Friday, May 31, 2013

Who Are the Undocumented Immigrants, and Why Should We Let Them Stay?

Image credit: Getty Images

Today is Friday, May 31, 2013.

Myths and misinformation about undocumented immigrants abound.

First of all, I'd like to make sure we are all on the same page about the term "illegal" with respect to immigrants.  This is a demeaning term, because it generates the presumption that these people are criminals.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  They are definitely "undocumented," which means they lack permission to be here, but that doesn't mean they got here by sneaking across the border.  Some people also call them "aliens," but the fact is that the term "alien" is nowhere to be found in U.S. Immigration law.  Therefore the most appropriate term for them is "undocumented immigrants."

There were some 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. as of November 2011, probably more like 12 million now.  The top five "portal states" for immigrants, by the way, are California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois, in that order.  That's why it's a good thing that most of the Senators and U.S. Representatives working on the Immigration Reform Bills are from those states.

It appears that approximately 45% of undocumented immigrants originally came here legally as tourists, students, visiting professors, or with authorization to work, and decided to stay.  Basically, they have overstayed their visa.  Approximately 63% of them have been in this country for ten years or more.

One of the most persistent stereotypes of the average undocumented immigrant is a single young man who is working as a day laborer.  Sure, there are probably a few of those, but surprisingly,  the majority of undocumented immigrants are couples with children, and up to 40% of them are women.

Undocumented immigrants work in restaurants, construction and food processing. They work as janitors and cleaners, gardeners, maids and nannies.  They harvest crops on farms all over the United States.  But they're not all low-wage workers.  As many as 10% are working in high-tech professional jobs, such as that of computer engineer. 

55-60% of undocumented immigrants come from Mexico, with few job skills and little education.  That's not to say we don't get immigrants from Mexico who are highly skilled.  We do.  But the highly-educated ones are the people who come here legally and know how to apply for an extension on their visa.

Why don't we just deport all the illegal immigrants?  Well, as I said in yesterday's blog, it costs about $23,480 to deport each individual.  This works out to over $10 billion for every 500,000 illegal immigrants deported.  We simply don't have the resources to do this.  Plus, there are compelling reasons to keep some of them here.  More on that angle below.

The Obama Administration has actually deported more illegal immigrants than his predecessor, George W. Bush.  391,953  were deported in 2011, a record number, of which 188,000 had committed crimes in the U.S.  This was an all-time high number of criminal deportations.  93% of those deported in 2011 came from  Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.  A new record was set in 2012, with 400,000 deportations, 55% of them convicted criminals.  Despite the high numbers, the Obama Administration is committed to focusing on rounding up criminals, rather than deporting all illegal immigrants, in part because they know that many of those who have overstayed their visa are in the process of trying to extend their stay legally.

Many people believe that it is still as easy to enter this country illegally as it was years ago, but the fact is that illegal immigration has dropped markedly in recent years.  There are many more rules about who is allowed to enter the country than there were many years ago, and with better technology, it is getting easier to keep people from sneaking across the border or entering under false pretenses. 

Another myth is that people can just "get in line" to get a so-called Green Card (permanent resident status).  That works for those who are highly skilled, fleeing from persecution in their home country, or joining close family members already here in the U.S. (such as spouses or children of U.S. citizens or permanent residents).  For unskilled workers who are not related to anyone in this country, there is no "line" to get in.  However, there are manufacturing and agricultural businesses that want to hire these workers because they are willing to work for wages so low that most U.S. citizens would consider them unacceptable.   This is why the House version of the Immigration Reform Bill includes provisions for extending the stay of unskilled laborers.  The fact is that immigrants, whether legal or not, are not generally taking away jobs from Americans.  They are either doing low-paying jobs that American citizens would not touch, or they are in positions that require a high degree of skill.  Many high tech firms have complained that they cannot find enough American citizens qualified to work for them.

Because so many low-wage workers are here illegally, unscrupulous employers an exploit them by paying them far less than the minimum wage, refusing to give them any benefits, and ignoring worker safety laws.  If these workers are able to legalize their status, they stand to gain some of the same protections provided to American workers. There are those who complain about the expense of giving immigrants entitlements, but back in 2007, former President George W. Bush's own cost/benefit estimate for immigration reform stated that an additional cost of $23 billion in public services to immigrants with legal status would be offset by an increase of $48 billion in tax revenue. 

What about crime?  Nationally, the crime rate has gone down by 34% since the year 1994.  Crime rates during the period from 1999 to 2006 were lowest in states with the highest numbers of immigrants, so it seems clear that immigrants do not automatically bring crime into the country.  In fact, the crime rate fell by 14% during this period in the 19 states with the highest immigrant populations.  In the other 31 states, crime only dropped by 7%.  It's statistics like these that show how unfair it is for police to use racial profiling to pull drivers over or to make arrests.

What about taxes?  Some undocumented immigrants may not pay income taxes, but they do pay sales taxes and they contribute to property taxes when they rent a house or apartment.   Remember that property taxes are used to fund pubic schools in most states.  The Social Security Administration estimates that half to three-quarters of undocumented immigrants do pay federal, state and local taxes, including Social Security taxes – even though they cannot get Social Security benefits.  They can enroll their children in the public schools and receive emergency medical care, but they cannot get food stamps or collect welfare.  One of the reasons for allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in this country legally is that the government could then collect taxes from them, and more people would be contributing to Social Security at a time when the Baby Boomers are putting a strain on Social Security resources.

Do we really have more immigrants than ever before?  No, not really.  The historic high percentage was back in the year 1900, when "foreign-born" constituted 20% of the total population.   Today, only about 12% of the American population is foreign-born. 

Is it true that immigrants refuse to learn English?  No, in fact the demand for adult ESL classes exceeds the capacity to serve their needs.  And the kids quickly learn English as well as any native speaker. Like many before them, third-generation immigrants from all language groups generally speak their "native" language so poorly that they cannot communicate with their grandparents.   By the way, approximately 322 languages are spoken in the United States, some 175 of them are indigenous, with over 50 indigenous languages now extinct.  Contrary to popular belief, there is no official language in the United States, although for all intents and purposes, English is the de facto national language.  We have within our borders the fourth largest Spanish speaking population in the world, larger than that of some Spanish-speaking countries.  There are four states that are de facto bilingual: Maine and Louisiana residents speak both English and French, and residents of New Mexico and Texas speak English and Spanish. 

Immigrants tend to be hard workers.  In fact, they tend to start new businesses 30% more often than American citizens do.  More than 25% of the technology and engineering firms started in the period from 1995 to 2000 were owned by a foreign-born individual.  One example is Jerry Yang, from Taiwan, who owns Yahoo!  These business owners are job creators.  In 2007, for example, businesses owned by immigrants created 4.7 million jobs.   It is estimated that allowing undocumented immigrants to legalize their status would boost the Gross Domestic Product by more than $1 trillion over the next ten years. Legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants could curb the deficit by $2.5 billion over the next ten years. :-)

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