Illegal immigrants are pouring into the United States. Pro-immigration rallies and anti-immigration rallies alternated with equal fervor this spring, while the number of illegals living in the country continued to grow towards 10 million. Pending legislation threatens to make illegal immigration a felony and to build a wall across the southern border. A group of armed civilians calling itself the Minutemen Project patrols areas where illegal immigrants frequently cross into America, while southwestern talk radio stations voice their shrill support for the Minutemen. Illegal immigration is present and it is growing. Americans need to decide what to do about it.
The arguments can be confusing. Anti-immigration groups ask us to consider our self-interest as Americans, claiming that illegal immigrants are stealing jobs and bene-
fits from citizens. Pro-immigration groups, by default, concede the question of self-interest to their opponents. They ask Americans to consider the broken homes deported immigrants leave behind and the tragedy of those who die crossing the desert from Mexico. So which is it? Should we protect our jobs and our taxes, or be moved by the plight of those who seek refuge while we allow our country to be overrun?
It’s a trick question.
In one respect, the anti-immigration groups are correct: Americans should consider their self-interest when deciding where they stand on immigration. But they are wrong that illegal immigrants are a drain or a scourge. Immigrants, illegal or otherwise, are a boon to the United States.
Consider the arguments to the contrary. The claim that illegal immigrants hurt the economy boils down to two allegations. The first is that immigrants steal jobs from Americans. The second is that they suck up welfare or benefits without paying enough taxes to cover themselves.
It is true that immigrants work when they get to America. They get jobs as soon as they can, and yes, they’re willing to work cheaply. But they don’t steal jobs. If you’re paying the teenager who baby-sits your children $15 an hour, and the girl across the street comes along and says, “I’ll do it for $10,” has the new girl stolen anything when you hire her? Of course not. It’s your money. You have no obligation to pay a higher price, if you can get the labor for a lower one. That doesn’t change when the nationality of the cheaper babysitter happens to be Mexican. As long as the money that you worked for still belongs to you, you get to choose what to do with it.
It’s easy to see that the employer benefits from having his property rights protected when he’s hiring the cheapest babysitter or fruit picker. What everyone seems happy to ignore is that the other guy-the more expensive babysitter or fruit picker, the guy whose job was “stolen” from him-also benefits. He benefits from living in a society in which jobs are given to the most competitive job-seekers. He benefits because when goods can be produced at a cheaper price, the economy grows. He benefits because the owner of the orchard where he didn’t get a job uses his savings to open a produce store or cultivate a new orchard and hires twice the workers he employed before. Or it allows him to spend more money on entertainment and the entertainment industry grows, or he banks the money and the bank invests it in new, productive industries which hire more workers. Whatever the farmer does with his extra money, wealth increases, the economy improves, and the country becomes a better place to live.
Ask yourself: would you rather be out of a job in the land of opportunity, or guaranteed a job for the rest of your life in communist Russia or modern-day Cuba? That’s the choice. There’s no middle ground. Either citizens are free to spend their earnings as they choose, or-they aren’t. The benefits of living in a country in which people are free to seek the best product for their money overwhelmingly outweigh the short-term inconvenience of losing one job and finding another. The result of that freedom is America: a country where your property and life are protected. A country full of beautiful houses, cutting-edge medical treatments, twenty-plex movie theaters, spotless supermarkets, Wal-Marts full of affordable merchandise, and cities sparkling with life and second-chances.
Immigrants don’t “steal” jobs. In fact, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NRC) found that immigrants indirectly raise the incomes of U.S.-born workers by at least $10 billion each year just by paying taxes and increasing the general productivity of the economy. Immigrants may change the market in certain ways, but their hard work at bargain prices is good for America.
As for the idea that immigrants are a drain on American tax-dollars-this isn’t true either. Immigrants can’t even apply for welfare for the first five years that they’re in the country. Meanwhile, they’re working. They buy clothes and food and televisions and houses, while paying sales tax on every bit of it and income tax on their salaries. The vast majority of them are only able to get jobs by purchasing fake social security cards, and their employers withhold the same deductions from their salaries as from their American counterparts. (A well-constructed guest-worker program could limit benefits available to immigrants at least as well as-but probably better than-the current policy.) According to the NRC, the typical immigrant family pays about $80,000 more in taxes than all of its members together will ever receive in local, state, and federal benefits. An article in the New York Times profiles an illegal immigrant from Mexico who works 70 hours a week at $8.50 an hour:
“Last year, Mr. Martinez paid about $2,000 toward Social Security and $450 for Medicare through payroll taxes withheld from his wages. Yet unlike most Americans, who will receive some form of a public pension in retirement and will be eligible for Medicare as soon as they turn 65, Mr. Martinez is not entitled to benefits.The estimated seven million or so illegal immigrant workers in the United States are now providing the system with a subsidy of as much as $7 billion a year.”
Immigrants aren’t a drain on government services, not as a whole. It is a fact that has been thoroughly proven by a score of independent research institutions. The most one could say is that it is not fair, in principle, for an American citizen’s taxes to go towards supporting an illegal immigrant. But is it any fairer that his taxes should support another American? At the point where the government takes nearly half of one person’s income away in order to pay for someone else to have knee surgery and send his child to elementary school, are you really worried about whether that someone is a white Protestant from Pennsylvania, or a Mexican landscaper from Nevada? The socialized elements of the United States economy amount to stealing, that’s true. But the beneficiary is irrelevant. The problem is with these socialized elements, not immigration.
The groups that are so eager to save America from illegal immigrants don’t present a very convincing case that America needs saving. Willing workers are flooding America, making production cheaper, better, and more efficient, and giving government programs whopping subsidies that they don’t deserve. Meanwhile, they’re bringing with them Latin dance clubs and Mexican restaurants and enthusiasm for life in America. Immigration is good for the country.
If anti-immigration groups are really after American self-interest, they should open their eyes to the tremendous benefits that free immigration offers to America. At what point does the refusal to see those benefits begin to smack of nothing more than an irrational prejudice against Latinos? Americans don’t need protection from foreigners. We have welcomed throughout our history those who would embrace the ideals enshrined in our constitution, work for their own advancement, and uphold our right to work for ours. We should continue to do so. The country will be richer for it-in every sense of the word.
Rebecca Knapp is a law student at the University of California, Los Angeles