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Immigration in America: The Benefits and Costs of a Polarizing Problem
As Suarez-Orozco, Rhodes and Milburn (2009) point out, immigrants need “supportive relationships” in order to succeed in the foreign country that they move to (p. 151). However, when that foreign country is determined to address immigration issues—not only illegal immigration but also legal immigration—it can become a difficult problem for both sides of the political aisle. For a nation like the United States, that is especially true. After all, America was founded by immigrants. The early Spanish and French missionaries came in the 16th century seeking converts to Christianity. The Puritans and English followed. The Germans and Italians and Irish and Polish all came to America in the wake of Industrialization. Over time, America was host to so many different populations and groups of people that it was referred to as the melting pot in 1909 (Higgins). However, America’s approach to immigration has changed over the years—especially in the wake of 9/11. In America, a surge of nationalism brought Donald Trump to the White House, as he pledged to be tough on immigration, build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and make America great again by making it safer. Still, that promise has not been without its costs. Indeed, no matter how one looks it, whether it is from the angle of the cost of immigration to continue or from the angle of the cost to stop or curb immigration, the price is considerable. At the same time, there is also a benefit to immigration—such as the fact that it brings in new people to the economy, new workers who help it to grow, new blood to help replace the old blood in the civics centers, where disillusioned generations, spoiled of the American Dream, exit en masse generation after generation (Vallejo, 2012). This paper will explore the costs and benefits of legal and illegal immigration to the U.S.
As Vallejo (2012) shows, Mexican immigrants are one example of foreigners who seek a pathway to citizenship and who are typically more “civically active” (p. 22) than their white American counterparts just to demonstrate their care and concern for the community that they have entered into. Immigrants to America tend to be economically driven and in order to make their mark and be accepted into American society, they realize they must work hard and succeed. This is true for legal immigrants as well as for illegal immigrants in many cases (Vallejo, 2012), though politically speaking, Republicans and Democrats differ as to the extent that this is true for illegal immigrants, what with President Trump representing illegal immigrants as murderers, thugs, and rapists, while Democrats represent them as Dreamers who have come to the U.S. to succeed (Everett, 2018).
Legal immigrants can also bring new and innovative ideas to America. This was the case following WWII, when a host of German immigrants came to the U.S. They were scientists and artists and industrialists—and they brought with them many new ideas and products that helped the American economy to expand and grow. Germans were despised by Americans before the war—but after the war, they were viewed with great esteem as the German immigrants helped to give the American economy a boost in several industries. This was somewhat similar to what happened with the Bracero Program during the War, when Mexican immigrants were allowed into America in order to work the fields and keep up the economy while American soldiers were fighting the in the war: “By using guest workers, the Bracero Program enabled the U.S. government to solve the problem of labor shortages while maintaining control over immigration” (Zhao, 2016). This arrangement benefited both Mexicans and Americans economically speaking—but it too came with a cost, as the when the program ended, the Mexicans were expected to leave once their contract was up. They had gotten a taste of American life, however, and wanted to stay—and many did. That began a relationship in which small business owners sought to exploit the cheap labor offered by illegal immigrants: “Anglo growers used race as a line of division within class blocs to ensure themselves a steady and cheap supply of Mexican immigrant labor” (Mmize & Swords, 2011, p. 30)—which brings up the other benefit of immigration—illegal immigration, that is: cheap labor for those willing to exploit the undocumented status of illegal immigrants.
Employers who seek to benefit from low wages for employees like to see immigrants apply for jobs—usually illegal immigrants because they know they will take under-the-table pay so as to avoid documentation trails (and taxes—which is a cost on the overall economy, since illegal immigrants do not pay income tax if they are being paid under the table).
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So for some small business owners (especially those in construction), the benefit of illegal immigration is that it allows the owner to put more money into his own pocket. Uncle Sam, however, is stiffed—and that is that main cost that has to be considered when discussing immigration.
The costs of legal and illegal immigration are much harder to quantify or measure, as there are various perspectives that can be used to approach the issue: “For example, when respondents were asked specifically about jobs created and lost because of immigration, one poll found that 51 percent of those surveyed said they believe that immigrants take jobs away from native-born workers. However, 86 percent believe that immigrants are hard workers, and 61 percent think immigrants create jobs and set up new businesses” (West, 2010, p. 9). The discrepancy in viewpoint is not really that hard to understand given the fact that there are so many different types of immigrants (legal and illegal), so the impressions that people have of them vary considerably. The economic models used to measure the impact of immigrants on the U.S. also vary—mainly because “immigrants represent one-tenth of the overall American population, so the tremendous variety of ages, life situations, and economic circumstances makes
modeling their impact challenging” (West, 2010, p. 9).
There is, all the same, a general rule that is applied when using the economic models to measure the cost of immigration in America. This rule states that “typically, younger immigrants with school-age children or older immigrants who draw on health care and pensions cost the most, while young people with no children and middle-aged households with children past education age but with members who do not yet require considerable health or pension services cost the least” (West, 2010, p. 9). In other words, immigrants who obtain health care coverage because they are poor or who receive any type of welfare package from the American government represent a cost, while older immigrants who have good jobs and earn their way represent a benefit. That, at least, is how politicians tend to spin it. Republicans, for instance, will point out the costs that immigrants place on the American economy, while Democrats will point to the benefits and the fact that many immigrant families add more to American society both culturally and economically than they take out of it. This political divide is what helps to cast this issue in such polarizing terms. Getting a better sense of the economic reality of the situation, however, can help to clarify the issue.
The economic reality of immigration is that there is no easy way to compartmentalize it. Republicans and Democrats tend to turn the issue into talking points so that they can rally their respective bases—but the reality is far more complex than talking points can do it justice. Research indicates, for example, that most immigrants come to America when they are of working age and thus are more likely to pay taxes and are “not drawing extensively on public pensions or health care” (West, 2010, p. 10). The numbers indicate that this is true—“24.6 percent of adult immigrants are aged 25 to 34 and 28.3 percent are 35 to 44 years old. Only 4.4 percent are 65 years or older” and thus in a position to receive Medicaid (West, 2010, p. 10).
When it comes to illegal immigrants, most of them cannot obtain federal welfare because of their undocumented status. However, federal law does place certain regulations on states and obliges them to provide basic services for all people regardless of their immigration status as part of the policy of the states participating in the federal programs: “Various court decisions also restrict the authority of state and local governments to avoid or constrain the cost of providing services to unauthorized immigrants who reside in their jurisdictions”—in other words, states and cities are obligated to provide health care, education and law enforcement for illegal immigrants if they reside within their jurisdiction (Congressional Budget Office, 2007, p.….....
Camarota, S. (2013). The fiscal and economic impact of immigration on the United States. Retrieved from https://cis.org/Testimony/Fiscal-and-Economic-Impact-Immigration-United-States
Congressional Budget Office. (2007). The impact of unauthorized immigrants on the budgets of state and local governments. Retrieved from https://www.cbo.gov/sites/default/files/110th-congress-2007-2008/reports/12-6-immigration.pdf
Everett, B. (2018). Coming soon: Another showdown over Dreamers in Congress. Retrieved from https://www.politico.com/story/2018/02/21/daca-dreamers-congress-republicans-trump-417427
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Suarez-Orozco, C., Rhodes, J., & Milburn, M. (2009). Unraveling the immigrant paradox: Academic engagement and disengagement among recently arrived immigrant youth. Youth & Society, 41(2), 151-185.
Vallejo, J. (2012). Barrios to Burbs. CA: Stanford University Pres.
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Zhao, X. (2016). Immigration to the United States after 1945. Retrieved from http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-72