Illegal Immigration and the Economy
Illegal immigration has become one of the key political issues of the 1990s, especially in border states such as California. The Bureau of the Census estimates that there are now 4 million illegal aliens living in the United States and that about 300,000 more settle permanently each year. Four million illegal immigrants is undeniably a large number of people, but it is far below the invading army of 8 million 10 million aliens regularly reported in the media and by anti-immigrant lobbyists. Illegal aliens constitute only about 1.5 percent of the 260 million people living in the United States.
Myopic and xenophobic Americans were (and are) threatened by what they perceive as waves of foreigners invading the U.S. shores and taking jobs away from hardworking real Americans. The fact of the matter is that is simply not the case.
In the 1980s concern about the surge of illegal aliens into the U.S. has led Congress to pass legislation aimed at curtailing illegal immigration. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 allows most illegal aliens who have resided in the U.S. continuously since January 1, 1982, to apply for legal status. In addition, the law prohibits employers from hiring illegal aliens and mandates penalties for violations.
Most illegal immigrants come to the United States in search of employment, not to go on welfare, as many anti-immigration politicians and activists would claim. For many years federal officials have attempted to deter illegal immigration by denying undocumented aliens access to the U.S. job market. In 1986 Congress passed the employer sanctions provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Employer sanctions made it a crime for employers to knowingly hire illegal aliens. Business owners who fail to comply with the law and knowingly hire illegal immigrants can face thousands of dollars in fines and, in the severest cases, prison sentences.
Immigration raises the cost of public services in areas with large numbers of immigrants, but the influx of non-American residents benefits the U.S. economy overall, according to a study released Saturday. Immigrants – both legal and illegal – may be adding as much as $10 billion to the economy each year and have little negative effect on job opportunities for most citizens, the prestigious National Research Council said.
But the authoritative, 500-page report from the Council also provided compelling new evidence that taxpayers in California bear an unequal burden in providing services for both legal and illegal newcomers and their families, especially in education and health care. In an estimate sure to resonate throughout California, researchers set this tax burden at a substantial $1,178 annually for each California household headed by a U.S. native–by far the highest such price tag in the nation. In fact, the study stated, residents in the vast majority of the country enjoy a net tax gain, because immigrants are concentrated in just six states but their taxes mostly go to the federal government
The anger toward illegal immigrants has grown steadily among Californians in recent years, fueled both by the huge number of illegal aliens living in the state – nearly two million, or about half of the country’ s entire illegal population – and by the state’s somewhat lingering economic recession. And the resentment had deepened as the apparent costs of providing benefits to illegal aliens rose; for the fiscal year 1994- 95, that figure was approximately $2.35 billion. California, moreover, had gone far beyond what was required by federal law in granting benefits to illegal aliens, including in-state tuition in the Cal-State University system and free prenatal care
The simple economic facts of the matter regarding immigration is that If America hopes to compete and win in today’s global economy, policy makers need to realize that the importation of human capital is one of America’s greatest competitive advantages. U.S. immigration policy should focus on attracting newcomers who will make productive contributions to our economy and society and on keeping out those who would become public charges or engage in criminal activities. U.S. policy should also be formulated within the promising larger framework, begun with the North American Free Trade Agreement, for liberating and integrating the economies of the Western Hemisphere.
For example, Congress and the American people should consider increasing legal immigration quotas. One of the most effective ways of deterring illegal immigration is to allow more people to come through lawful channels. As a share of the population, immigrants today are far below historical levels for the United States.
The overriding economic impact of immigrants has been and is to raise the standard of living of American citizens. Immigrants are economically advantageous to the United States for remarkably simple reasons. They take the jobs that must be done that Americans do not want for themselves or believe are somehow below them, such as the service industry work (food service, janitorial, domestic), and construction and agricultural labor.
Still, a virtual wave of hysteria has risen up in the United States over the issue of illegal immigration and the affect it has on the bottom line for the average American. Partly it is because America’s recent economic recovery is still too recent for a solid comfort level to have developed among working Americans. Many Americans still fear layoffs and any threat to employment, whether real of imagined, strikes a raw nerve. That effect is then aggravated because the workers who may lose out to low-wage, off-shore competition, know who they are, or think they do. Take, for example, the overwhelmingly visceral reaction to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in the early 1990s. Ross Perot served as a constant reminder of potential threat. His charts and infomercials regularly reminded Americans of what they stood to give up. What the fierce opponents of NAFTA never mentioned was the fact that the immediate economic impacts of NAFTA were certain to be relatively small and as the decade is winding down, that has proven to be the case.
There are appropriate measures that could and should be taken have already been noted (i.e. immigration law revision), now what needs to happen is a change in Americans’ attitude regarding immigrant workers. Perhaps part of Americans’ fearfulness is a direct result of the realization that their own families and security as true Americans are only a few generations removed from the old country. This then has something of a twisted logic. If illegal immigrants coming in to the U.S. in the 1990s have the same determination and work ethic of the immigrants coming in the United States in 1890s, then the subsequent generations of legitimate Americans will face the possibility of having their economic birthright usurped by these newcomers.
The simple facts of the matter are that this has become an issue that needs to be dealt with in terms of compromise and cooperation rather than confrontation. The immigrants will be here, legally or illegally. Despite any tarnish the country has accumulated over the past century, comparatively speaking, America is still the land of golden opportunity. Not even American xenophobia of financial self-interest can change that.
Burrell, Cassandra Immigrant Study Days Cheap Labor Helps U.S. ? Economist Finds Americans Benefiting From Low Costs, Rocky Mountain News, 05-18-1997.
Chavez, Linda, What to Do About Immigration. Vol. 99, Commentary, 03-01-1995.
Clocking Immigration Sanctions, editorial, Wall Street Journal, (April 16, 1990,).
Howe, Marvin Immigration Law Leads to Job Bias, New York Reports, New York Times, (February 26, 1990).
McDonnell, Patrick J. Immigrants a Net Economic Plus, Study Says, Los Angeles Times, 05-18-1997.
Sutherland, Daniel Computer Registry to Fight Illegal Immigration: Bad News for Employers and Employees (Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, 1995).
Miller, John J., Moore, Stephen Big Brother’s Solution to Illegal Immigration: A National ID System (Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 237 9-7-95)