Immigration policy in the United States has become a highly contentious issue, one that is likely to play an increasingly important role in affecting electoral outcomes at the local, state, and national levels. Currently, members of the U.S. Congress as well as elected public officials in locales across the country are embroiled in an emotionally charged debate over the immigration issue. The country will eventually have to grapple with a host of concerns, but some of the key policy areas of contention include how to control unauthorized (illegal) immigration into the United States, how to resolve the status of the illegal aliens who are already working in the United States, whether we should establish a so-called guest worker program that will allow foreigners to work in the United States temporarily, and whether, on balance, immigrant workers have a positive or negative economic effect on native U.S. workers.
II. Arguments for and against Immigration
III. Evidence on the Economic Effects of Immigration
IV. Some Key Immigration Policy Issues
V. Some Basic Statistics on the U.S. Immigrant Population
VI. The Extent of Illegal Immigration
Many Americans believe that, as a nation, we should continue to uphold the principle of openness so eloquently captured by the words at the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” These individuals also contend that immigrants contribute positively to the economic, political, and social vitality of the country. Many other Americans, on the other hand, believe that uncontrolled immigration, especially of the illegal kind, will create significant adverse economic consequences for the nation that may spill over into the political and social arenas.
It is interesting to note that some of the elements in the current debate are not new. In the 1980s, for example, U.S. officials faced increasing political pressure to do something about the growing number of unauthorized workers from Mexico and to counteract the widespread perception that U.S. employers who hired illegal aliens were seldom prosecuted. In response, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986. Although the IRCA was intended to strengthen enforcement by imposing penalties on U.S. employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers, it did not succeed in significantly reducing illegal immigration, partly due to underfunding of the enforcement efforts and the widespread use of fraudulent documents by unauthorized workers (Martin and Midgley 2003). IRCA also addressed the question of how to treat illegal immigrants who were already in the country, another issue that is looming large in the current debate, essentially by granting legal status to 2.7 million unauthorized foreigners in the United States. Another revision of the immigration system was tried in 2005–2006 but failed to pass. While many facets of the current immigration debate have historical antecedents, it remains to be seen how the United States will address this important issue as the second decade of the 21st century progresses.
Arguments for and against Immigration
Advocates on both sides of the immigration issue have at one time or another put forth arguments based on history, philosophy, politics, culture, or religion in support of their cause. For example, one of the common arguments put forth by advocates of an open immigration policy is that, since its founding, the United States has always been a nation of immigrants, and the country should therefore maintain its immigrant heritage by continuing to welcome foreigners to its shores. Other advocates of unrestricted immigration maintain that, by introducing greater diversity, immigration strengthens and enriches the United States’ political, social, and cultural institutions. Religious organizations, such as the Roman Catholic Church, are generally in favor of unrestricted immigration because of humanitarian reasons and sometimes issue official pronouncements opposing barriers to human migration.
Those in favor of restricting immigration have argued that the changing ethnic composition of the U.S. immigrant population (which, as will be documented subsequently, is becoming increasingly Hispanic and Asian) will pose difficult political challenges, such as deciding whether to offer bilingual education in public schools. A related argument is that, unless assimilation into the society on the part of immigrants occurs quickly and smoothly, the increased ethnic diversity associated with a rapidly changing immigrant population may weaken the social and cultural fabric that unites the country. It is interesting to note that even Benjamin Franklin expressed concern about the rate of assimilation by German immigrants into U.S. society in the late 18th century by asking, “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly become so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them?” (Degler 1970, 50). Proponents of immigration restrictions also point to the additional political challenge of having to deal with increasingly severe strains placed on the health care and law enforcement systems as a result of high levels of immigration. Of course, superimposed on all these arguments for restricting immigration are the concerns for national security that arose after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
But perhaps the most controversial, and hence most scrutinized, arguments put forth by advocates on both sides of the debate are the ones concerning the economic impact of immigration. Those who advocate open borders argue that immigration is economically beneficial both to the immigrants and to the native U.S. population. For example, when immigrants come to the United States from other comparably developed countries, mutual benefits come in the form of new ideas generated from human interaction that ultimately lead to economic growth and higher standards of living for all. According to the proponents of unrestricted immigration, even immigrants who come to the United States from poorer countries benefit from the higher U.S. standard of living at the same time that they contribute to the output, or gross domestic product (GDP), of the U.S. economy.
In contrast, those who argue for restrictions on immigration contend that immigrant workers create significant negative effects for the U.S. economy. For example, in labor markets where immigrants compete for the same jobs with native-born workers, the earnings and employment opportunities of native-born workers will both be reduced. Additionally, immigrants may create net fiscal burdens for governments at the national, state, and local levels if they contribute less in tax revenues compared to their drain on government resources.
Evidence on the Economic Effects of Immigration
Because such a big part of the debate centers on the economic impact of immigration, it is not surprising that economists have conducted extensive research into this very question (see, e.g., Borjas 1994). So what does the empirical evidence tell us?
Studies in the late 1970s seemed to suggest an optimistic outcome for immigrant workers in the United States. Specifically, researchers reported that immigrants were able to achieve earnings comparable to those of native-born workers with similar socioeconomic characteristics within a relatively short time. Indeed, the rapid rise of their earnings implied that many immigrant workers appeared to earn more than comparable native-born U.S. workers within one or two decades after entering the United States. Furthermore, these earlier studies did not provide any strong evidence that immigrant workers reduced the employment opportunities of native-born workers. Consequently, the empirical findings up until the mid-1980s were consistent with the view that immigration was mutually beneficial to immigrant workers (because of their very steep earnings profiles) as well as to the U.S. economy (because of the additional output and income generated).
Starting in the mid-1980s, however, a somewhat different picture emerged as economists conducted new research studies as well as reassessed earlier ones. Partly as a result of discovering methodological weaknesses in some of the earlier studies and applying more elaborate statistical techniques to new data sets, economists began to revise their views on the economic impact of immigration.
For example, especially in light of the fact that the skill levels of immigrants into the United States were shown to have been declining during the postwar years, the new view was that recent immigrants were unlikely to achieve the same earnings levels as native-born workers, even over the entire course of their working years. Moreover, many of the new research studies concluded that immigration may in fact have lowered the earnings of unskilled native-born U.S. workers during the 1980s, although the magnitude of the effect appears to be small. The consensus at present seems to be that immigration has reduced the wages of low-skilled U.S. workers, especially those without a high school degree, by about 1–3 percent (Orrenius 2006).
In addition to these labor market effects, immigration may also create fiscal impacts on government budgets. For instance, highly skilled immigrants in the technology, science, and health fields have a significant positive effect on the U.S. economy not only through their contributions to the nation’s GDP but also through their contributions to tax revenues. Because so much attention is focused on illegal or low-skilled immigrant workers, it may be surprising to many that about 40 percent of the doctoral scientists and engineers in the United States are foreign-born immigrants (Orrenius 2006). These foreign-born workers are likely to create a net fiscal benefit for the U.S. economy.
The net fiscal impact of low-skilled immigrant workers is less certain, however. While these immigrants still contribute to the nation’s output, they may have a negative fiscal impact if they draw on more public services, such as education and health care, compared to their tax contributions. Furthermore, the distribution of the fiscal burden of these immigrants may become an important policy issue, since most of the fiscal benefits (in the form of employment taxes) go to the federal government, while much of the cost (such as health care and educational expenses) must be borne by state and local governments. Recent studies suggest that, overall, legal immigrants and their descendants actually end up paying more in taxes compared to what they receive in government benefits, with the difference (measured over the course of the immigrants’ lifetimes) estimated at about $80,000 per immigrant (Smith and Edmonston 1997; Lee and Miller 2000).
What about the economic effects of illegal immigration? In the current debate, there is much concern that illegal immigration has unambiguous negative fiscal effects in the U.S. economy. But there are several reasons why this may not be the case. For example, illegal immigrants may contribute less to government tax revenues (although they may still have to pay payroll and sales taxes, which are hard to avoid). But illegal immigrants are also ineligible for many government programs such as Social Security and unemployment insurance. Therefore, illegal immigrants do not necessarily create a net fiscal burden. Indeed, since illegal immigrants enter the United States primarily to work, lured by the prospects of a higher standard of living, they contribute to the output and economic growth of the country. All these considerations lead some analysts to argue that illegal immigrants may very well make a net positive contribution to the U.S. economy (Ehrenberg and Smith 2006).
Some Key Immigration Policy Issues
Although immigration reform is currently (mid-2010) in a state of flux, President Barack Obama has stated that he is in favor of making changes to the system. He has called for continued enforcement of existing immigration laws at the borders and at the same time has urged lawmakers to explore a guest worker program or something similar to it in order to address the issue of unauthorized foreigners who are already working here. Under the proposed guest worker program from 2005 to 2006, for example, unauthorized foreign-born individuals in the United States with jobs would have had the opportunity to apply for legal immigrant status after working in the country for 6 years and to apply for U.S. citizenship after 11 years. As the new administration takes up this issue, any such specifics could, of course, change.
Another key issue is employer verification of their immigrant workers’ legal status. In 2005, for example, a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives (but never signed into law) required that all employers submit the Social Security and immigration numbers of their new workers to the relevant government agencies within three days of hiring them. Employers who did not follow these procedures or who otherwise violated immigration laws would, under the bill, be subject to substantial fines up to $25,000. Unauthorized presence in the United States would become a felony, jeopardizing the chances of those who are currently illegal immigrants in the United States to become guest workers or legal residents in the future. One provision of the bill also stipulated penalties of up to five years in prison for those who shield illegal immigrants from apprehension or prosecution by authorities.
In addition to the House bill, the U.S. Senate passed legislation in May 2006 (but again never signed into law) that would have allowed illegal immigrants then living in the United States for five years or more (about 7 million people) an opportunity to apply for citizenship if they continued to maintain a job, adequately passed background checks, paid up all past fines and back taxes, and enrolled in English classes. Illegal immigrants who lived in the country for two to five years (about 3 million people) would have been required to leave the country briefly and apply for a temporary work visa before returning to the United States as a guest worker. They would eventually be given the opportunity to apply for permanent residency and then U.S. citizenship. Illegal immigrants who lived in the country for less than two years (about 1 million people) would have been required to leave the United States completely but were eligible to apply for the proposed guest worker program (Swarns 2006).
Clearly, the issues of establishing a guest worker program, creating a “path to citizenship” for those who are now in the country unlawfully, expecting employers to share in the responsibility of verifying the status of their employees, and maintaining effective law enforcement with respect to illegal immigration will all form a part of any ensuing House and Senate debates as the matter of reforming immigration is considered anew under the Obama administration.
Some Basic Statistics on the U.S. Immigrant Population
As noted previously, a big part of the immigration debate centers around the impact of immigration on native U.S. workers as well as on how to stem the tide of illegal immigration. So just what are the facts concerning the extent of immigration, both legal and illegal?
The total number of foreign-born residents in the United States in 2005 was estimated to be in the range of 36 to 37 million, making up approximately 12 percent of the country’s overall population. This total figure includes 11.5 million individuals who were naturalized U.S. citizens, 10.5 million who were legal immigrants, and between 11 and 12 million who were unauthorized immigrants (Martin 2006). Of course, the current number of foreign-born residents in the United States is the result of annual immigrant flows that have entered the country over the course of many years. Immigrant flows into the United States rose steadily throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, reflecting the nation’s essentially open-door immigration policy during its first 100 years of independence. (During this period, the only groups who were subject to significant immigration restrictions were convicted criminals and individuals from Asia; see Ehrenberg and Smith 2006.) While the absolute number of immigrants grew, especially after 1840, the annual rate of immigrant entry for any decade never exceeded 10 per 1,000 U.S. population until the beginning of the 20th century. The U.S. immigration rate reached a peak of 10.4 per 1,000 U.S. population (an annual rate of more than 1 percent of the population) during the first decade of the 20th century, after which it has been declining. Thus, although many who are involved in the current debate often refer to the so-called unprecedented surge in immigration, it is important to remember that the percentage of the U.S. population that is foreign born was actually higher in 1910 (at 15 percent) than it is today (at 12 percent) (Martin and Midgley 2003).
One important feature of immigration into the United States is the gradual change over time in the countries of origin of the immigrants. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, the percentage of legal immigrants who were from Europe fell to 13 percent from 40 percent. During the same period, the percentage of immigrants from Latin America increased to 51 percent from 38 percent, while the percentage from Asia increased to 30 percent from 11 percent.
Because a large part of the current debate on immigration centers on the economic impact of immigrants, it is instructive to look at some statistics from the U.S. government’s Current Population Survey that reveal some interesting demographic and economic characteristics of the foreign-born population in the United States.
The average age of foreign-born residents in the United States who worked full-time for at least part of the year in 2001 was 39 years, compared to an average age of 41 years for U.S.-born workers. As a group, foreign-born residents accounted for almost 15 percent of all U.S. workers who were employed full-time for at least part of the year in 2001; however, median annual earnings were $24,000 for foreign-born workers, compared to $31,200 for U.S.-born workers. In addition to the changes in the countries of origin, there have been changes in the demographic and economic profiles of recent U.S. immigrants. The foreign-born residents who came to the United States after 1990 tend, on average, to be younger (average age of 32 years), less educated (34 percent do not have a high school diploma compared to 16 percent of U.S.-born residents), and have lower median earnings ($20,000). In 2002, about 16 percent of the foreign-born population earned incomes that were below the official poverty line compared to 11 percent of U.S.-born residents. Almost a quarter (24 percent) of U.S. households that were headed by foreign-born residents received a means-tested federal benefit (i.e., one that uses income level to determine eligibility, such as Medicaid) in 2001 compared to 16 percent of households that were headed by U.S.-born residents (Schmidley 2003; Camarota 2002).
The Extent of Illegal Immigration
For purposes of immigration policy, the U.S. government considers foreigners who are in the country without a valid visa and who are therefore violating U.S. immigration laws to be unauthorized immigrants (also called undocumented or illegal immigrants). It is estimated that 850,000 foreigners entered the United States without authorization in 2005, while other illegal immigrants left the country, became legalized residents, or passed away, so that, on balance, the number of unauthorized foreigners in the United States increased by 400,000 during the year (Passel 2006). It is estimated that anywhere between 350,000 and 500,000 illegal immigrants enter and reside in the United States each year, while many others enter to stay temporarily and then leave within the same year. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service reported 1.4 million apprehensions of illegal aliens in 2001 (an individual may be apprehended more than once during the year for trying to enter illegally, and each incident is reported as a separate apprehension) (Martin and Midgley 2003). And in 2005, 1.2 million individuals were apprehended just along the U.S.-Mexico border (Bailey 2006).
A big reason why illegal immigration into the United States has generated so much concern and controversy is that it has grown dramatically in recent years. In fact, it is estimated that most of the illegal immigrants came to the United States during the last decade: two-thirds have been in the United States for less than 10 years, and 40 percent have been here for less than 5 years. Most of these unauthorized foreigners come from three major regions of the world: over half (56 percent) come from Mexico, 22 percent come from Latin America, and 13 percent come from Asia. Six percent of illegal immigrants in the United States come from Europe, and 3 percent come from Africa and elsewhere in the world (Passel 2006; Bailey 2006).
The total number of unauthorized foreigners in the United States doubled in the decade from 1990 to 2000, from 3.5 million to an estimated 7 million individuals. Since it is estimated that 11–12 million unauthorized immigrants were residing in the United States in 2005, this means that the number of illegal immigrants increased by another 55–70 percent in the five-year period from 2000 to 2005 alone.
Unauthorized foreigners are not distributed evenly across the country, however. For instance, the top 10 states with the largest number of unauthorized residents accounted for almost 80 percent of the total unauthorized population in the United States in 2000. While California and Texas experienced the largest increase in the absolute number of unauthorized foreigners, the states that showed the largest percentage increase over the last decade were North Carolina, Georgia, and Colorado. Of the 11–12 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States in 2005, it is estimated that about 7.2 million were in the labor force, accounting for almost 5 percent of all U.S. workers. Unauthorized foreign-born workers make up at least one-fifth of the total work force in each of the following labor categories: agricultural workers (29 percent), grounds maintenance (25 percent), construction laborers (25 percent), maids (22 percent), painters (22 percent), cooks (20 percent), and hand packers (20 percent) (Passel 2006). Additionally, and perhaps somewhat contrary to popular perception, it is estimated that 20 percent of computer hardware engineers in the United States are illegal immigrants (Bailey 2006).
Immigration is an important national issue worthy of serious and objective discussion. Given the many controversial aspects surrounding the nation’s immigration policy, it is inevitable that there will be disagreement and highly unlikely that any single comprehensive reform measure will satisfy the preferences of all who are engaged in the debate. Indeed, the debate over immigration policy has gone on for a long time and will likely continue with every change in domestic or international circumstances. The important thing to keep in mind is that any immigration policy should carefully balance the interests of all those who will be affected by the policy since the livelihood and standard of living of millions of individuals, both native and foreign-born, will be affected.
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