There were 37.5 million immigrants in the United States in 2007 (Camarota, 1). Over the last seven years 1.6 million immigrants annually came into the United States.(Camarota, 3). It is estimated that 11.3 million illegal immigrants are in this country that accounts for half of the whole immigration. (Camarota, 4) 57% of the illegal population comes from Mexico, 11% from Central America, 9% from East Asia, 8% from South America, and 4% from Europe and the Caribbeans. (Camarota, 4) The non-white population will exceed 50% by 2042. (Bernstein and Edwards).
The data clearly indicates that it is morally, politically and economically unsustainable to keep these high numbers of illegal immigrants. Furthermore, the ramifications of the economic crisis is likely to heighten the pressure of immigration, while native people grow more hostile to the newcomers (Israely). We need to reform our immigration system in order to make America a worthwhile country to live in.
A good reason why to review the U.S. Immigration system lies in the nation’s history. America is the land of immigrants and perceived as the melting pot. (Booth) This is the promise that all immigrants can be transformed to Americans, who embrace capitalism, freedom, democracy and civic responsibility. (Booth) The first inhabitants of America were Native Americans, who came from Asia 35,000 to 10,000 years ago through massive ice-peak glaciers connecting North America to Siberia. (Kennedy and Cohen, 6) The first European immigrants came from Spain. They subjugated the native people and dominated their territory in what was to be called Latin America (Kennedy and Cohen 21-23). In the 16th century English immigrants settled North America in the 17th century due to population explosion, economic depression and religious repression (Kennedy and Cohen, 50-51). When the Europeans built their colonies the Southern colonies developed the institution of slavery, which meant that people from Africa were forced to enter America to work on large plantations owned by wealthy white planters (Kennedy and Cohen 74-75). The colonies also attracted immigrants from Germany, Ireland (Scots-Irish and Irish), Scotland, Netherlands, France (Huguenots), Wales, and Sweden, chiefly for the same reasons as English immigrants (Kennedy and Cohen 85-89). Another wave of German immigrants came between 1820 and 1920 settling themselves in agricultural colonies in the Midwestern states (Kennedy and Cohen 298). Some Germans wanted to escape religious persecution and sought for political freedom after the 1848 revolution had failed. A huge influx of Irish immigrants occurred in the 1840s and 1850s when the potato famine devastated the Irish peasantry (Kennedy and Cohen 294-295). The first Asian immigrants come from China. Chinese people were lured by the discovery of gold in California, and were employed as railroad workers in the 1850s. (Chinese immigrants faced huge nativist fears among white people that led to a ban on Chinese immigration in 1882 that was not repealed until 1943.) (Kennedy and Cohen 514-517).
In the 1880s Japanese moved to Hawaii to toil in sugarcane plantations. They also came to mainland America, but the 1924 immigration quota halted Japanese immigration. During World War II Japanese Americans were relocated in internment camps. (Kennedy and Cohen 824-825)
A major change in terms of immigration occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century. Until the 1880s most immigrants had come from northern and western Europe. They were light-skinned Anglo-Saxons or Teutons, who were Protestants or Catholics and fitted relatively easy into the American society. But since the 1880s a lot of southern and eastern European immigrants, including Italians, Croats, Slovaks, Greeks, and Poles, who worshipped in orthodox churches and synagogues, entered the United states. These people were usually poor, illiterate and seeking for industrial jobs in the cities. European industrialization had shaken up the peasantry, creating an army of unemployed. The impoverished people were lured by industrialists, who wanted low wage labor, railroad owners, who wanted buyers for their landgrants, states, who wanted more people, and steamships, who wanted more cargos for their holds. Overpopulation and urbanization in Europe also played a role in immigration. Finally, Russians turned violently upon Jews, causing them to flee to America (Kennedy and Cohen 561-567). Nativist and racist fears eventually led to immigration restrictions in the 1920s, favoring “old” immigrants from northern and western Europe. (Kennedy and Cohen 723-725).
A significant change in the nation’s immigration policy occurred in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act into law that abolished the national-origin quota, limited immigration from the western hemisphere, and made family unification the decisive factor for immigration. This led to a surge in immigration from Asia and Latin America, “changing the racial and ethnic composition of the American population” (Kennedy and Cohen 922-924, CIS “Three Decades of Mass Immigration”) Vietnamese people came in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the 1970s as refugees (Kennedy and Cohen 954-955).
Today, 53% of all post-2000 immigrants are Hispanic and 23% Asian (Camorata 12). Hispanic immigration comes from Mexico, Puerto Rica, Cuba and other Central or South American countries. (Kennedy and Cohen 1024-1025) Asian immigration comes from China, India, Japan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines and other nations (Le). Worries about the potential failure of assimilation of the new immigrants led to the passage of the Immigration Reform And Control Act of 1986 that penalized employers for hiring undocumented aliens and by granting amnesties to those immigrants already here since 1982 (Kennedy and Cohen 1022-1023).
The current growth in illegal immigration is a severe challenge for the United States. According to a CNN poll 73% of all Americans want to see the number of illegal immigrants decreased. (CNN, PollingReport.com). According to an ABC News/Washington Post Poll 74% of all Americans believe that the U.S. is not doing enough to keep illegal immigrants out of this country (ABC, PollingReport.com). However, 61% of the people from the same poll agree that illegal immigrants, who live lawfully (don’t commit a severe crime beyond their documented status) in this country, pay a fine and meet other requirements, should acquire the right for legal status and citizenship (ABC, PollingReport.com).
The debate over immigration must always be held in the light of the history of the United States. People, who voice nativist, hostile to immigrant concerns, all too often forget that their ancestors legally or illegally entered the country in hope of a better life for themselves and their descendants. There are also indications that opposition to immigration is based on white Americans excluding racial groups like Hispanics or Asians from immigrating just as old stock Americans had opposed immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe (Farley 486-487). Based on our long history of immigration we ought to approve of immigration as a positive force in society, but also reframe our debate on illegal immigration.
The first question is how illegal immigrants enter this country. They either cross the border- like many Mexicans do-, overstay their visas or forge documents (Farley 484). As a result of increasing concern about illegal immigration Congress passed the 1986 Immigration Reform And Control Act intended to penalize employers for hiring illegal aliens. However, there are indications that the law does not work. First, there are many different forms of identification, making it easier for illegal immigrants to forge documents. Second, the wealth disparities between the U.S and its southern neighbors are so great that there is a huge influx of illegal immigrant, making it difficult to enforce the laws. Third, big U.S corporations demand cheap labor that illegal immigration provides for them (Farley 485). For example, Wal Mart used illegal immigrants as subcontractors to clean their stores (Cuadros).
A very contentious argument in relation to illegal immigration is their net benefit to the U.S economy. According to the Tax Foundation, a non-profit research organization, 1.4 million undocumented immigrants file IRS tax returns. (Prante) Illegal immigrants also pay payroll taxes, and sales taxes as consumers. (Prante) Immigrants would also take jobs that nobody else would take, including meat packers, hotel maids, waiters, gardeners or seamstresses. (Parker) Fewer than 3% of all immigrants receive food stamps. (Lowenstein 3) Economists also state that societies with a lot of immigration tend to be more prosperous.(Lowenstein 3) While it is true that immigrants have lower incomes than native-born Americans, their progress in the United States depends on the supply of education. (Camorata 24; McCarthy and Valdez 77-79) The better the education, the better the immigrants succeed. The high levels of education and the high average income among Indian immigrants prove this point. In 2007 the average Indian American household income was $83,000, which is above the national average of $52,163. (Richwine; DeNavas et al. 60-236) 69% of Indian Americans have at least a 4-year college degree as compared to 51% for Asian Americans and 30% for Whites. (Richwine)
Camorata, however, also concludes that immigrants have an increased likelihood of poverty as compared to natives. 43.3% of all immigrants live in or near poverty, unlike natives where the rate is 28% (Camorata 15) 29.9% of immigrants lack health insurance, whereas 13% of natives lack it. (Camorata 15). 32.7% of immigrants live on welfare, which only applies to 19.4% of natives (Camorata 15). Such a difference may be attributed to the immigrant’s barriers to success, such as language skills. Less than one third of South East Asian immigrants reported being fully proficient in English, which keeps them down in the socio-economic ladder. (Zhou and Xiong 1136). But not all immigration has a negative impact on the society. 42 percent of engineers with master’s degrees and 60 percent of those with engineering Ph.D.’s in the United States are foreign-born. (Richtel 3) Half of the Google and Silicon Valley engineers are foreign-born. (Richtel 1) Those high-skilled immigrants study in American colleges on a student visa that expires after they completed their studies. Many go back to their home country, some even go to Canada. Unlike in America there is no limit to skilled immigration in Canada, so American-trained engineers from India or China go to Canada, causing a massive brain drain in the U.S. (Zakaria)
Illegal immigrants, in general, have a much less secure life. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina it is estimated that 40,000 Mexicans and 150,000 Hondurans in the New Orleans area were not eligible for Social Security checks, mails by the Postal Service, money to rent apartments and temporary trailer homes. (Fears 1) Until a few years ago, illegal immigrants in Tennessee were permitted to obtain driver’s licenses, buy cars, open bank accounts and take out mortgages. In 2006, the state canceled a program that authorized immigrants who were not legal residents to drive. (Preston 2) Undocumented immigrants generally also do not receive financial aid for college. (FinAid) The new health care bill under consideration also excludes illegal immigrants from obtaining health care coverage under government support. (Ludden) Hispanic illegal immigrants are cutting back on spending, fearing deportation but also hoping for immigration reform. (Moreno)
Indeed, immigration reform is an important issue to consider. I want to propose some general outlines as to what can be done about illegal immigration. A report published by the Center for American Progress suggests the likely outcomes of three different approaches to illegal immigration. (Hinojosa-Ojeda 10-12) They include mass deportation, a temporary workers program and comprehensive immigration reform. According to the report’s author Hinojosa-Ojeda the first option of mass deportation would expel all illegal immigrants and increase border control to seal the inflow of further immigration from Mexico. This option would shrink the U.S. GDP by 1.46% that amounts to an expected loss of $2.6 trillion in GDP over the next ten year (Hinojosa-Ojeda 12). This figure does not include the costs for mass deportation that requires more resources for law enforcement agencies to fund their activities. Such an effort would cost an additional $206 to $230 billion (Hinojosa-Ojeda 12)
The second approach pertains to a temporary workers program that would allow foreign workers to enter and work in the United States for a limited amount of time. It would not include the path to legal residency and/or citizenship and would require the temporary workers to return to their native country upon completion of their work period. However, immigrants under this scenario have limited labor rights and tend to have low productivity, since human capital (skills and education) can not build up over time (Hinojosa-Ojeda 11-12). A temporary workers policy would likely increase the number of foreign workers dramatically since more cheap labor is needed to fulfill the workload (Hinojosa-Ojeda 11-12). Nonetheless, such an approach would increase GDP by 0.44%, which would yield in a cumulative increase of $792 billion in GDP over ten years.
The third approach is called the comprehensive immigration reform. Under this plan unauthorized immigrants are compelled to register with the authorities, pay an application fee and a fine, pass a criminal background check (that would require those applicants to have committed no crime other than being an unauthorized immigrant), pay all the taxes owed to the government, learn English and earn legal status after a certain period of time (Hinojosa-Ojeda 11). In addition, the bill also calls for additional training and equipment for border guards (Archibold). Indeed, such a bill has already been introduced to Congress. Representative Luiz Guiterrez (D-IL) has introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would precisely include those provisions mentioned. (Archibold) Such a bill, however, also faced plenty of opposition. Representative Brian Bilbray (R-CA) has said that the bill would only generate a new wave of immigrants to compete with American for jobs at a time of 10% unemployment. (Archibold) Conservative groups have critiqued that the bill is an amnesty, whereas liberal groups oppose its emphasis on law enforcement (Olivo and Watanabe). Representative Jeff Flake (R-AL) opposes the immigration reform bill, because it does not include a temporary workers program (Archibold). The administration has announced to take up immigration if the health care bill is passed (Olivo and Watanabe). However much skepticism there is about such a comprehensive immigration reform bill, there is an expected increase of GDP of 0.84%, which is $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. (Hinojosa-Ojeda 10) The optimistic prognosis is based on the assumption that legalized immigrants would have a higher productivity and higher wages that would enable better educational opportunities, which will likely result in further advances among the new immigrants (Hinojosa-Ojeda 10)
It can, therefore, be concluded that immigration reform is certainly a worthwhile initiative to relieve the burden on the U.S. society, as it is currently depressing wages. Harvard economist Borjas, published a study saying that illegal immigrants depress wages for legal workers by $1.4 billion in the state of Arizona alone (Sunnucks). Another great drain for the government are the costs for border enforcement. According to Wayne A. Cornelius, professor from the University of California, the U.S. government has invested more than $20 billion in border control since 1993 with a current annual rate of $6 billion. (Cornelius 1-4) However, 92-97% of all apprehended illegal aliens keep trying to cross the borders. (Cornelius 1-4) Cornelius asserted that a border enforcement only approach will likely result in more unintended consequences. (Cornelius 1-4) This tough approach has resulted in a humanitarian crisis as more than 6,000 people died crossing the Mexican-U.S. border over the last 15 years, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (Javno). It has also enhanced the importance of people-smugglers called coyotes, who charge much higher fees to attempt their smuggling. (Cornelius 1-4).
The recent economic recession has caused the number of illegal aliens to decline.(Papademetriou and Terrazas 2-3) Unauthorized aliens tend to fill the demand for work not met by legal immigrants and U.S citizens. As the labor market tightens and competition for jobs increases, the demand for new workers will decline, causing a return migration or a lower new immigration. (Papademetriou and Terrazas 20-23) However, history suggests that over the long term as the economy begins to pick up the demand for foreign labor will increase again, causing more legal and illegal immigration.
It can therefore be assumed that immigration will still be an important feature of the United States. The Harvard professor Mary C. Water from Forbes magazine has stated that the U.S is better able to absorb newcomers than Europe does. (Water) Apart from the undocumented immigrants (Legal Cyber Tips) as well as the restrictive immigration policies for highly skilled immigrants (Wadhwa) as problems, America has a set of advantages that prevented it from seeing riots like in French cities, or home-grown terrorists in Great Britain. (Water) The American advantage lies in the success of the second generation immigrants. These second generation immigrants benefit form birthright citizenship, a flexible education system, immediate integration of immigrants into the labor market, and civil rights (Water).
The future of immigration has to be decided by the lawmakers and the people of this country. Do we accept more immigration or less? Do we want more high-skilled immigrants that spur innovation and economic growth, or do we equally need low-skilled immigrants to give the poor people from poor countries a chance as well and because the labor market needs them? What means do we want to employ to control the flow of illegal immigration? There are no clear answers nor clear either-or outcomes, but there are steps toward changing the system in a better direction. In his speech upon signing the Immigration Reform Act in 1965 into law, President Lyndon B. Johnson uttered those remarks,”Our beautiful America was built by a nation of strangers. From a hundred different places or more they have poured forth into an empty land, joining and blending in one mighty and irresistible tide. (…) But those [foreigners] who do come will come because of what they are, and not because of the land from which they sprung. When the earliest settlers poured into a wild continent there was no one to ask them where they came from. The only question was: Were they sturdy enough to make the journey, were they strong enough to clear the land, were they enduring enough to make a home for freedom, and were they brave enough to die for liberty if it became necessary to do so?” (Johnson)
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