Are there any Americans who can’t recite by rote the many allegations leveled by politicians against undocumented immigrants? They are violent, dangerous lawbreakers. They steal jobs from citizens. They cost taxpayers billions for social services. And then there are the proposed solutions: Washington should deport the millions who are in the country illegally and build a wall on the Mexican border to prevent them from returning.
Lots of people believe all of this, but how much of it is true? And would the proposed solutions be effective, and at what cost?
The answers aren’t what most Americans—conservative or liberal—want to hear. Other than their violation of immigration laws, these “illegals” commit far fewer crimes per capita than lesser educated, native-born Americans. They do take jobs, but they also create more jobs for Americans. They use some social services, but a lot of that is offset by how much they pump into the economy. The aggressive enforcement of U.S. immigration laws has given rise to an organized crime network that smuggles people across the border, often while subjecting them to rape, kidnapping and even murder. And as for the most popular, easy-sounding solutions, such as building walls and having mass deportations? They are ridiculous and would require spending hundreds of billions of dollars to accomplish virtually nothing, while upending the American economy.
All of this raises a fundamental question: Is immigration really of such import that finding ways to boot out border-crossers should be a central issue in the current presidential campaigns? Or has immigrant paranoia become the red meat both Democratic and Republican politicians wave in front of crowds, hoping to whip them into a frenzy to win votes?
In other words, we know why the politicians might be lying on this issue. We just need to understand what the falsehoods are.
To understand the current controversy, look back a few decades. Until the mid-1960s, illegal immigration from Mexico was incomprehensible because the United States was legally admitting about 50,000 Mexicans a year as immigrants. From 1942 through 1964, the United States issued short-term visas for temporary laborers from Mexico, primarily for agricultural work. The system functioned well—some Mexicans became legal residents, more became temporary workers, and very little needed to be spent policing the borders since the laborers were happy to head back home when their seasonal jobs were done.
But civil rights advocates criticized the program as exploitative, and in 1965 Congress terminated the issuance of the short-term visas, which accomplished nothing. “When opportunities for legal entry disappeared after 1965, the massive inflow from Mexico simply re-established itself under undocumented auspices,’’ says Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University. “By 1979, it roughly equaled the volume observed in the late 1950s, only now the overwhelming majority of migrants were ‘illegal.’”
Fast-forward to 1986. That year, IBM introduced the first laptop computer, Top Gun raked in millions at the box office, the Chicago Bears won Super Bowl XX, and the big topic in Washington, D.C., was immigration reform. The number of immigrants coming into the United States illegally had been increasing dramatically since 1979, leading to concerns that they were taking jobs from citizens, soaking up tax dollars through social services and creating innumerable other problems. So the Reagan administration and Congress hammered out a solution. The Immigration Reform and Control Act imposed significant financial penalties on companies that hired these immigrants, provided near-universal amnesty for those already in the United States and beefed up border security. Almost all of the 3.2 million people unlawfully residing in the country applied for amnesty, and about 2.8 million received it. Tougher borders, tougher employment sanctions and no more money or time wasted chasing people who didn’t have the necessary immigration papers—it seemed like a perfect solution.
But it wasn’t. Farmers railed against the law, fearful that they would no longer have access to the many workers who harvested crops, and the Chamber of Commerce protested the financial sanctions on employers. So, over the years, the requirements compelling employers to thoroughly vet potential hires for their immigration status were rolled back.
Since 1986, the number of immigrants without documentation has exploded, peaking at around 12 million in 2007 and then dropping after the economic collapse the following year. The Department of Homeland Security now estimates that there are in excess of 11 million in the United States. And that may have been the least bad thing that the new laws spawned. The amnesty program, combined with strengthening border security, created a huge demand for bogus documentation so that immigrants who had arrived in the country too late to qualify for the program could pretend they reached America early enough to be declared eligible. Mexicans preparing to head for the United States in hopes of being granted amnesty turned to a black market for counterfeit records run by a network of so-called coyotajes—criminals best known for smuggling people across the border. As more money poured into the coyotaje gangs, their power grew. The toughened border patrols created by the 1986 law served only to increase the influence of the coyotajes. Individuals could no longer expect to simply wade across the Rio Grande; instead, they had to turn to the ruthless gangs for help. The increasingly violent coyotaje-organized crime groups became a primary means of reaching America, charging large sums for each person crossing the border. This became a huge enterprise, earning as much as $6 billion a year, says one federal immigration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
When organized crime starts making money in a business, business booms. Coyotajes and drug cartels not only helped people who wanted to go across the border but also spent time in their communities convincing others to head to the United States. That’s why when politicians now say “let’s stop illegal immigration,” they may as well be proclaiming that they can end gambling, prostitution, drugs or any other business of organized crime. America is no longer trying to keep out some Mexican men hoping to find work; it is in a war with vicious criminals who can move fast to adapt to any new policies and preserve their billions. They already have: When border patrols were bolstered at San Diego and El Paso, Texas, smugglers began to move toward the Sonoran Desert. This, of course, was more difficult and dangerous, so smugglers increased their fees from $500 a head to $3,000. A large number of border-crossers paid an even higher price—the risk of death for people entering the United States illegally through the Sonoran was 17 times greater in 2009 than it had been in 1998, according to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Heritage Foundation.
Many of those people died either because the smugglers either abandoned or murdered them. Coyotaje groups have even have gone so far as to kidnap people who were making their way to the U.S., then demand payment from the victims’ families in exchange for releasing them. And many women who hired the smugglers have reported being sexually assaulted by them.
The No-Crime Wave
Once immigrants arrive in the U.S. illegally, do they commit crimes? Of course, in any group of millions of people, there will be those who engage in violent felonies, but the numbers here are not statistically significant. Rubén Rumbaut, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, noted in a 2007 report for the Immigration Policy Center (now part of the American Immigration Council) that even though the number of undocumented immigrants doubled from 1994 to the record level of 12 million in 2007, the violent crime rate in America dropped 34 percent, and the property crime rate fell 26 percent. That same report found that Mexican immigrants—including those who entered the U.S. legally and illegally—had an incarceration rate in 2000 of 0.7 percent, one-eighth the rate of native-born Americans of Mexican descent and lower than that of American-born whites and blacks of similar socioeconomic status and education. And repeated studies have found that areas with high concentrations of workers without documentation—such as El Paso—are among the safest cities in the country. The 2010 census data reveal that young, poorly educated men in the U.S. from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala—the bulk of the population of immigrants who live in the country illegally—have incarceration rates significantly lower than those of native-born young men without a high school diploma.
Multiple studies by government and academic groups have found that the vast majority of arrests of immigrants without documentation involve immigration charges, followed by drug violations. For example, a Government Accountability Office report from 2011 stated that 90 percent of all immigrants sentenced for a crime in federal court had been charged with either immigration or drug violations. And included in that mix are the smugglers who were headed back to Mexico but still in the United States illegally for a brief time.
A detailed study by the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety at Arizona State University of arrests in Maricopa County—where there is a large population of immigrants—found that those without documentation were far less likely than American citizens to have used marijuana, crack cocaine or methamphetamines, although they were somewhat more likely to use powder cocaine.
The bottom line: The claim made by people such as Donald Trump—the real estate tycoon who is leading in polls for the Republican nomination—that the Mexican government is emptying its jails and sending murderers and rapists into America is ridiculous. The gangs of murderers and rapists—the coyotajes empowered by poorly planned U.S. policy—return home, crossing the border only to keep the money flowing to their illicit businesses. Their clients—and frequent victims—are mostly those desperate to answer the siren song of American farmers and businesses seeking cheap labor.
What about the charge that immigrants steal jobs from Americans? A joint study by the University of Utah and the University of Arizona confirmed that most undocumented immigrants work in low-skilled jobs normally not filled by Americans. More important, though, is this surprising fact: Immigrants create jobs. It’s simple economics—if more people spend money, more jobs are created. Workers without documentation still pay rent, buy food and clothes, go to the movies. Just through their daily existence as consumers, they are spurring economic activity. For example, the Bell Policy Center, a Colorado research group, found that for every job held in that state by an immigrant who lived in the country illegally, another 0.8 jobs are created.
And, once again contradicting popular belief, a majority of immigrants without documentation pay taxes. Some use individual taxpayer identification numbers on their official payment forms; others use fake Social Security numbers (the Internal Revenue Service recognizes those are bogus but happily accepts the money). They also pay significant sums into both the Social Security Trust Fund and Medicare, but because few of them qualify for benefits, they take little out. In fact, the Social Security Administration includes over $7 billion in annual contributions from these immigrants in its calculations of the trust fund’s solvency.
A series of studies have documented the amounts of state taxes paid by immigrants without documentation. In California, they pay about $300 million a year in income taxes. In Georgia, around $250 million in income, sales and property taxes. In Oregon, as much as $300 million and in Virginia as much as $174 million in tax revenue. In Texas, it’s $400 million. And on and on.
The Cure Might Kill You
There are, of course, costs associated with immigrants who enter the country illegally. The tab for law enforcement and incarceration is probably the largest one. A Government Accountability Office report from 2005 found the cost over four years just for locking up these immigrants totaled $5.8 billion, with local jails and state prisons spending $1.7 billion. Today, that number is even higher, as efforts to capture and deport them have intensified.
Then there is health care. Very few immigrants without documentation have health insurance because, contrary to the blather by some conservative commentators, they are not covered by federal health programs or by employer-provided insurance. As a result, repeated studies have found that they tend to delay seeking treatment until a problem grows significant, at which point they turn to emergency rooms. Different analyses conducted by academic researchers have come up with conflicting numbers of the total cost, but the range is from $6 billion to $10 billion a year.
Education is the other big cost. Since the 1982 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Plyler v. Doe, public schools have been required to educate children without documentation. A study by Arizona State University and the University of Utah concluded that the amount needed per year to educate these children is $17 billion, which is about 3.3 percent of the total amount spent annually for public schools.
A billion here, a billion there—these are all big numbers. But that is only one side of the equation. The workers also bring significant economic benefit to the country. Take Texas, a state with one of the largest populations of immigrants who crossed the border illegally. A 2006 report by the state comptroller estimated they added $17.7 billion to gross state product, including contributing $424 million more to state revenue than they consumed in government services, such as education, health care and law enforcement. In fact, the comptroller found, if politicians made good on their promises to round up immigrants without documentation and toss them out of the country, Texas would take a punch in the gut. Not only would the state lose that $424 million in revenue, but it also would see a drop of 2.3 percent of the jobs in the state because of the loss of economic activity from those who were removed.
Arizona—the state where some of the loudest calls for tough action on immigration have been made—would also fare badly. The Immigration Policy Center found that the state would lose $11.7 billion in gross state product and over 140,000 jobs if all immigrants without documentation were deported.
Indeed, the nation would suffer significantly if all these people were sent home, according to a 2015 report by the American Action Forum, which describes itself as a center-right policy institute. Such a mass deportation “would cause the labor force to shrink by 6.4 percent, which translates to a loss of 11 million workers,’’ the report says. “As a result, 20 years from now the economy would be nearly 6 percent or $1.6 trillion smaller than it would be if the government did not remove all undocumented immigrants.” The impact would be felt across the economy, the report says, although the agriculture, construction, retail and hospitality sectors would be the hardest hit.
When all the statistics and studies are examined, it is easy to see how deceptive or ignorant politicians have been when discussing illegal immigration. And the real hilarity ensues when they lay out their simplistic proposals of kicking ’em out and building a fence.
Start with mass deportations. Perhaps Americans would be willing to lose that $1.6 trillion when 11 million people are sent back across the border. That, however, is not the total cost here. The government has to apprehend, detain, process and transport those millions of men, women and children. Even with a fence, there will need to be large sums spent to keep the deported from returning. The price tag for this undertaking would be in the range of $420 billion to $620 billion, according to American Action Forum, which also estimates that the purge will take 20 years. That means an immigrant’s 5-year-old daughter could be his lawyer at the deportation hearing that will commence decades from now.
And that brings us to the fence. There are many problems with this, the most important of which is that a huge percentage of the 11 million immigrants without documentation in the U.S. didn’t cross the border illegally. Some 4 million to 5 million of them simply overstayed their visas. No fence, no matter how high, will solve that problem.
Then there is the issue of the border’s topography. Just take the area from El Paso to Brownsville, Texas—which takes up about 1,200 miles of the 1,933-mile U.S.-Mexico border. How would the fence deal with Falcon International Reservoir, which is on the border? The reservoir was created by a dam, which also straddles the border. Would the fence run down the middle of the dam, then drop down to the reservoir and cut through the middle of it, dropping as much as 110 feet to its lowest depth? Or would the United States surrender huge swaths of territory by placing its “border” fence on the shoreline, far from the actual border?
Forget Falcon. What about Big Bend National Park? That runs along 118 miles of border. With canyons, mountains and a river, attempting to build a fence would not only destroy one of the country’s most beautiful parks but also be fruitless. The fence would have to go up mountains, to elevations as high as almost 8,000 feet.
These are just a few of the massive challenges presented over less than half of the border. Then there are the broader issues—the billions a fence would cost and the pointlessness of the effort. The Congressional Research Service found in 2007 that a 700-mile fence would cost about $50 billion over 25 years, including construction, maintenance and upkeep. And remember, that number isn’t the half of it: The border is 1,933 miles long.
But assume, somehow, that the fence is magically built over rivers and lakes and mountains for a reasonable price tag. Is there anyone dumb enough to believe that Mexican gangsters running the people-smuggling operations will look at a wall, shrug their shoulders and give up a $6 billion yearly business?
Of course not. Instead, boats will start dropping immigrants at Padre Island, just off the Gulf of Mexico but in the United States. Or the smugglers will raise their prices, and ships will take immigrants north, where they can come ashore above San Diego. Or guards will be bribed. Or the fence bombed. Put simply, people who believe violent criminals cannot find their way around a wall are not being honest with themselves or the public.
What, then, should the United States do about illegal immigration? A fence won’t work, mass deportation won’t work, and every plan the government has adopted in recent decades has done nothing but enriched and empowered crime syndicates that have transformed a modest problem into an intractable one.
Perhaps, then, it is time for the country to take a deep, collective breath, stop trafficking in fantasies and face the reality that the only system that ever proved effective in dealing with Mexican nationals wanting to come to America for work was the one abandoned in 1964, when some were given residence and others received temporary visas. Maybe, in this case, the answer for the future can be found in the past.
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