They Are Sending Their Best People: Immigrants Helping to Make America Great

According to recent polls, two of three Americans think of Mexico in a positive light and hold favorable views toward immigrants.  

So why is U.S. policy on Mexico and immigration being held hostage to the attitudes of just a third of Americans? These opinions, no matter how firmly held, won’t find foundation in the facts.  

A look at the best available evidence shows that unauthorized immigrants are not the “worst people,” nor are they, as is often asserted, a financial burden on our nation.  Facts and reason stand against misunderstanding, fear, and anger.


The More Immigrants, the Less Crime

The more immigrants that live in a neighborhood, the safer that community will be. Immigrants are vastly less likely to be violent criminals than, on average, are non-immigrant Americans. Even more, of all immigrants, those who most recently arrived are the least likely to commit violent crimes (see Kristin Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl, writing for the Nation Bureau of Economic Research, 2007). As researcher Andrew Selee points out in his book, Vanishing Frontiers, “immigrants–and Mexican immigrants in particular–commit far fewer crimes than native-born Americans. In fact, they have incarceration rates only a fifth to a tenth of native-born Americans” (Selee, 2018, p. 10).  

As researchers Kristin Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl concluded, the evidence suggests “that the process of migration selects individuals who have [a] lower criminal propensity” (Butcher and Piehl, 2007, p. 25.)


Benefit or Burden? 

Some erroneously claim that unauthorized immigrants do not pay taxes. However, immigrants of course pay sales taxes in the 45 out of 50 states that have them. Unauthorized immigrant workers also pay $12 billion in state and local taxes every year. In California, Texas, and New York undocumented workers pay state and local income taxes equaling over one billion dollars in each state per year. Undocumented workers contribute even more in federal income taxes, at least $24 billion each year.

Undocumented workers who are on a company payroll have taxes and other deductions routinely taken from every paycheck, just like everyone else. Even undocumented workers who are self-employed or paid in cash are required by law to pay their taxes, and it seems that about half of them do this, at least according to the United States Internal Revenue Service. They do this perhaps because they reason that if regulations later change and citizenship becomes possible for people like them, then they would need to be able to prove that they have been law-abiding. They understand that not paying their taxes is a crime.


Another very important contribution made by undocumented workers comes in the payroll deductions taken for Social Security. They pay in with every paycheck, but nearly no unauthorized immigrant has ever claimed this benefit. All told, unauthorized immigrants have paid some $240 billion into the Social Security program over the years. Undocumented workers pay in around $13 billion into Social Security every year, with an additional $3 billion dropped into the Medicare program annually, helping keep both program afloat.

A recent study by Florida International University, concluded that unauthorized immigrant workers pay more in state and local taxes than it costs to educate their children in public schools. In all events, eight of every ten of these children were born in the United States, so whatever it might cost for them to go to public school is beside the point: these children are American citizens with the same privileges and responsibilities as all other citizens.


Deportations Harm the U.S. Economy

The profile of the unauthorized immigrant population is different than what some may suppose. Two of every three of the 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States have been here at least ten years. While a quarter of the unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. came from Mexico, these days more immigrants come from the Northern Triangle nations of Guatemala, Honduras, and, to a lesser extent, El Salvador.

Were Trump to carry out nationwide mass deportations–which is exactly what he has called for–this would break apart the families of over 4 million U.S. citizen children presently living in a home with at least one parent who is an unauthorized immigrant. In the state of California, one of every five families would be directly impacted.

Moreover, steady U.S. economic growth will depend upon continued immigration. If the Trump administration were to succeed in its campaign to halt immigration and deport all unauthorized immigrants, economic studies predict that the growth of the U.S. economy would be stopped dead and thrown into reverse, the economy contracting by an estimated 6 percent. To this add deportations costs:  each deportation at present costs around $11,000 per person.

Driving away immigrants is an economically ruinous idea. Alabamans know this is true. In 2011 Alabama passed a severely anti-undocumented worker law, HB 56, which made it all but impossible for unauthorized immigrants to live and work in the state Alabama. In a year’s time some 40,000 to 80,000 undocumented workers had fled Alabama. Estimates by the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama put the total state losses in income and taxes at nearly $11 billion. HB 56 sent Alabama spinning into an economic recession, a catastrophe completely of their own making.

But while the U.S. economy may need immigrant workers, but it does not need exploited and abused immigrant workers. Citizenship for undocumented workers would come with a price, but it is one that basic fairness requires our nation pay. Undocumented immigrants do not use many of the U.S. social program benefits that should be available to them. Nearly all are so poorly compensated that they would be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (in effect, a negative income tax, providing added income for workers and their families living in poverty). Unauthorized immigrants almost never file for this benefit, chiefly out of fear of coming to the attention of authorities and being deported. As citizens they could.

Likewise, it is obviously unethical to have poorly paid undocumented workers pay into Social Security and Medicare without enjoying the right to make use of these programs. As citizens they would have this right.


Helping Make America Great

We need the contributions of immigrants. They work in jobs that other people don’t want and won’t take, they are much more likely to start small businesses than other people living here, they pay their taxes, and they don’t commit crimes.

Mexico and the Northern Triangle have sent the U.S. what can only be described as some of the best people; we are very fortunate indeed to have these families living here. The United States must bring these people out of the shadows and away from exploitation, offering them citizenship. They have certainly earned it; they have done so much to make America great!

In 1986 President Ronald Reagan granted citizenship to most of the unauthorized immigrants who resided in the country. If elected, in January 2021 Bernie Sanders should do the same thing.