The term undocumented immigrants is one that amnesty advocates prefer instead of the term illegal aliens, which is used by those who oppose both their presence and any official approval such as amnesty. Both terms refer to foreigners who either enter a country without authorization to do so or enter on temporary visas but remain after the time limit. Such actions are most often matters of choice but may also include victims of sexual or labor exploitation, smuggled into countries to work as prostitutes or in factories, on sugar plantations, or elsewhere.
Usually, the push—pull factors that drive legal immigration are the same ones spurring people to bypass the prescribed processes for entry. Among the common push factors are negative elements such as persecution, repression, poverty, and war. Conversely, the most common pull factors are positive elements such as freedom, opportunity, higher living standards, and/or joining family members already there.
Undocumented Immigrants in Europe
Although the democratic nations of Western Europe have long experienced undocumented immigrants in their midst, the situation evolved into a social problem in recent decades with the fall of communism to the east and quality-of-life issues resulting from burgeoning populations to the south. With the collapse of an artificial economic interdependence system under communism, the resulting factory shutdowns, lost jobs, and the sudden opportunity to cross borders no longer guarded to prevent emigration, tens of thousands sought a better life without bothering to obtain any formal approval to do so.
England, France, and Germany attracted many of these clandestine migrants. Italy, though, became the main conduit into the European Union. Italy still attracts more illegal immigration than other European countries because its long coastline and close proximity to other countries make it especially vulnerable. The most popular clandestine sea route for Africans is from Libya or Tunisia to the Italian island of Lampedusa (closer to Africa than to Italy) or to Sicily. A second underground gateway is a 60-mile speedboat ride by smugglers from Albania across the Adriatic Sea. Albanians, Afghans, Kurds, Turks, and Chinese are the most frequent arrivals this way. A third route is by truck over the Slovenian border into Milan.
Because of Italy’s limit of 20,000 to 30,000 legal immigrants per year and an estimated 2 million others waiting for transit to enter, the “back door” of illegal entry has become the only viable choice for many. About 2.5 million (4.3 percent) of Italy’s 58 million people in 2007 were foreign born, about half of them beneficiaries of four amnesties between 1986 and 1998. Rather than solving the problem, however, these amnesties attracted even more illegal migrants. Each year hundreds drown in unsafe, overcrowded boats in attempts to reach Italy.
Undocumented Immigrants in The United States
Nativist reaction against the entry of unprocessed immigrants is practically as old as the United States itself. Late 18th-century Americans bristled at English ships approaching U.S. shores and dumping Irish rebels into the water to swim ashore. Late 19th-century Americans, who had barred Chinese laborers with passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, resented their illegal entry through the unguarded northern border with British Columbia. Late 20th-century Americans sought to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, still a problem in the 21st century.
What fuels public debate about immigration is the rising number of unauthorized foreign-born people in the United States. Some critics claim that more immigrants arrive illegally than through legal means. The Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization, estimates a growing influx each decade, from about 8.4 million unauthorized migrants in 2000 to about 12 million in 2006. About two thirds have been in the United States for less than 10 years, with the largest share (40 percent of the total) for less than 5 years.
Mexicans comprise the largest segment of undocumented migrants (about 56 percent), a proportion that has remained steady for a decade. Other Latin Americans constitute an additional 22 percent. About 13 percent come from Asia, 6 percent from Europe and Canada, and 3 percent from other parts of the world. Most of these arrivals are people from foreign lands slipping across U.S. borders, but others (about 165,000 annually) first arrive legally as visitors (tourists, students, or businesspeople) and then overstay their allotted time and become visa violators.
Undocumented Immigrants: Benefit or Burden?
The more developed countries are the ones most likely to have an issue with undocumented immigrants and to take countermeasures, particularly when the native population perceives the growing numbers of immigrants to be a threat to their own economic welfare or to societal cohesion and national identity. They fear lower-wage workers will take away their jobs, not pay their fair share of taxes, and thus place an unfair financial burden on tax-paying citizens who must provide education, health, and other social services for them and their families. In addition, they fear that too many foreigners—not motivated to assimilate because their legal status prevents them from full participation in society—will lead to ethnic tribalism and undermine the core culture. Furthermore, the horrific terrorist actions of the 21st century—in New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2001; in Madrid in 2004; and in London in 2005—raised the concerns of many about their safety and security if potential terrorists can slip across their country’s borders without detection.
Issues of security aside, Americans remain divided over whether undocumented immigrants are a boon or drain to the economy. Reliable studies on the financial impact of illegal immigrants do not exist. In fact, most studies on this topic do not differentiate between illegal and legal immigrants. Whereas critics charge that illegal immigrants are a drain on public coffers, supporters claim that they pay more in taxes than they receive in services. Usually, the findings depend on the accounting methods used.
Many undocumented immigrants, for example, pay social security taxes but never collect benefits. However, most work in low-wage occupations, so they do not generate large tax revenues. Still, their illegal status makes them ineligible for many government services anyway. Although some argue that the expense of educating the children of undocumented immigrants is a substantial drain on public funds, others contend that most of these children are U.S. born, and as U.S. citizens, they are entitled to a public school education. Even most U.S. native families with children typically receive more in publicly funded services (especially education) than they pay in taxes. One large public expense area would be if undocumented immigrants’ U.S.-born children became eligible for social programs, including welfare (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).
Pressure for Immigration Reform
Public Agenda, a nonpartisan opinion research center, reported in 2006 that three quarters of Americans said they worried that it is too easy for illegal immigrants to enter the United States, and half said making their entry tougher should be a top priority for Congress. In the Southwest, the problem draws the greatest amount of public attention and generates the most apprehensions of undocumented aliens (about 1.2 million in 2006). Mexicans dominated the list of those apprehended, at 88 percent of the total. Other major source countries of those apprehended are El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Colombia, and Jamaica.
Public pressure mounted in 2006-07 to do something about securing U.S. borders and dealing with those undocumented migrants already in the country. Political debates—over legislative proposals for amnesty as granted in 1986; calls for a crackdown on illegals, even a 700-mile wall along the border; cantankerous congressional hearings; and mass demonstrations in many U.S. cities—illustrated the fundamental disagreements about how to deal with the situation. A divided Congress has been unable to pass any immigration reform bill and, as of this writing, any resolution remains elusive.
Calls for reform come at a time when parts of the U.S. economy are dependent on the labor of undocumented migrants. Mostly Latinos/as, these unskilled workers have spread to a wide range of industries. Experts estimate the number of undocumented workers in the U.S. economy at about 1 in 25. Working mostly in low-skill occupations, they are heavily concentrated in agriculture, construction, manufacturing (especially textiles and animal processing), retail trade (especially restaurants), and services (especially landscaping). Moreover, about 10 percent of the labor force of Mexico—as well as of several other Central American and Caribbean countries—are now working in the United States, and their sending monies to their families back home is a major source of financial support there.
Vincent N. Parrillo
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- Chavez, Leo R. 1997. Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American Society. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Ngai, Mae M. 2005. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. New ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Parrillo, Vincent N. Forthcoming. Strangers to These Shores. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Passel, Jeffrey S. 2006. The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.
- Portes, Alejandro and Ruben G. Rumaut. 2006. Immigrant America: A Portrait. 3rd ed. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.