By Vinnie Aggarwal
For the past decade, concern over the 12 million people living illegally in the United States has dominated the conversation about immigration in America. The rhetoric signals a concern about the fairness of a system that has a long waiting list for those who wish to enter legally, toward American workers negatively affected economically, and toward the already overburdened public services system. America’s porous borders also nudge at a sense of paranoia - especially in the post-September 11th era. But immigration is a charged topic in America - not just because of the repercussions it has on the American economy and its national security, but also because of how intertwined it is with the story Americans tell about themselves. Clearly the presence of 12 million illegal immigrants points to a broken immigration system. How that system is fixed, or not, will do much to influence what stories Americans tell about themselves in the future and what the rest of the world says about them as well.
Even as the United States has stepped up enforcement, 500,000 undocumented workers still take the risk every year to enter the United States.1 Push factors like weak foreign economies influence the flow of undocumented workers, yet pull factors also play an important role. As the United States population has increased its average educational attainment levels, the domestic labor pool for low–wage, labor-intensive jobs has shrunk. Highly mobile and sensitive to market forces, undocumented workers help America use its resources more efficiently as they travel to areas in which their labor is needed the most. This is in contrast with the legal immigration system that is largely based on family relationships with no bearings toward national economic needs. Economically speaking, what is most problematic about the current American immigration system is not that undocumented workers are a drain on the American economy, but that the system cannot process workers fast enough to meet the ever-changing needs of the economy.2
The differential impact of illegal immigration on different portions of the population, however, helps explain the heated arguments it inspires - despite the nominal overall influence immigration has on the American economy as a whole.3 States and local governments bear more of the costs of illegal immigrants as they are the providers of public education and emergency medical services, which, by law, must be available to all residents regardless of citizenship. Meanwhile, the federal government receives more income from illegal immigrants than it spends on them in the form of Social Security payments and income taxes. States with large numbers of immigrants, as exemplified by the recent anti-immigration legislation passed in Arizona, are thus more likely to take an aggressive stance toward immigration, while the federal government takes a more lax position.4
On the person-to-person level, illegal immigrants depress wages for low-skill jobs, leading to resentment from the lower-income, less-educated population. At the same time, lower wages for low-skilled labor also decreases prices for labor-intensive goods, raising the real incomes of U.S. households with most of the gains going toward regions with large immigrant populations, though these benefits often go unnoticed.5
A more responsive immigration system, like one proposed by the Migration Policy Institute, would see immigration quotas delegated to an independent federal body. Their proposed body would make recommendations to Congress every two years for adjusting immigration levels based on labor market needs and economic and demographic trends.6 Although many details need to be ironed out, in general such an institution would help alleviate the flow of illegal immigrants to the United States as it would open new legal pathways. Registered legal residents would also alleviate state coffers and national security concerns.
Immigration, of course, is not just an economic issue, but also a cultural one. Though current resistance toward illegal immigration is founded on economic arguments, opposition to any type of increased immigration will still be rampant if citizens see an influx of migrants as threatening, rather than contributing, to American society. Perhaps a promising clue to which way Americans will eventually lean lies in a recent Washington Post poll in which 57 percent of Americans support giving illegal immigrants the right to live legally if they paid a fine and met other requirements.7 Fundamentally, America is a nation built by immigrants, with each new wave met with distrust followed by acceptance. Whether this storyline will continue or not will help shape not only the future of the American economy, but also American society.
1Washington Post, October 3, 2008.
3Newsweek, May 14, 2010.
4Newsweek, May 14, 2010.