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Aliens have landed! They are swarming our cities, supplying our addicts, populating our gangs, stealing jobs right out from under our noses, terrorizing our neighborhoods, draining our welfare system, and even corrupting our children with their dangerous ideas. National Crisis! Remove them immediately! So goes the thinking of the xenophobes on the far right, terrified of the possibility of a change in the cultural makeup of our country.
Let them stay! They’re all fantastic people that will all learn perfect English and go to college and never ever be arrested or even get a speeding ticket and they’ll probably even discover a cure for every disease that has ever existed! So goes the thinking of the cultural idealists on the far left, needing to believe the best in everyone and refusing to see reality.
In reality, the real problem is more complicated than this. It cannot be explained in a sound byte or to an American public with the attention span rivaling that of a housefly, although that is too often what politicians try to do. The US does have an illegal immigration problem. Many illegal immigrants came here to give their families a better life. They hold jobs that few citizens would take, pay taxes like the rest of us, and are an overall benefit to America. Other illegal immigrants are only here to participate in criminal activity (mainly drug trafficking) and need to be deported. Many illegal immigrants have children that were born in the US and therefore are legal citizens. The problem is that too often, government tries to cover all illegal immigrants under one blanket law. This approach oversimplifies a complex problem, many times simply for political gain. The over simplistic laws that have sprung up in an increasing number of states that seek to rid the country of all illegal immigrants, regardless of their contributions to society, are bad for the country and need to be dropped in favor of a comprehensive immigration reform strategy that doesn’t simply seek to deport each and every last one.
There is currently a wave of anti-illegal immigration sentiment passing through the country like an electric current. And, in several places, it has transformed itself into shortsighted legislation that is unreasonably harsh on immigrants and, long term, has the potential to severely damage its home state, especially in terms of economics. About 8 million illegal immigrants hold jobs in the US- mostly the jobs that citizens don’t want to do. Illegal immigrants pick our crops, care for our yards, rid our houses of pests, butcher our meat, flip our burgers, clean our hotel rooms, build our houses, and perform many other essential (though unpalatable) jobs in a variety of industries. Almost without exception, the jobs they take are unskilled jobs that pay close to minimum wage. And, although many anti-immigrant voices cry that illegal immigrants are “stealing” these jobs from citizens, nothing could be further from the truth. By filling these unskilled jobs, illegal immigrants create jobs for citizens in places like management and company ownership. These unskilled jobs that illegal immigrants fill are not jobs that the average American (even the average unemployed American) is running out to go claim. And, as a matter of fact, many are not jobs that the average American could physically do, even if they wanted to. If all of these workers were to suddenly disappear, leaving these jobs unfilled, our economy would grind to a halt. It’s already been demonstrated in Alabama, which passed very strict illegal immigration legislation last year that caused hundreds of thousands of people to pack up and leave the state. Illegal immigrants were a huge part of the agricultural industry there, and without those workers who left, many in the agriculture industry are feeling the strain. At the beginning of October of 2011, with harvest time coming fast, Jerry Spencer, CEO of Grow Alabama, spoke to NPR interviewer Judy Woodruff about the impact the bill would have on his company and the industry as a whole.
JUDY WOODRUFF: “And what sort of work were these laborers doing, the ones who left? Where are you now in the crop, the harvesting cycle? How urgent is it that they be replaced?”
JERRY SPENCER: “Well, the urgency is in the final stages of the last harvest of the year, essentially. So, the urgency -- you know, there will be a significant loss of harvest in the next few weeks. But the big concern is the decisions that the farmers are going to have to make about whether they continue to farm next year.”
JUDY WOODRUFF: “Are replacement workers available? I mean, we know that some of the state representatives, including the one we're about to talk to, is saying that there are other folks in Alabama who are unemployed who would love to take these jobs.”
JERRY SPENCER: “There are plenty of those folks, and that's who we are trying to mobilize. We're starting at a very small -- on a very small basis, 40, 50 people last week. And we're looking at the details of what's necessary, transportation, the workability of these unemployed city folk working on farms. The -- so we're looking at all of that. Out of 40, 50, 60 people, we probably have maybe 10 people who really could actually work on a farm.”
Getting rid of these workers actually made life more difficult for Alabama residents, because many, like Spencer, manage companies that must employ immigrant labor because there are not enough citizens who are willing and able to take these jobs. Fred Leitz, a Michigan farm owner who has lobbied Congress for immigration reform, estimated that close to 70% of all the seasonal workers in the agriculture industry are undocumented. Without these workers, crops go unharvested, farms go out of business, food prices go up, and the US has to import even more food from other countries. There is simply no reason for forcing these workers out. Forcing illegal immigrants to leave causes negative impacts for everyone involved.
But aren't illegal immigrants freeloaders? Don't they get away with draining our welfare system without paying taxes to support it? Aren't regular tax paying citizens the ones who end up subsidizing them? Actually, no. The myth that illegal immigrants pay no taxes is pervasive, to be sure, but it is just that- a myth. All illegal immigrants who own or rent a home pay property taxes. All people, regardless of status, pay sales tax. The vast majority of illegal immigrants end up paying Social Security and Medicare taxes because their employer withdraws that money from their paycheck. According to the Seattle Times, illegal immigrants paid about 11.2 billion dollars into the Social Security trust fund and 2.6 billion to Medicare in 2007 alone. Unlike citizens, immigrants will never recover this money, because they are not eligible for Social Security or Medicare benefits. The only type of tax that illegal immigrants could potentially avoid paying is income tax. However, according to Shikha Dalmia, senior analyst at Reason Foundation, about 8 million of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country elect to pay income tax anyways. That means that two thirds of all illegal immigrants in the country pay as much in taxes as citizens do, but are not eligible for the vast majority of the government programs that citizens enjoy. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for food stamps or housing assistance. They may not draw from Social Security as they get older, even though they have paid into the program just as citizens have. They cannot be covered by Medicare or Medicaid, though their taxes go to support these programs too. In fact, the only government-funded programs that illegal immigrants are eligible for are K-12 education and emergency medical care. In fact, because they consume so little government funding, they are actually more of an economic benefit to the tax system than citizens who have access to a whole host of government-funded programs. They can’t be a drain on the welfare system if they never had access to it to begin with.
The blanket “get rid of them all” policies that have sprung up in state legislatures across the US aren’t only bad for states economically- they have the added benefit of legalizing racial profiling and causing all Latinos to feel like second-class citizens. Yes, some police officers will be cautious with the new powers that this law gives them. But many will not. Many have not. In Arizona, which was one of the first states to pass legislation giving police officers the right to stop anyone and demand them for proof of citizenship, Sheriff Joe Arpaio (sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes the city of Phoenix and over 3.8 million people total) was rebuked by the Justice Department for “unconstitutional policing.” According to the New York Times, Arpaio, who calls himself “America’s toughest sheriff” was found to have unfairly targeted Latinos for detention and arrest, and the Maricopa County police department (which he was in charge of) was described by the Justice Department as having “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos.” Under Sheriff Arpaio’s command, Latino drivers were four to nine times as likely to be stopped as non-Latino drivers. He responded to complaints that described people with “dark skin” or “Spanish-speakers congregating in an area,” with no mention of any illegal activity, with well-publicized immigration raids of Latino neighborhoods. The report noted that “the use of these types of bias-infected indicators as a basis for conducting enforcement activity contributes to the high number of stops and detentions lacking in legal justification.” According to the prosecutor, the expert who conducted the study called the case “the most egregious racial profiling he had ever seen in this country.” This is not fair to the majority of Latinos, who are here legally. They live in fear of the police, not able to ask them for assistance, not able to feel safe in their homes at night because they know that their neighborhoods are on the bottom of the priority list of the police. Making this kind of action legal and acceptable is akin to repealing the Civil Rights Act. It allows the country to descend into a vicious circle of hatred and racism and intolerance and threatens to bring back echoes of before the 1960s, when segregation and Jim Crow laws governed so much of the country.
We need to be better than this. We need to recognize that there is simply no way to remove every single last person who has ever come into the country illegally. We need to pass legislation that allows productive members of society to stay in the country, while deporting criminals. Instead of fighting cultural change, we need to embrace it, for this is what makes us who we are as Americans. Our country, whether we like it or not, has always been defined by immigrants, be it the original “Plymouth rock” immigrants or the European immigrants of the industrial revolution. We are the patchwork quilt, as they say, the melting pot, the blend of different colors and religions and beliefs and languages and nationalities, and by attempting to exclude Latino immigrants, legal or illegal, from this country, we are ripping a jagged hole right out of the middle of the quilt. The people who come here to seek a better life, legal or illegal, must be given the same chance at the American dream that the rest of us feel so entitled to.