A Guest Post By Joseph Craig – Small Business Owner…and Foreign-Born US Citizen
Posted By: Michael Sweeney
July 18, 2010
My longtime, close friend Joseph Craig, a foreign-born US citizen, has been dealing with immigrants most of his life. Craig's grandparents were Irish immigrants processed through Ellis Island who never could afford the court and filing cost to become naturalized, his mother held dual German and US citizenships, and his brother is a life-long resident alien and Vietnam veteran with two tours of combat duty. Craig is the President of Prairie Archaeology & Research, Ltd., located in Springfield, Illinois. We thank him greatly for this thoughtful and thorough guest post on this in-the-news topic…
Try to think up all the names you can to describe illegal immigrants. Illegal aliens. Unauthorized workers. Visa overstayers. Day laborers. Border jumpers. Paperless immigrants. Guest workers. Alien absconders. Documentless entrants. Out-of-status immigrants. Undocumented migrants. The list goes on. If your list includes racist words, ethnic slurs, and other inappropriate euphemisms — well, shame on you, but don’t feel you are alone: Just Google a term like "Anchor Babies" and count the hits.
For as many euphemisms describing illegal residents in our country, there are an equal number of varying opinions regarding the issue. Recently, US immigration policy has become a pretty derisive topic. The amount of print space and airtime devoted to the differing viewpoints and opinions grows daily — especially as America assesses the legal and social implications caused by the controversial Arizona state immigration law. Even Facebook has become a platform for the exchange of viewpoints on the subject. For example, my "Facebook friend" Rich — who I actually haven’t spoken to or laid eyes on in more than 25 years — recently made the public pronouncement that "illegal immigrants are draining our quickly depleting financial resources with the Anchor Babies being in the center of it all!" Everybody has a viewpoint.
The most common complaint regarding undocumented residents centers on the cost of social welfare programs supposedly used by the estimated 12 million illegal residents in our county. Proponents of more restrictive immigration reform such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) push some pretty dramatic money claims that, if they are true, are outrageous. FAIR purports that illegal immigrants costs every American household from several hundred to several thousand dollars annually. It is similarly shocking that local governments (such as the State of Arizona, by their own accounting) report that they spend billions of dollars a year on illegal immigrants. Many of the loudest and most shrill voices in the immigration policy debate make alarming proclamations, such as illegal immigrants are taking permanent seats at the welfare table, low-bidding and out-competing deserving American citizens for jobs, choking our emergency rooms and increasing medical costs, and clogging our court and prison systems with their felonious acts.
Many of the claims — while perhaps true in basic essence — are, upon closer inspection, hysterically over-dramatized.
With regard to illegal migrants obtaining welfare benefits, federal law prohibits undocumented immigrants from participating in welfare programs. Since passage of the 1996 welfare-reform law known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, only citizens or legal immigrants (such as those with a "Green Card") are eligible for federal benefits. The same law prohibits state and local agencies that obtain federal support from extending benefits to undocumented residents. The only exceptions are humanitarian in nature and include emergency medical treatments, immunization against communicable diseases, short-term disaster relief, and service at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. This doesn’t mean that some undocumented immigrants aren’t getting some form of welfare relief. According to a 2008 edition of US News and World Report, the federal government spends about $26.5 billion in means-tested welfare (food assistance, housing, and Medicare) for illegal residents. But, when compared to the total $714 billion budget for these welfare programs, this means that less than 4% of US welfare dollars may end up in the pockets of undocumented immigrants.
What is often overlooked is the fact that undocumented workers do provide a degree of value in the American economy. When a person picks vegetables, cleans a hotel room, or prepares a meal in a restaurant, that person moves the economy forward by creating wealth (for both the employer and employee). Industries who employ undocumented worker (whether knowingly or not) are not just being generous by offering a "leg-up" to illegal workers. On the contrary, illegal workers provide an abundant source of cheap labor that helps keep these businesses in the black. Of the roughly 154 million workers in America’s labor force, it is estimated that approximately 8 million workers (or about 5%) are undocumented. Private (and often largely cash-based) industries — such as agriculture, construction, food services, housekeeping, and childcare — benefit the most from the pool of low-wage, unskilled, and undocumented workers.
However, the economic contribution made by illegal workers is small. Undocumented laborers — mostly due their small numbers — increase the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP) a meager .03%, according to a 2009 report published by the Washington D.C. based Migration Policy Institute.
Of course, illegal immigration does add to the tax burden of Americans. Undocumented residents increase the costs of government services by using fire and police protection, public roads and subsidized utilities, publicly funded emergency medical, food, and housing assistance, and — perhaps the greatest cost — public education. Apparently, the actual dollar cost of illegal immigration is difficult to pin down and measure — so much so, that estimates tend to vary wildly, depending upon whether you are listening to FOX News, MSNBC, or NPR. Based on the US Current Population Survey of immigrant households, illegal immigrants are an expense to the government so that, in total, they reduce the U.S. GDP approximately 0.1%. Subtracting their net GDP gain (.03%) from their loss (0.1%) and illegal immigration lowers the national income by a quite insignificant .07% — which is pretty close to a wash.
[Editor’s Note: It is also undisputed that illegal immigrants are paying withheld tax dollars to state and federal collectors, as well as, of course, local property taxes (in some cases) and sales taxes (in ALL cases)…but, just how much they pay is difficult to fully determine because the federal government does not separately tally it. However, the most recently available figures show that this represents billions of dollars in federal income, Social Security, and Medicare taxes each year. One rough estimate puts the amount of Social Security taxes alone at around $9 billion per year. And, do not forget: Those people WILL NOT EVER be collecting Social Security payments; that money represents a one-way flow into US coffers every year. Also, most illegal immigrant workers remain – understandably – fearful of discovery and deportation, so…they usually DO NOT file a tax return, even if they might qualify for a refund (from withheld monies). This represents MORE billions in collected estimated taxes that the US government DOES NOT have to return to ANYONE. And while these numbers can be comparatively small, single-figure percentages of various US taxes collected, they DO still exist and ARE part of the complicated, two-way street "reality" of the not-inconsiderable illegal immigrant workforce in the US. – Michael Sweeney]
Putting the money and welfare issues aside, we shouldn’t tolerate anyone taking up residence in our country without our government’s knowledge or permission — it’s just not safe, prudent, and (as we have seen) can be prone to so many problems. However, current US immigration policy and the federal strategies used to manage our borders are ineffective, inefficient, and reactive in approach.
If you think about it, dealing with illegal immigration is a lot like having a dirty kitchen. If you leave crumbs on the counter and dirty dishes in your sink, eventually you’re going to get bugs. And when the bugs show up, you have really just three strategies to control them. Your first strategy is to capture each bug individually and do whatever you feel necessary — smash it in a paper towel or take it outside and free it. Strategy 2 is to prevent the bugs from entering in the first place by finding every hole, nook, and cranny leading from the outside and plugging them (including anticipating potential entry points). Or, there is Strategy 3 — clean -up your kitchen and spray insecticide, so the pests have nothing to eat, the living conditions are unpleasant, and the bugs have no reason to show up or, if already present, have no choice but to leave.
Any pest control service will tell you that first two options are not very efficient and, in the long run, are unlikely to work. The "capture and release" strategy is a laborious and time-consuming way to remove undesirable visitors. This strategy may work to capture ten or a hundred bugs, but capturing thousands or hundreds of thousands is nearly impossible. Similarly, even if you could find every possible route into your home, plugging every possible hole would take a huge effort — especially if the invaders were burrowing new holes daily.
The US immigration policy of enforcement depends greatly on the first and second strategies. Hoping to find every individual person who shouldn’t be here, randomly checking the identification of every person who may not necessarily look "American," and constructing an anti-immigrant super chain-link fence and then devoting the money and manpower to patrol it is a very reactive, inefficient way to locate, manage, and prevent undocumented residents. We are probably fooling ourselves believing that an impenetrable 5,920-mile long land barrier can be constructed between us and our international neighbors (or a 1,969-mile one, if we’re only concerned about Mexico and willing to give Canada a pass) or that we can monitor the more than 12,000 miles of the coastline that surrounds the US.
Two federal programs, US Customs and Border Protection and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are responsible for illegal immigration and have a combined annual budget of nearly $15 billion. In addition to their illegal immigration responsibilities, these programs are also tasked with national security and anti-terrorism duties at our borders. The good news is that, using the capture-and-release and barrier strategies, these agencies in 2008 alone prevented more than 720,000 people from illegally entering the US; most of the apprehensions occurred at the border between the US and Mexico. The bad news is that, in spite of their efforts, nearly 500,000 people illegally cross into the US every year. With so many people slipping through, any consideration of increasing expenditures for enforcement, apprehension, and constructing barriers should meet a cost- benefit analysis — especially if the increase is greater than .07 percent of our GDP.
So, is the "clean kitchen is a bug-free kitchen" strategy our best approach to reducing illegal immigration? It makes sense that if you eliminate the reasons (i.e., food and / or filth) for unwanted houseguests taking up long-term residence in your pantry, then you’ve solved the problem. Few would argue that most illegal immigrants enter the US for economic reasons – usually involving seeking work. [Editor’s Note: Except, perhaps for fairly nutty AZ Gov. Jan Brewer, who claims — despite NO backing evidence or even supposition from ANY investigatory or law-enforcement agencies — that MOST of the illegal border-crossing from Mexico into AZ is done by drug-carrying "mules" working for Mexican narco-traffickers… – MS] Current estimates indicate that a Mexican laborer working in the US can increase his annual salary nearly 2.5 times — even after adjusting for the differences in the cost of living. This reason alone is compelling enough for nearly anyone to risk illegal entry and residency in the US.
In order to stop the flow of illegal immigration, we are going to have to make American economically undesirable for undocumented migrants — a task that seems impossible for two reasons. First, compared to the untenable economic conditions of the country of origin of many migrants, we would be hard- pressed to eliminate the opportunities to make more money in the US even if the criminal risks involved with their illegal presence is increased. Second, many American industries clearly benefit from the labor of undocumented workers and (all but) extend open invitations to them. The problem is that we can clean the crumbs from our kitchen counters, but the economic "all-you-can-eat" buffet that is America is another matter. In spite of how careful we may be, enough food is spilling from our plates to attract somebody to covertly cross over our borders.
In reality, the US is not teeming with illegal migrants, which some very vocal opponents would like us to believe. Even more profound and in spite of some hysterical claims, the cost to our economic well-being and public debt resulting from illegal immigrants is almost negligible especially when compared to the public monies spent on legal residents. Clearly, any consideration of increasing public spending on apprehension efforts, border enforcements, and barrier construction must take into account (and not over-spend) the tax savings generated by reducing the presence of undocumented and illegal immigrants in the US. In addition, a strategy that emphasizes only enforcement would eliminate the pool of low-skill and cheap labor on which a number of business sectors depend (such as agriculture, hospitality, and construction).
Rather than trying to hold back the tide of illegal immigration, we should be managing the flow by first converting illegal migrants into legal workers and then directing the inflow (and outflow) according to labor needs and macroeconomic conditions. One way to do this is to develop a flexible "resident worker" visa program that allows businesses to hire workers according to their labor needs. This idea is not new to US immigration. The Bracero Program, which ran from 1942 until 1964, allowed for the importation of labor from Mexico by granting temporary resident and work permits. Bracero workers initially assisted in the World War II effort and then, following 1947, were used in the agricultural industry. Given the incentive of legal work visas, it stands to reason that an immigrant will avoid the risk of illegal entry. The overall net public costs of worker immigration could be recaptured by assessing a fee for the right to work legally in the US, withdrawing payroll and income taxes, or taxing employers for hiring incoming foreign workers. According to Economist Gordon Hanson, a professor at University of California - San Diego and a researcher for the National Bureau of Economic Research, US immigration policy should "allow low-skilled immigration to occur in a manner that generated maximum productivity gains to the US economy, while limiting the fiscal cost of immigration and keeping enforcement spending contained."
As it turns out, the "Orkin Man" pest-control approach to US illegal immigration policy is ineffective, costly, and — perhaps worst of all — not really necessary. America is not a kitchen (although…"melting pot" can still be an effective national metaphor), people are not pests, and a few illegal immigrants is not an infestation. A new approach to immigration policy is needed that recognizes the real costs and benefits of illegal immigration and considers all the factors of what is drawing immigrants to our borders in the first place.