The issue of illegal immigration has threatened to cause serious divisions in American society. Debates have raged in Congress, aroused the two major political parties to action, and prompted demonstrations in both support and opposition to illegal immigrants throughout the country. Emotions run strongly on both sides of the issue and, unfortunately, it has developed into a political volleyball and, as a result, the underlying problems are being ignored and few solutions are being explored. At stake, are the lives of nearly 12 million undocumented individuals who live in the United States without a legal basis to do so.
The primary question is whether or not illegal immigration helps or hurts the United States economy. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any clear answer to this question (Passel, 2005). Like so many social issues, the answer depends heavily upon one’s point-of-view which often converts into how one is personally affected. For example, if you are an out of work high school dropout you are likely to view illegal immigration as a horribly evil thing while if you are a farmer trying to make a living in a struggling economy your attitude might be entirely different. These are the two extremes but there a variety of viewpoints in between that must also be considered.
Regardless of one’s viewpoint as to illegal immigration there can be no denying that it has a positive effect on the overall U.S. economy. Illegal immigration increases the pool of available workers and, as a result, the nation’s overall output is correspondingly increased. Additionally, the presence of more people means more consumers spending more money on essentials such as food, rent, and transportation but the question must be asked whether the increase is worth the effect that illegal immigration has on U.S. born citizens and those who have chosen to be naturalized through the proper legal channels? Proportionally, illegal immigrants have increased the nation’s gross domestic production (GDP) by only $10 billion per year since 1980 but in a $10 trillion economy such a contribution is minimal (Edmonton, 1997).
One of the most frequently cited arguments against illegal immigrants is the effect that they have upon the wages of unskilled labor in the United States. Not surprisingly, there is a full range of opinions on the subject but in a study published by Harvard economists, George Borjas and Lawrence Katz, it was found that illegal immigrants cut wages for U.S. born high school dropouts by 8.2% in the period from 1980 through 2000 (Katz, 2006).In the study Borjas and Katz argue that the reason that illegal immigrants work for less is because they do not have to pay tax, so the minimum wage laws do not apply to them. Other economists, however, argue that Borjas and Katz ignored a variety of factors and that “Immigrants come in and the industries that use this type of labor grow,” said David Card, an economist at the Univeristy of California, Berkeley. “Taking all into account, the effects of immigration are much, much lower (Porter, 2006).”
Another expert from another field, demographics, argues that immigrants affect wages only minimally. Hans Johnson, a demographist at the Public Policy Institute of California, feels that there are other factors such as the loss of union jobs due to globalization and advances in technology have had a more profound effect on the lower of wages than has the increase in illegal immigration (Johnson, 2006).
Berkeley economist David Card strongly believes that the market determines where new jobs will develop and the supply increases to meet the market demands. Two areas that Card cites are lawn work and home child care. He argues that over the years these services have been made available for nearly all members of the middle class as the cost of such services has decreased (Card, 2007).
On the other end of the spectrum what is the effect of illegal immigrants on the price of goods in the American market place? The theory is that the price of goods should be lower as the price of labor producing such goods is lower but many experts in the area state that such price differences are marginal. In setting the price of most produce the cost of the labor required to bring that produce to market is extremely small. In fact, the impact is so minimal that even if the wages of the illegal immigrants used to harvest such produce were doubled the price increase would be a matter of a few cents.
Aside from the effect of illegal immigrants upon other workers and wages, considerable concern has been expressed regarding the costs to the taxpayers to support illegal immigrants. There are those who argue that most illegal immigrants are young and that, therefore, they contribute more through taxes to support government services than they use. The fact that illegal immigrants tend to be younger also means that they tend to also have more children who must attend school. Opponents of illegal immigration argue that this fact alone demands that something must be done to curtail the process of so many undocumented workers entering the country. Because illegal immigrants pay little, if any, taxes local and state governments are losing millions of dollars on educating the children of illegal immigrants (Camarota, 1998). Conversely, the education of these children will theoretically benefit society by providing taxpayers that will contribute to society. Educating them serves to enhance the possibility that they will do so on a scale greater than their parents did.
Socially the biggest beneficiaries of illegal immigration are the immigrants themselves. Instead of spending months, and sometimes years, waiting to enter the United States legally illegal immigrants avoid the wait by entering the country by their own devices. Doing so allows them to pursue the American Dream and to do so on their own terms.
Also benefitting from illegal immigration are the businesses and individuals who hire the immigrants to work for them. Illegal immigrants provide these businesses and individuals with cheap labor that serves to increase their profits and permit the hiring of workers that would otherwise be impossible. There are many experts who argue that it is these businesses and individuals who are the real problem. The illegal immigrants are motivated by attempting to improve their lives while the businesses and individuals are motivated purely by how they can benefit economically. Many of the experts examining the issue from this point-of-view suggest that most efficient and effective method for controlling illegal immigration is to enforce sanctions against employers that are so severe as to discourage them from hiring illegal immigrants (Vernon M. Briggs, 1990).
The losers in the illegal immigration dispute are the individuals who elected to pursue the legal route to immigration. These are the individuals who are most likely competing with the illegal immigrants for the same jobs. Included in this group are also the native born Americans who have little or no education. These individuals face the results of an increased number of job seekers for poor paying jobs.
Finally, the taxpayers as a whole are being forced to shoulder the burden caused by illegal immigration. Here, the problem is again one of ideology. Opponents of illegal immigration would argue that the immigrants are a drain on the national economy while proponents would argue that the immigrants are an important stimulus that causes businesses to thrive and drive the economy forward. University of Pennsylvania professor, Bernard Anderson, points out that there is another factor driving the opponents of illegal immigrations. “â€¦you find the same right-wing, reactionary scoundrels who have opposed progressive legislation, who have opposed the minimum wage and efforts to improve the economic opportunities of minorities (Anderson, 2006)
In the final analysis there may not be a clear answer to the situation. As demonstrated herein, even experts in the field cannot agree on whether or not illegal immigration is good or bad for the American economy or society. Expecting the American voters to decide what is the best way to handle the situation under such circumstances is obviously unreasonable. Advocates on both side of the issue predict dramatic change if the illegal immigration situation would suddenly change. Opponents claim that curtailing illegal immigration would result in a rise in wages for other America workers. Proponents claim that the loss of illegal immigrants would stall the United States economy. Unfortunately, the answer is far more complex and involves more than just examining the issue from a dollar and cents viewpoint. The issue must be examined through the eyes of public policy. It must be studied by deciding what is fair and what is best for everyone concerned. Hopefully this approach will be adopted soon and a reasonable solution will be found.
Anderson, B. (2006). The Immigration Debate: Its Impact on Workers, Wages and Employers. Knowledge @ Wharton, 4.
Briggs, Jr. Vernon M., (1990). Employer sanctions and the question of discrimination: The GAO study in perspective. The International Migration Review, 803-815.
Camarota, S.A. (1998). Does Immigration Harm the Poor? The Public Interest .
Card, D. (2007). How Immigration Affects U.S. Cities. Unraveling the Urban Enigma: City Prospects, City Policies (pp. 1-42). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.
Edmonton, J.P. (1997). The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration. Washington, D.C.: National Research Council.
Johnson, H.P. (2006). Illegal Immigration. At Issue, 1-19.
Katz, G.J. (2006). The Evolution of the Mexican-Born Workforce in the United States. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.
Passel, J.S. (2005). Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population. Wahsington, D.C.: Pew Hispanic Center.
Porter, E. (2006, April 16). Cost of Illegal Immigration May Be Less Than Meets the Eye. New York Times .
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