There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country now. This is equivalent to the entire population of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho combined. Our economy needs unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Any immigration reform should have a way to keep them in the work force else our economy will suffer significantly.
Tom is an attorney whose complete practice is immigration. He has clients from 122 countries but 60 to 70% are from Mexico. He does more immigration work than anyone else he knows of in Washington and Oregon. His clients include Buddhist monks and mail-order brides. Typically there are 3 new clients each day. Most Mexican clients are from the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, and Colima.
Who are the legal immigrants to the United States? Approximately 940,000 legally immigrate to the U.S. per year. Of these 400,000 are immediate relatives of American citizens (spouses, parents, and children). Another 226,000 are immigrants sponsored by families but not quite a directly related. Refugees come at the rate of 120,000 per year. Skilled, professional, and other priority workers come at the rate of 135,000 per year (think college-educated Orientals and Indian subcontinent). The quota for unskilled workers is 5,000 per year. Then there is a lottery that allows 55,000 others to come in. The key statistic is that quota for unskilled workers. There is a demand for 500,000 unskilled laborers in our country and a legal supply of only 5,000. Something has to give.
The presentation is in 3 parts: how we got here, myths, and what to do now.
So how did we get into our current situation? Historically the U.S. has had an unemployment rate of 4-5%. In real terms this can be considered full-employment. There are always seasonal workers who collect unemployment between jobs: fishing crews, construction crews, etc. There are also those who are affected by normal shifts in labor demands due to productivity improvements, etc. In 1986 there was a broad amnesty that allowed 4-5 million undocumented workers to get green cards. That didn’t affect the unemployment rate. Until the recent recession, 11 million undocumented workers had no affect on the unemployment rate. The recession brought the unemployment rate to 10%. And yet American citizen are rarely taking jobs at the low end of the food chain. It makes better economic sense for them to ride out the downturn with unemployment benefits. With the downturn, the number of undocumented workers has dropped to 7-8 million.
There are a number of myths that need to be addressed.
Myth: Illegal aliens take jobs from citizens. The statistics above disprove that.
Myth: Illegal aliens don’t pay taxes. Actually they pay more than their share of taxes. They pay sales taxes. They pay property taxes if they own real estate or through their rent if they don’t. If they are working with a falsified Social Security number, the employer pays all the proper withheld tax for them, (income tax, FICA, Medicare, etc). But because the Social Security number is invalid, they can’t file an income tax return and get a refund. Nor can they collect Social Security benefits. They can’t collect welfare or Medicare without a valid number. The Social Security Administration receives $345 billion a year on invalid numbers. That’s free money to the SSA and the rest of us. Medicare receives $1.5 billion a year of undocumented money. Since they can’t file an income tax form, they can’t receive the Earned Income Tax Credit. They pay and pay and pay but receive little benefit for it.
Myth: They don’t learn English and don’t assimilate. This is partially true but it is not unique to Hispanic immigrants. There are 2 Catholic churches in Walla Walla just about 2 blocks from each other. One of them is there because the Italian immigrants back in the day didn’t want to learn English so they had their own Italian-speaking congregation. The language problem is common to all first-generation immigrant groups. There were areas in Texas where children could grow up speaking German or Czech and never need to learn English until they left home. But the second generation is fully assimilated AND they are bilingual.
Myth: They don’t contribute to the economy and just get welfare. See above. No valid SSN, no welfare. An employer can pay a worker with a fake SSN but that worker can not collect welfare with a fake SSN. The welfare agencies verify the number. On the other hand they provide needed labor and they buy goods and services. They are firmly embedded in our economy as contributing members.
Myth: People should just get a work permit and come here legally. With a demand of 500,000 and a legal supply of 5,000 this isn’t going to happen.
What are the possible solutions to illegal immigration?
One solution might be impenetrable border security. Remember that even the Iron Curtain had its share of escapees. Do we want to have an Iron Curtain at all our borders? It would be expensive and not completely effective. At some point there gets to be a diminishing return. What is the reasonable price to pay to keep one illegal alien out? What does that illegal alien cost us by coming in? We may actually benefit from him. We need to have reasonable border security but nothing is perfect. If we expect better security we need to address the forces that tend to push people across a border. No one leaves their home to go to where life is worse. The number of border patrol agents has double to 20,000. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has limited man-power to go into business and audit their workforce. Economic conditions have had the biggest impact on illegal immigration. It was down by 1 million people last year. A tight border has an unintended consequence of restricting a natural back flow of people to their home country. It makes it so hard to get in that they don’t dare go back even if they want to. Border security is helpful but not a complete solution.
Legalization for the people who are here could be part of the solution. But it needs to be effective, fair, and efficient. We are talking about a number equal to the entire population of the three Northwest states here. It is a massive undertaking. It also needs to be fair to the folks who are legally standing in line outside the country. We don’t want there to be an incentive to go around the normal system. It needs to honor the hard work of contributing individuals and it needs to be properly punitive to the bad actors.
Social Security verification by employers should be mandatory with due consideration of the amnesty process. It would be counter-productive to deny a job to someone who should they were willing to play by the rules even if the administrative process could not keep up. Many current illegal aliens came in legally and have over-stayed their visas. Strong verification would remove the incentive for this.
Our quotas should reflect economic realities. If we don’t allow the demand for unskilled workers to be satisfied legally, we are providing an incentive for employers and workers to circumvent the law.
Now we have some questions and comments from the floor.
A commenter noted that some short-sided economic policies by our country have exacerbated disruptive situations in Mexico. Under NAFTA cheaper American agricultural products in Mexico have depressed the market so much that Mexican farmers can no longer compete. So they have to move to U.S. to work for agricultural firms here.
The presence of a large number of Irish and Canadian illegal immigrants is not seen as a problem because they blend in to American society easier.
The drug trade through Mexico supplying American users is destroying the fabric of Mexican society in many areas.
The people are not coming here on a whim. They are willing to risk their lives out in the desert to get here.
Question: How can people get away with an invalid SSN?
Our current law doesn’t require employers to verify SSN, only record it on a form. This has evolved into a don’t-ask-don’t-tell arrangement. Because workers were needed, the 1986 law was intentionally crafted with this huge loophole. Congress was able to appease the economic interest with this. And the federal government is happy to take the extra tax revenue it brings. If we instantly required verification it would be an economic disaster. In this way we all share some of the blame. We don’t want to pay more taxes and we don’t want to have to buy $2 apples.
Comment: Amnesty is a slap in the face to the people who are legally waiting their turn.
Yes, it is. It was in the 1986 amnesty. Any solution should make a distinction between a short-term work permit and a permanent green card and the people currently in line should not lose their place.
Question: What is stopping some of this common-sense legislation?
As you can see this is an easy issue about which to get people stirred up and it is always in someone’s interest to stir the pot. The problem is political courage. These ideas are not new. Most of these ideas passed a Senate vote 62-36 in 2006. But whenever reform is being discussed legislators receive constituent messages that run 100-1 against it. That really makes it hard for them to vote for it. To get the legislation passed we really need to generate a grass-roots groundswell. They need the political coverage.
Question: What about the issue of naturalized children of illegal aliens?
This would be another massive cost of across-the-board deportations. The government does not have authority to deport citizens. The government would have to find foster homes for 5-6 million children.
One commenter recounted the case of her husband. He came to the country with his parents as a 2-year-old. He knows no other home country. In 1986, they did everything they were supposed to do to make things right. But somehow the agency or their lawyer forgot to dot an “i”. Recently after filing some claims having to do with a heart condition he popped up as deportable. Immediately he was shipped to Mexico where he knew no one and had no resources, with a heart condition, no less. This is an example of the suffering that is going on today under the current law. Tom said he had 400 cases like this in his office. One local attorney recently had his license revoked because he was taking fees for immigration cases and not doing the work. The law is written such that deportations can be done with no appeal and no recourse.
Another commenter noted than the normal legal process can be expensive. Yes, it can be around 1/8 of a person’s annual income. In defense of the cost he noted that people are willing to much, much more than that just to be transported into the country by a coyote.
Tom had some comments about the Arizona law. He noted that under that law even a Native American to whom we are the immigrants could be jailed. He also noted that the language of the law is so vague that it is unenforceable in practice. Any officer who used it ran a real risk of having his case thrown out costing taxpayers money and exposing his employer to punitive lawsuits.