Immigration policy has become one of the most contentious topics in American political life today. America proudly proclaims itself a nation of immigrants, but there has been growing backlash against what is perceived as a 'tide' of illegal immigration to the United States. Of particular concern is undocumented workers' access to social services such as healthcare, education, and other benefits. This inability to reach a political consensus on how to deal with immigrants' access to government resources has resulted in the stifling of initiatives such as the as-yet-to-be passed DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act), which would allow the children of illegal immigrants the ability to become citizens, even though they were not technically born in the country. Concerns over illegal immigrants gaining access to healthcare was even used as an argument against the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) although illegal immigrants are not eligible for the protections of the ACA.
Definitions of the social problem and issue
Central to the question of to what resources immigrants should have access is the equally important question of 'who is an American' and 'what should America look like. Different states have radically different compositions of immigrants, which impact resident's views of the positive vs. The negative benefits of immigration: "While only 13% of all Americans are foreign-born, that share is more than 1 in 4 in California. Meanwhile, only around 1% of West Virginians were born outside the U.S." (Kurtzleben 2013). There has been hostility towards expanded immigration policies in more homogeneous states and communities, who view the resources consumed by immigrants as being 'taken away' from them, such as jobs. Illegal immigrants (and immigrants in general) are perceived as being willing to work for lower rates of pay, thus driving down the overall wages workers can command.
Another area of hostility regarding the resources consumed by immigrants is that of education. Many immigrants come to the United States to obtain a better education for themselves and their families. "Foreign-born Americans are less likely than the native-born population to have completed high school. Nearly 30% of foreign-born Americans have not completed high school, compared to less than 10% of the native-born population" (Kurtzleben 2013). While opponents to allowing the children of illegal immigrants to receive a public education argue that this merely encourages more undocumented workers to enter the U.S., the downside is that not educating the children condemns them to a life of poverty and ignorance, and does little to address the root causes of why the immigration occurred in the first place. "If the sheer number of immigrant children who graduate high school and go on to seek either vocational or traditional tertiary educations are examined, it can be shown that there are a great number of both economic and social benefits to encouraging illegal immigrants to attempt to gain legal statuses' as they reach educational milestones" (Wade 2012).
Furthermore, many illegal immigrants also pay taxes on their wages; there are "billions of dollars deducted from paychecks issued to undocumented workers flow to the Social Security Administration (SSA) every year. Those workers almost certainly will never see that money again" (Lantigua 2012). The argument that illegal immigrants do not 'pay into the system' is often simply not true, and thus the argument that they deserve no benefits in exchange for their efforts holds little water.
Illegal immigrants do participate in some social programs, but "in terms of welfare use, receipt of cash assistance programs tends to be very low, while Medicaid use, though significant, is still less than for other households. Only use of food assistance programs is significantly higher than that of the rest of the population" (Camarota 2004). The 'drain' of illegal workers upon the economy is thus overestimated, and "the primary reason they create a fiscal deficit is their low education levels and resulting low incomes and tax payments, not their legal status or heavy use of most social services. On average, the costs that illegal households impose on federal coffers are less than half that of other households, but their tax payments are only one-fourth that of other households" (Camarota 2004). Denying immigrants' children access to education will only exacerbate the problem and denying these immigrants social services in the form of healthcare only encourages the use of emergency rooms as sites of primary care, which likewise increases the cost burden of the system.
One way to approach the question of immigrant's rights is to consider the different 'types' of immigrants. For example, the DREAM Act allows a path to citizenship for "unauthorized immigrants who are under the age of 31; [who] entered the United States before age 16; have lived continuously in the country for at least five years; have not been convicted of a felony, a 'significant' misdemeanor, or three other misdemeanors; and are currently in school, graduated from high school, earned a GED, or served in the military" (Who and where the DREAMers are, revised estimates, 2012, Immigration Policy Center). Of these 1.8 young potential citizen-immigrants, the fact that they have committed no 'crime' in being brought over to the U.S. By their parents, coupled with the fact that they have made a demonstrated commitment to the United States through self-improvement is viewed as an argument in favor of accepting them as citizens.
There is also substantial evidence that legal immigration is good for America, another argument in favor of creating a smoother path to citizenship and expanding social service resources for immigrants. "Perhaps the biggest contribution immigrants make to the U.S. economy is starting new businesses. Research by the Kauffman Foundation, which promotes entrepreneurship, shows that immigrants are twice as likely to start a new business as native-born Americans. That gap has widened over the last 10 years. Among ethnic groups, Latinos have the highest rate of entrepreneurship by far" (Newman 2010).
However, critics interject that not all immigrants make such positive contributions to American society. There are real security concerns that are raised with an influx of undocumented workers, particularly in regards to heightened concerns about terrorism. Even if there is a strong argument for admitting more workers, particularly highly skilled workers, into the United States, a completely unfettered immigration policy with totally open borders is not practical, safe or feasible.
From a social worker's perspective, he or she is often caught in a bind: a client may need specialized services and attention, but may not be eligible because he or she is undocumented. Also, dealing with undocumented workers leery about coming into contact with the law means that when interventions are necessary to dramatically improve the quality of the immigrant's lives (such as finding them access to food, clothing, or healthcare), there may be resistance due to fear of coming into contact with the authorities.
Causes of the problem
Most immigrants travel to the U.S. In search of better opportunities, which they cannot find at home. Illegal crossing of the U.S. border is extremely risky, and the desperation of workers who do so underlines their belief in the fact that their situation is so desperate in their native environment they have little to lose. While some have advocated border control as the answer, a more comprehensive anti-poverty program in conjunction with nations where there is a great deal of cross-border traffic is also required. Until conditions improve in countries of origin, the problem of illegal immigration is unlikely to abate.
Another 'cause' that must be addressed is the willingness of employers to hire illegal workers, often at substantially lower wages than documented workers, and without benefits. To both guard against the exploitation of workers at the hands of employers, and to decrease the 'supply' of jobs, there has been calls for more efficient prosecution of employers who hire…