America is a melting pot. We hear that phrased pronounced almost everyday in some context or another. And, to a large degree, it is true: Even the beacon of our freedom, the Statue of Liberty, welcomes all arrivals to our shores, be they ever so poor, tired or huddled in masses.
However, a topic that creeps up among our greatest immigration stories is the problem of illegal immigration. Always a problem in our border states, especially Texas and California, illegal immigration has taken on a whole new bent following September 11's terrorist attacks and the realization that most of the people involved in the attacks were here illegally. Some came into the country illegally, and others overstayed their immigration status.
Here are some statistics: The Immigration and Naturalization Services -- a department suddenly at the forefront of homeland security issues and the war against terror -- reports that in 2000 there were 7 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, a figure that increases by about 500,000 every year. Consequently, although we do not have a record of the latest estimates, there are close to 9 million illegal immigrants in America today. (www.cis.org)
In fact, included in this estimate is an even more troubling figure: 78,000 of the illegal immigrants are from nations that are of special concern in the war against terror. (www.cis.org)
According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the two magnets that draw illegal immigrant are jobs and family connections. With American labor jobs paying ten times more than their Mexican counterparts, it is no surprise at all that there is a population influx, legal when possible, and illegal when impossible.
One of the most important angles to examine in illegal immigration is the monetary impact: "Concern over illegal immigration ranges from national security and the rule of law to the risk would-be illegals take to enter the country and their well-being once here. But the fiscal effects are a key part of the issue. In fact, much of the public's anger over illegal immigration stems from the belief that illegals are a drain on taxpayers. Past policy responses to illegal aliens, such as barring them from welfare programs, were also driven by the desire to minimize fiscal costs. Thus, determining the actual fiscal impact of illegal immigration is critically important to formulating a policy response to illegal immigration." (Camarota)
So, what are the most obvious impacts illegal immigrants have on our economy? First, they use our government provided services. Simply by living in the United States, illegal immigrants unavoidably impose some tangible and some intangible costs on government. Like all people, illegal aliens enroll their children in our public school system, drive our state-funded highways, and engage in a host of other activities that necessarily cost government -- federal and state -- money.
However, they also unavoidably pay taxes. Even when they are paid "off the books," they still pay sales taxes and other types of taxes to the government. So the fact that illegal aliens cost public coffers money does not necessarily mean they are a net drain on our economy.
Conversely, the fact that illegal immigrants pay taxes does not necessarily mean that they are a fiscal benefit either. At least with regard to fiscal considerations, the key question is the balance between the taxes they pay and the services they use in our economy. The trick is to estimate both their tax payments and costs in order to determine their net fiscal impact at the federal and state levels.
But the direct economic costs and possible benefits do not signal the end of our analysis. The most important economic impact illegal immigrants have on our economy is their effect on taking away American jobs.
In a ravaged economy, the best way to lose an election is to wax weak on illegal immigration since voters will immediately see you as someone who is willing to simply let labor jobs go to illegal immigrants. The issue gets dicier since -- as we discussed above -- illegal immigrants do not pay for so many direct and indirect government services from which they benefit, so they are essentially freeloaders in that they take jobs and do not pay taxes for services.
Of course, this analysis misses the critical point embedded in it: They take jobs. In fact, they take jobs that generally no legal immigrant would want or take, or even could afford to take. We must recall that similar jobs in far poorer working conditions are being offered just south of the border in Mexico at one/tenth the wage. That is why the initial statistics we all see regarding the number of jobs lost are a bit spurious. Illegal immigrants are taking, for the most part, jobs that simply would not be taken otherwise.
That is why the guestworker program was initiated by President Bush in January 2004: "The bedrock assumption underlying a guestworker program is that the flow of workers from Mexico and elsewhere is unstoppable -- a natural phenomenon like the weather or the tides, which we are powerless to influence. Therefore, it is said, managing the flow in an orderly and lawful manner is preferable to the alternative. (Krikorian)
On the surface, the flow of Mexican immigration may indeed seem inevitable; it is very large, rapidly growing, and spreading throughout the country. But a longer view shows that this flow has been created in large part by government policies, both in the United States and Mexico. And, government policy having created the migration flows, government policy can interrupt the flows, though a social phenomenon like this is naturally more difficult to stop than to start.
So now you we see the pushes to grant illegal immigrants drivers licenses and even in some cases collect taxes. There is an understanding that it has become impossible to stop illegal immigration, so rather than live in denial, our best option is to deal with it and make the best of the situation.
This situation is much like the example of condoms in middle schools and high schools. Of course, ideally from a teacher's and parent's perspective, children should not be sexually active, but the fact remains that they are, and there is precious little that can be done about it.
So rather than spread sexually transmitted diseases and increase the number of unwanted teenage pregnancies, we simply deal with the problem rather than focusing only on solving it: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, as they say.
The situation with illegal immigration is quite similar. The authorities deal with it on two tracks. First, try to stop it: Increase border patrol, improve documentation efforts, and increase the number of random checks. Also, legislators are working on more ways to encourage employers to come forth with knowledge of their illegal employees.
Of course, this last move is most difficult since employers benefit from the immigrants' illegal status: They can pay them well under minimum wage, and the immigrants can do nothing about it, since they risk deportation.
And finally, there is the new terrorist situation post-September 11. More than ever, we have a pressing need to know exactly who is in our cities and towns and farms, and anywhere within our borders. And, increasingly, we are finding that we have no idea.
Most experts agree, however, that the problem relates less to border control than it does to legal-to-illegal immigration. These are immigrants who come here legally, but then let their papers expire and simply stay on, without any governmental authority knowing they are here.
Moreover, there are the methods of deportation and confusion among the authorities involved: "It has long been widely recognized that state and local police possess the inherent authority to arrest aliens who…