Immigration – We not only can handle it, we need it

A friend recently opined that our country can’t handle the immigrants coming here, especially unauthorized immigrants.  This is linked to other perceptions that the unauthorized don’t pay taxes and over-utilize public services.  But these claims don’t match reality.

To discuss this rationally, (unfortunately) we need to throw out some numbers about the relationship between unauthorized immigrants and the U.S. population.  As of June, 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated our total civilian, non-institutional population as 237.7 million.  Of those, the labor force is 153.7 million, 139 million of whom are employed and 14 million are unemployed in this recession.  These figures INCLUDE immigrant workers regardless of status.

Based on Department of Homeland Security estimates, the U.S. unauthorized immigrant population is around 11 million.  That works out to about 4.6% of total population.  Under the extreme assumption that all of the 84% of unauthorized immigrants age 18 to 54 yrs are workers, that would be a maximum 6% of the workforce.  So, we’re not talking about huge percentages of either the population or the workforce.  We can accommodate that.  In fact, we’re already doing it!

Unauthorized immigrants most certainly ARE paying taxes.  They pay sales taxes on their purchases and user fees on services just like everyone else.  They pay property taxes directly and indirectly.  They even pay income taxes, Social Security and Medicare when these are taken out of their wages by the government.  (Social Security is holding over $400 billion in funds that immigrants paid but can’t receive in benefits.)

They also contribute to the US economy through their spending which creates other jobs.  Investigations have revealed they are not sending all or even most of their earnings back to their country of origin.  Furthermore, they often work in low-wage industries, which results in savings for employers and purchasers of their products.

Determining the costs and benefits of immigration to our economy is complicated, with different results derived from differing assumptions.  However, most analysts find immigration likely is an overall benefit (some have estimated $13 billion per year or 1% of the whole economy). Some employers and consumers benefit and taxpayers in some states, like Texas, have higher immigrant populations and costs.

While claiming to be business-friendly, the leadership of Arizona has just dealt an economic blow to their own people during a deep recession.  After implementation of their prejudicial law, even with the federal stay of the worst parts of it, LEGAL immigration has dropped 17%.  It hasn’t had any effect on crime, of course, but the businesses of Arizona are already hurting.

Do unauthorized immigrants “overuse” government services? Contrary to what you may have heard, as a group, immigrants, especially unauthorized immigrants, tend NOT to utilize government services. When they do, the cost is short-term; in the long run they more than reimburse us for the services they receive.

There are only three services government is legally bound to provide to unauthorized immigrants:  Public education K-12 for children, emergency medical care and veteran’s benefits for those who have served.

In 1982, the US Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v Doe that public education must be provided for all children regardless of citizenship.  An NEA guide explains this decision in this way:

The court in Plyler noted that education is a child’s only path to becoming a “self-reliant and self-sufficient participant in society.” A public school education, the court reasoned, “inculcat[es] fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system” and “provides the basic tools by which individuals might lead economically productive lives.”  According to the court, denying children access to a public school education could doom them to live within “a permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens.”

Before we violate this Supreme Court ruling with the intent of saving taxpayers the cost of educating these children, consider this:  The difference between whether or not an immigrant is a net gain (beyond even the cost of educating them) or net loss for our economy depends upon whether or not that person obtains a high school education.  In other words, denying education to unauthorized immigrant children would not only be immoral, it would also be economically short-sighted.

What about other assistance immigrants might receive?  It’s a no-brainer that all those who serve in the military, including non-citizens, must be provided their earned veteran’s benefits.  The only other service that legally must be provided to everyone regardless of citizenship or ability to pay is emergency medical care. We don’t want EMTs to ask our citizenship before they rush our injured or severely ill bodies to the hospital.  And we want the doctors in the emergency room to focus first on our health, not our pocketbook.

A good argument can also be made that our other non-mandatory services also help immigrants become “self-reliant and self-sufficient,” just as does education.  There’s no evidence that they create a permanent class of dependant people.

The US fertility rate, the number of children per woman, is at 2.1, below the population replacement level of 2.5.  (Those births INCLUDE the vilified “anchor babies.”)  Without immigration, we will progressively have a smaller and older population and a smaller workforce in the future.

Our rate of net immigration is not extremely high, either, 2.92 migrants per 1,000 residents in 2008.  In the 1990s, legal and illegal immigration ballooned because of the recession in Mexico and a baby-boom generation of workers could not find employment. Immigration from Mexico is trailing off now, especially with the recession.

We had illegal immigration, not because the immigrants are bad people, but because we needlessly restricted legal immigration.

We need these young people to come work and enrich our culture.  Now is the time to establish comprehensive immigration reform that provides a guest worker program for those who have no current plans to become citizens and, for those who do, a path to citizenship like the path all other immigrants follow.   We became a great nation by being “a nation of immigrants” and we became that by according dignity and respect and assistance to those who came here to work and build our nation.  Let’s keep it up.

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