmoop Politics Guide: Illegal Immigration Law & Reform

  1. KELLI says:


    There are soooooo many good people from outside the USA who want to become Americans, and are willing to APPLY and WAIT and WAIT and WAIT, while they see the ILLEGALS (criminally) jumping into line ahead of them !!!
    I believe that their WAIT has gotten longer because American politicians are looking to give AMNESTY to the ones who (snuck in) and came here ILLEGALLY and that is just plain WRONG !!!

  2. KELLI says:

    Regarding the following comment in your piece (about $5.00 apples as an example); We (America) used to be able to control these labor forces – and we can again. . . . The migrant workers should get a ‘temporary’ work card (to be carried whereever they go, like we carry our identification everywhere we go in case we get stopped by police and asked for proof of whom we are). . . . It should be a partnership between the government and the employer of the migrants. . . . When the harvest period is over and the work is done – the immigrant labor force should be gathered and returned, and their ‘temporary work cards physically taken away and also electronically recinded by the government – This takes REAL REGULATING (not looking the other way)…..If they must be bus-ed or van-ed back and forth (from the seasons beginning to end) – than so be it. . . . END of my comment.

    “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.”

  3. AdAstra47 says:

    Couple of things that were not mentioned in the “arguments for reform” category:
    1. The current immigration laws are racist. The immigration caps are enacted by country, and people from European countries have a higher cap vs. demand, so whites have a much easier time getting in than Hispanics or people from Latin American countries.
    2. The current immigration process is bulky, expensive and time-consuming. I have a college-educated Mexican friend who married an American, got a good steady job at a church, and was in every way a model citizen who should have had an easy time getting citizenship. But it took her seven years of work and over $3000 in fees and lawyer’s costs to get her citizenship. And people expect some illiterate migrant worker to be able to navigate a system like that?

  4. JWPate I says:

    Young people who were brought here in early childhood and have been “American kids & teen-agers” should have high priority in citizenship applications. Certain other well-defined groups may also be selected for special treatment. Specifically, something must be done about the anchor babies. My experiences indicate that it is much more common than is usually acknowledged. The “constitutional right” was an amendment passed after the Civlil War for ex-slaves; it can be changed by amendment also and is important enough to take that time-consuming and difficult course.
    The masses who entered ILLEGALLY, should be identified and encouraged to leave–no auto’s, no real estate, special “fees” for privilege of extended visas, etc., as in other countries–There must be an effective, controlled “Guest worker” program. Those with special skills that we need should also be exempted. Penalties for Major crimes should be doubled, or more, if by “illegals”. Geo. Bush had some good ideas.

  5. Ted says:


    Actually, as someone who is in favor of making it easier for people from Latin American to legally come here, I would answer your question, “And people expect some illiterate migrant worker to be able to navigate a system like that?” with the answer “No.”

    Try being an illiterate unemployed applicant to move from the US to any other country legally. I think you’ll find that most countries, including Mexico, have relatively high standards regarding who they allowing to legally immigrate in order to avoid the importation of poverty.

    Almost all countries require that you will be able to have someplace to live and a way to support yourself that will not take jobs away from existing residents.

    Most fast-food chains in Southern California employ mostly illegal immigrants, as do construction firms, and others. So this isn’t limited to migrant farm workers.

  6. don says:

    It cost over 9 billion to send illegals back to mexico. If we put a person getting paid $40,000 a year, every mile around the clock, it would cost $180,000,000 and employ 4,500 people. Win win.

  7. GoneWithTheWind says:

    The key word is “illegal”. We don’t need illegal immigrants. Considering that we are now have the third largest population in the world we don’t really need any immigrants. Most Americans are having a tough time and to allow illegals to come into the country and overwhelm the tax payer supported infrastructure is unfair to citizens. Our country is broke and deep in debt and the cost of illegals is astronomical.

  8. fred says:

    So kelli, you’re saying we should use people? Bring them in when we need them, use them up and spit them back out? I mean if they are brought here to work, isn’t it just fair they get some of the benefits of an american? What about tax money? You’d rather them take that money they made and purchase products in their country? Also who will pay for these “busses”? Also, some can’t be just simply bussed in. you’re looking at illegal immigration as being only mexican people. What about Asians? are you gonna ship them in? Have them paint your nails for a season and then kick them out? No right? Your logic is foolish.
    I say if raise the cap, make it easier for them to come to this country legally. There are a higher probability of illegal immigrants coming from certain countries, well – focus on raising that cap, and maybe instead of exporting jobs to china, let these people do these jobs here. Contributing tax money. of course these people would have to be good residents of the U.S. for a probation period, no crime, good work record and being a working part of this society should grant them the privilege of citizenship. Take that to the illegal immigrants and see what their response is. I can guarantee you a vast majority of them will agree and prove to be Americans. Hard working, fighters and part of a vast society. Reform please.

  9. TheGolden says:

    People are concerned about immigrants being a drain on our social services. I dispute how much they actually use. Either way, stop funding our government with tax dollars. We can pay for it by buying lottery tickets or by paying bills like we do for everything else. Get rid of the wage laws. End the war on drugs. Legalize prostitution and gambling. End agricultural subsidies. Let people come and go as they please, but punish them if they actually cause damage to someone’s person or property. People can harp all they want about the “illegal” part of “illegal” immigrant. There are all kinds of bullshit laws out there that people break unknowingly every day. Sometimes people break them on purpose. I defy and xenophobic, racist, Nationalistic, Fascist redneck out there to say they would stay in some shitty-ass war-torn country when there is an opportunity to improve their life and the lives of their family. Many immigrants would probably rather stay in their own countries. Many leave their families behind and send money back to them. Why do you think that is? They have shitty governments. Let’s not make ours even shittier by treating people like cattle just because they had the misfortune to be born on the other side of an imaginary line, to be brown, or to grow up speaking a different language. The idea that all men are created equal doesn’t apply exclusively to ‘Mericans. Our Constitution and our laws that guarantee our rights and liberties can only be enforced by our government within our borders, but the principles are true wherever human beings exist. Ignorant bigots think it is OK to treat other people as if they deserve fewer rights because they are foreign. It is cruel to hold someone’s birthplace against them, as it is a circumstance beyond their control.

  10. John C says:

    The solution to illegal immigration is really quite simple. It is illegal for an employer to hire an illegal alien, but the law is obviously not enforced. If immigrants could not find work, they would not come. Corporate America is an enthusiastic sponsor of illegal immigration, with many companies actually recruiting employees in Mexico and transporting them across the border to be exploited as cheap labor.

    Corporations also favor illegal immigration because having a large pool of cheap foreign workers depresses wages for American born workers. Start enforcing the law, fining employers and jailing a few corporate executives, and illegal immigration will stop dead in its tracks.

    For the illegal immigrants already hear, working hard, paying taxes and contributing to their communities, it would be impractical and immoral to force them to leave. A mass exodus of foreign workers would simply be a logistical nightmare, as well as a body blow to the economy. A path to citizenship is the only reasonable course. Yes, these people may have jumped the line to get in, but by not enforcing the law, the US has tacitly invited them to do so and should accept responsibility for the result.

  11. Nick says:

    There’s a difference between the Germans, Irish, the Chinese, Jews, Italians, Slavs and the new latin infusion. In the past the immigrants learned to speak English. Yes I realize that the US does not have an official language, but when tax dollars are spent to accommodate those who are unwilling to learn English, I have a problem with it.

  12. Gene says:

    There should no be amnesty (again) because it destroys the credibility of our laws. Most illegals may be decent, hard-working people, but they contribute very little to this country because they are uneducated. We already have a surplus of home-grown flunkies without letting more sneak in. Instead, let’s open more opportunities for talented, educated legal immigrants from around the world.

  13. KELLI2L says:

    Originally, America DID have organized immigration, and as I understand it – we only accepted those with certain ‘needed’ skills. They would be invited or approved to come and would be processed through ELLIS ISLAND in New York. What happened?

    All we need to do is go back to the immigration laws we used to use…. I believe that the reasons for the lengthy time period it takes now (to become accepted) may be because America is saturated – – like a sponge. We just don’t need all the people who apply for citizenship !!! If a country has no more need – than you don’t accept any more immigrants, right. . . .

    It is wrong and selfish and illegal for people to barge their way into America, when we haven’t said it’s okay to do so. It isn’t America’s fault that we don’t have the need for more immigrants – is that so hard to understand?

  14. DAnny says:

    @ KELLI2L
    Tell that to someone who starves for days, can’t walk down the street withought getting kidnapped, can’t find a job in their own country. Like you wouldn’t do the same if you were unlucky enough to be born in those situations, what we need is new creative ideas of how to put those extra immigrants to work, new ways to use their own skills. Plus most illegals, and immigrants like my parents don’t speak English very well, so it is hard to understand.

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