Since the United began keeping count of the number of legal immigrants, approximately 70 million authorized migrants have entered the nation. Through out that history, a number of illegal, or simply put, unauthorized immigrants have also entered the country to stay more or less permanently. The flow of illegal immigrants became accelerated in the 1970s, and their numbers are at today. The current number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. stands at 10.5 to 11 million (Haines & Rosenblum, 1999).
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The presence of the illegal immigrants, commonly known as illegal aliens, is such massive numbers has brought the issue of illegal immigration to the limelight of the U.S. political scene, to the halls of Congress, and to the public policy agenda of almost all levels of government. This is a positional essay that examines whether illegal immigrants really cause many social problems, or it is a case of exaggerated fears by Americans.
Unauthorized immigration fundamentally entails two categories of migration to the U.S. that qualify as illegal. One of the categories is that of the undocumented, or popularly known as ‘illegal immigrant’ who enters the country without paperwork or authorization. This occurs mainly in the southern border with Mexico (Michael & Barkan, 1999). The second category is that of the visa ‘over-stayer’, or the migrant who enters the country with a valid but temporary visa, and then goes underground staying beyond the terms of the visa.
Since visa over-stayers initially enter the country with valid paperwork, they do so from the north – from Canada—and at the different ports entry all over the nation. Apart from these two categories, a person may become an illegal immigrant to the U.S. is by entering the country with fraudulent documents. Lastly, an illegal alien may be a person who, as a legal permanent resident, committed a crime after entry, became subject to deportation, but then failed to depart.
Of the estimated 10.5 to 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., about 60 percent are undocumented immigrants, while 40 percent are ‘over-stayers’, fraudulent entrants, or persons failing to depart (Levy, 2010).
Legal immigration policy for the U.S. today is established by the Act of October 3, 1965: Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 (Michael & Barkan, 1999).
Gaps, flaws, and unanticipated consequences associated with that fundamental law establishing legal immigration policy, and with its subsequent amendments over the years since its passage, form the basis for the nature and scope of the illegal flow. Nevertheless, it is difficult to understand the development of the unauthorized immigration flow without examining the impact of the Bracero Program and its fall in 1964.
The Bracero Program was a type of guest-worker program that allowed U.S. employers to import workers from Mexico on a temporary basis, specifically nine months per annum. The program began in 1942 during the World War II as a means of coping with the severe labor shortages in agriculture occasioned by the massive departure of workers from farms for the high-wage wartime product jobs in the nation’s metropolitan areas. The expanding U.S. economy after the war further necessitated the expansion of the Bracero program.
As a result, Congress enacted the Agricultural Act of 1949, which codified prior laws and provisions for the Bracero Program (Isenburg, 2007). The program ended in 1964 following an agreement to garner support for passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. Even after the passing of the law, hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants who had being coming regularly to the U.S. to work in the Bracero Program continued to come without authorization (Michael & Barkan, 1999).
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimated that 11.6 million illegal immigrants lived in the U.S. as of January 2008 (Levy, 2010). Although, the sheer number is astonishment to many people, the debates about the effects of illegal immigration have been in the public limelight. The major debates have centered on a number of issues. One of the issues that have been hotly debated on media channels is the effects of illegal immigrants on the U.S. economy.
Many people complain that illegal immigrants harm the economy by using social services but not paying taxes. For instance, the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform (CAIR) says that the U.S. spends almost $7.5 billion annually educating the children of illegal immigrants and billions more paying for emergency room services used by illegal immigrants (Yoshida, 2000).
However, there is a contrary opinion to this argument. This is because illegal immigrants make little use of many social services due to fear of discovery. Further, on, they are not eligible for most social services given their controversial citizenship. As evidence to the fact that illegal immigrants pay taxes, Mark Everson, head of Internal Revenue Services (IRS) told Congress in 2006 that illegal immigrants paid almost $55 billion in federal taxes from 1996 to 2004 (Kenney, 2007).
Another perceived effect of illegal immigrants on the U.S. economy is that the unauthorized immigrants take jobs from American workers because they are willing to work for low wages. In addition, it is also argued that illegal immigrants drive down wages due to an increase in the people seeking for jobs. These claims are completely missing the point.
This is because illegal immigrants usually take jobs that Americans would reject. The latter turn down such jobs because they do not pay enough to their sustenance. There is no evidence to support the claim that low wages are linked to a presence of illegal immigrants (Hanson, 2007).
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Since the 9/11 attacks, it has been argued that the U.S. must do everything in its capacity to prevent illegal immigration to protect itself from terrorists. Some claim that open borders are a threat to national security since terrorists may enter the country as illegal immigrants. Proponents of this notion point out that illegal immigration feeds a flourishing trade in forged papers. These documents can help terrorists by easing obtaining of forged passports, visas, and driver’s licenses. This argument lacks basis.
This is because out of the two worst terrorist attacks on American soil, the foreign terrorists responsible for the attacks entered the U.S. legally. This is true of Timothy McVeigh, a U.S. citizen born in the country. McVeigh bombed the Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including children (Levy, 2010). As such, even when the illegal immigration across the Mexican border is closed, this does not imply that the U.S. would be protected from any future terrorist attacks.
In conclusion, it is evident that claims made on the effects of illegal immigration on the American people are, in their making, exaggerated. They are mostly one-sided and overlook the big picture of the issue. In order to address the issues pertaining illegal immigration, if any, there is a need to employ a holistic approach to the problem. Arguments need not be based on half-truths, innuendos, myths, and misconceptions. It is only after deploying an inclusive approach that a lasting solution to the issue will be obtained.
Haines, D. W., & Rosenblum, K. E. (1999). Illegal immigration in America: a reference handbook. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Hanson, G. H. (2007). The economic logic of illegal immigration. Washington, DC: Council on Foreign Relations.
Isenburg, B. T. (2007). Immigration enforcement and policies. New York: Nova Publishers.
Kenney, K. (2007). Illegal Immigration. New York: ABDO.
Levy, J. (2010). Illegal immigration and amnesty: Open borders and national security. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group.
Michael, C. L., & Barkan, E. R. (1999). US immigration and naturalization laws and issues. London: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Yoshida, C. (2000). Illegal immigration and economic welfare. Berlin: Springer.