Why Illegal Aliens Are Hard on America and Why an Amnesty Will Not Help

A Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives — one of the few that might actually capture a GOP seat — phoned the other day to talk about immigration policy. Having once been in his shoes (long ago I was the Democratic candidate for the U.S. House in a GOP district), we talked for a while, and I told him I would expand on my views in writing. Hence this letter:

Dear Candidate:

Too many of us in the Democratic Party appear to be deaf to the feelings of the multitude of non-elite Americans on the question of immigration control.

Too many of us have been soaked in the atmosphere of the Establishment, whose views of immigration policy are often dominant in policymaking, but whose views do not mesh with the silent majority, including probably a majority of those voting in your district.

This Establishment approaches immigration policy with a number of unacknowledged limitations:

  1. The individuals in it live in enough affluence that they are unaware of the adverse impacts of the illegal aliens; their streets are not crowded with the poor; their kids don’t need teenage jobs, so they need not worry about competition from eager migrant workers; and they do not live in apartments in which there are clearly too many people living upstairs.
  2. These individuals identify with either corporate or university America, where prosperity and One-Worldism shapes the conversation, not the plight of nearly 20 million unemployed Americans.
  3. Further, the members of the Establishment live in social circles where it is politically incorrect to even consider the possibility that migrants might be a mixed blessing.

Further, folks in the Establishment, privileged as they are, tend to farm out their thinking on these subjects to the media, which, in turn, does very little research digging and spends much of its time and energies dealing with immigration policy as a symphony of symbols, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Grandma from Minsk, and the like, when a little labor economics and number-crunching would be more in order.

With those thoughts in mind let me, a life-long liberal Democrat who is married to a child of, and a grandchild of, immigrants, suggest some ways to think about these matters.

It Is a Matter of Numbers and of Legal Status

Illegal aliens are a problem for three reasons, none of which relate to their ethnicity:

  1. There are something like 11 million of them, and they have major negative impacts on both the lower and middle portions of the labor market and on the environment; also, they, as a group, rarely make a net positive contribution to government finances.

    They are here without our permission, are in dire economic straits, and are likely to be exploited. Since there are so many of them, their very presence depresses wages and working conditions for other workers with minimal human capital, such as the less-educated, minorities of all kinds, and, though this is rarely recognized, the disabled.

    Since they have so few options they work “hard and scared” as Roy Marshall, a labor economist, a Democrat, and one-time U.S. Secretary of Labor often said. Given this pattern, many greedy employers prefer them to other groups of workers. Their illegal status creates the kind of working conditions and wages that, in turn, shape the jobs “no Americans will take” that you hear so much about.

    We are operating in the loosest labor market since the Great Depression; illegal aliens make it more so. Lowering their numbers would help low-income citizens and legal immigrants.

  2. Regarding the environment, the illegal newcomers, totally understandably, start to act like Americans soon after their arrival, creating added pressures on our infrastructure and on the Earth. Had they stayed in the developing world, they would have had much less impact on the globe.
  3. Finally, though some may be making mild contributions to the Social Security trust fund, they are largely a very low-income population, with more than their share of exemptions (otherwise known as children) and are — to an extent not realized by most — a drain on the Treasury. For an example of that, see this report of mine on the additional child tax credit program, an obscure part of our tax system that is badly abused by many illegals.

    Further, a major part of these aliens’ income is sent — untaxed, usually — off to other nations. The World Bank says that remittances from the United States ran over $51 billion a year in 2011; that money would be better for America had it stayed in this country, needless to say. (The Establishment argument, of course, is that it is helpful to labor-exporting nations, such as Mexico, which is of course true — but then you are not running for a seat in the Mexican Congress.)

Would an Amnesty Help?

For the individual lawbreakers, yes, it would be helpful, but for America generally, not at all.

Why is this the case?

There are two main reasons why amnesty would not help this nation.

First, the immediate impact of an amnesty would do nothing for the numbers variable. We clearly have something like 20 million people of working-age who are not working, and millions more who are working part-time and want full-time employment. Giving legal status to millions of currently illegal aliens will do nothing for our own unemployed citizens and green card holders.

Second, amnesties in fact encourage further illegal immigration. We learned that clearly in the 1980’s when the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) played out. That amnesty brought three million more people into legal status, but the promised enforcement aspect of that law — which the Ford Foundation asked me to evaluate — did not really happen. This was (and is, nominally) employer sanctions.

Seeing this situation through realistic eyes, would-be illegal aliens soon started heading to the United States, knowing that once past the border enforcement is pretty toothless and there might be another amnesty in the future. (Some illegals know another usually un-noticed truth: about half the million new “immigrants” each year are not new migrants at all, they are people who “adjust” from nonimmigrant or illegal status to legal status while remaining in the United States. They do so under continuing law, not through a special amnesty.)

So What Should We Do Now?

Pro-amnesty forces, egged on and partially financed by big business that profits so from the low-wage structure, say “But we can’t simply deport 11 million people!”

Of course, but that’s a straw man argument. No one is suggesting anything like that. What is missing is recognition of the real nature of the illegal migrant population, which is constantly coming and going. What is needed is a strong set of controls to keep illegal arrivals down, while aiding and abetting the continued flow of illegals out of the United States. Too many people just see the migrants coming to the border, but never notice that illegal aliens also leave that status by:

  • Returning home,
  • Moving on to other nations,
  • Becoming legalized under existing law, and, for a few,
  • Dying.

For a short discussion of this fundamental notion, please see this illustrated piece of mine.

The appropriate techniques for limiting the number of illegal entries, and for discouraging people from staying illegally — including cutting off some of generally hidden subsidies to stay — are covered in a report by a colleague of mine, Jessica Vaughan.

I think that’s enough for one day. Your time is limited.

Thank you very much for asking my opinion on this thorny subject. If you would like more on, specifically, the troubling influx of Central Americans, just ask!

Best of luck in the campaign.

David North (the Democratic Party’s one-time candidate in New Jersey’s 5th CD)

SOURCE: Center for Immigration Studies

Mr. North, a Fellow of the Center for Immigration Studies, is an internationally recognized authority on immigration policy. His concentration is predominantly on the interaction between immigration and domestic systems, such as education and labor markets. See his blog here.