Immigration is a controversial and complex issues with many moving parts. We cannot even agree on the nature of the problem, if indeed there is one, much less how to solve it. Immigration encompasses legal immigration, illegal entry, asylum, refugees, and what to do with the some 12 million undocumented immigrants already here. Policy is enforced by diverse agencies with different sets of rules and procedures; immigration law makes the tax code look simple. No wonder partisans on social media have a field day making dubious claims to prove their point.
When I decided to try writing for the Indivisible Chester County blog immigration seemed a good place to start. I taught and wrote about Mexico on the university level for over three decades and visited that nation biennially. More recently I worked with a predominantly undocumented population in North Carolina, teaching English and helping them navigate their new world.
Many myths surround those who are living in the United States without authorization or documents and subject to deportation. Between 50-60% of this population entered the country illegally whether by hiking through the desert, floating across the Rio Grande or presenting false papers at a legal port of entry. Most are from Mexico. The other 40-50% entered the United States legally on a temporary visa (tourist, student, temporary worker) but did not go home when their visa expired. This second group is much more diverse, likely more educated, and faces less serious legal liability.
The misdemeanor these people committed was to overstay a visa, use false documents, or fail to report to immigration authorities at a legitimate port of entry. Unlike, say, sexual assault, there is no statute of limitations. The undocumented population is not living a “life of crime,” but rather committed specific illegal acts, usually a civil offense, in the past. Of course, their undocumented status may necessitate committing additional misdemeanors to get a job, drive a car, etc.
Immigrants do not reflect a random sample of the society from which they come. The President would have us believe that undocumented immigrants represent the dregs of society — drug dealers, murderers, rapists, individuals who only want to get on welfare. Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality immigrants, legal and illegal, whether one-hundred years ago or today, generally represent the very people a society would seek to attract and employers would seek to hire. They are ambitious, flexible, willing to take risks, hard-working, and possess an amazing perseverance and determination to give their children better chances than they had. Indeed, social scientists in Mexico have worried that large-scale emigration to the United States bodes ill for the future of Mexico — those who stay behind are those who lack these qualities. True, many have little education, but at the same time they are willing to work hard in those jobs Americans avoid.
The undocumented population numbers some 12 million, a number that has held remarkably constant in the last ten years. (Fewer new immigrants, more returning to Mexico.) Over half live in “mixed status households,” families that consist of both legal and illegal residents. The legal household members might be children born here, a spouse born here, or a spouse with a different immigration status. This is not surprising — most immigrants have been here more than ten years and life goes on.
Let us now turn to some specific myths one encounters on social media, cable news panels, or in conversation
Undocumented immigrants take jobs from American workers.
Yes and no. As a general rule, immigrants take jobs Americans will not do, at least at the going pay level. They are the jobs that would be sent overseas if the nature of the work allowed it. That’s why we find immigrants the mainstay of agriculture, food processing, landscaping, and low-level jobs in the hospitality industry (dishwashers, hotel room cleaners). Hardly the jobs American dream of doing. Many employers have tried to hire legal workers but too often they won’t last more than a few weeks. Indeed, the immigrant labor market is a sad commentary on the less visible aspects of the American economy as a whole.
The meat packing industry is a good example of how the American labor market has changed over the past few decades and how undocumented workers helped make it possible. There was a time when Chicago dominated the meat packing industry and offered high-paying union jobs. The work was as dangerous and dirty as it is today but offered a route to the middle class. But then the industry, now dominated by a few huge companies, decided to move to right-to-work states where they could offer dramatically lower wages. The plants got by with local labor for a while, but had trouble keeping employees who could find less demanding work for the same low wages. Over time immigrants, documented or not, became the solution. Note that immigrants did not “steal” jobs, but rather took jobs employers had already made so undesirable American workers would no longer take them. What would have happened if there had been no immigrants? Maybe wages would have gone up. Maybe jobs would have been replaced with technology. Maybe meat would have become a luxury commodity. And maybe those jobs would have been shipped overseas.
To be sure, there are jobs for which illegal immigrants and American workers compete and work side by side. Employers may hire undocumented workers because they can’t find American workers. Some may find undocumented immigrants better workers. Others may find these same workers desirable because they are easier to take advantage of since they cannot complain to the authorities. At the same time American workers may begin to feel like strangers in their own country. Remember we’re not talking about competing professionals but about men and women, both immigrant and native-born, trying to survive at the most desperate levels of society.
In any event most economists agree that the American economy as a whole benefits from immigrants. Consumers — including everyone reading this essay — benefits from lower prices and a higher standard of living, just as consumers benefits from the lower cost of products produced overseas. They are consumers themselves who spend money in the local community. (Walmart, for example, would need far fewer employees if it only served native-born Americans.) Immigrants also create jobs, starting small businesses at a higher rate than the native born.
Yes, immigrants take some jobs from Americans and probably contribute to keeping wages down even as the economy as a whole benefits. But perspective is important: far more jobs, especially good jobs, have been lost to technology and manufacturing moving overseas than to immigrants, legal and illegal. Immigrants are simply the most visible part of a far larger phenomenon.
Undocumented immigrants collect welfare.
The law is abundantly clear: only citizens and some legal residents are eligible for “welfare.” If you cannot prove you are authorized to work with a Social Security card you cannot receive food stamps ((SNAP), Medicaid, cash assistance (TANFF), or any kind of housing assistance. You are also ineligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Even permanent residents can receive assistance only after living legally in the country for five years. Most county social services web sites make these rules clear; this is not open for debate.
Occasionally one will hear stories of undocumented immigrants using food stamps or Medicaid. Usually these are “mixed status” families; US citizens in mixed status households do have the same access to public assistance as anyone else. A complex eligibility formula considers only legal members, which reduces the assistance the household receives.
To be sure, there are exceptions. All children residing in the United States are entitled to a public education. Hospitals must “stabilize” (as opposed to heal) in emergency situations. And undocumented pregnant women are edible for the WIC program on the theory that all Americans benefit from healthy newborn US citizens.
Undocumented immigrants do not pay taxes.
Everyone who lives in the United States pays sales tax, real estate tax (often through rent), and the gasoline tax, taxes that taken together can be more than income tax in a low-income household.
Critics, of course, are referring to income tax and Social Security. Undocumented workers who work for multi-employee companies have the same taxes (federal income, social security) withheld from their paycheck as any other worker. As in the case of American workers, those who work for individuals as home cleaners, landscapers, healthcare assistants ad the like may be paid in cash, and like those American workers can choose to ignore any tax obligation. It is the type of work relationship, not immigration status, that determines who pays taxes. Ironically, many undocumented workers do file tax returns in the hope that a paper trail of paid taxes might someday facilitate legalizing their status.
The Internal Revenue Service, whose mission is to collect taxes, not enforce immigration, has created a work-around for those wanting to file taxes without a legitimate Social Security number: the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). Indeed, the federal government actually profits off undocumented taxpayers. They are not eligible for the Income Tax Credit and cannot take the standard deduction, making their tax obligation higher than an American in similar circumstances. Often they do not collect the refund due them. Social Security profits even more since their payments are not applied to a specific account, so no one will ever receive the accrued benefits. It is estimated that undocumented workers pay some $10 billion into the Social Security Trust Fund every year, helping to sustain that vital program’s reserves.
Undocumented immigrants should have just waited in line like everyone else. My ancestors came to America legally.
There is no single line would-be immigrants to the United States can join, and there never has been. For much of our history there was no “legal” and “illegal” immigration at all: once you arrived here you were in. Asking whether you entered the United States legally or not was as meaningless as asking whether you entered Wegman’s legally or not. Chinese were excluded after 1882 but the doors were still wide open to anyone else until the 1920s. Those iconic Inspections at Ellis Island and elsewhere included registration, a few perfunctory questions, and a cursory health exam. Barring illness or disability no one was turned away. Thus, when someone says their ancestors came here legally it was probably because there was no other way.
The xenophobia following World War I gave rise to a race-conscious system of national quotas designed to favor Northern Europeans. For the first time there were lines — by nation, some longer than others. The system was only redesigned in the 1960s, when national quotas were eliminated and new preferences imposed that favored family reunification workers with special skills. Since no one country could take more than two percent of the annual total long waits developed — as long as twenty years or more — for potential legal immigrants from Mexico, India, China, and the Philippines.
In general terms, three categories of persons can immigrate legally into the United States: relatives of Americans living here, employees with special skills, and a small number of others who fill special conditions — refugees, successful asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking, etc. Unless you fit into one of these categories you will never be allowed to immigrate to the United States legally; it becomes a question of crossing the border illegally or not crossing it at all. And once you have entered the United States illegally there is little you can do regularize your status. (Those who overstayed their visa may have more options.)
The status of undocumented immigrants is but one small piece of the immigration issue. There is not one solution out there waiting for a more responsible Congress to act. Well-meaning Americans can disagree on how best to address every piece of a complex puzzle. But an essential starting point is to acknowledge basic truths about what is taking place. I hope I have contributed a little to that and welcome your feedback.