The July 2007 Immigration Bill brought along with it unexpected levels of controversy and public interest. Public passion overflowed so heavily on this issue that oppositional phone calls to Congressional offices crashed the switchboard. In the face of such concerted opposition, no amount of private deals or legislative maneuvering could protect the legislation. However, while some may proclaim victory because the “people have spoken,” the issues underlying the legislation remain. These problems necessitate another attempt at immigration reform, and it will likely come sooner than expected.
Matthew Spalding, Director of the Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, argues that proponents of the Immigration bill presented the public with a “false choice” between amnesty and massive deportations. This all or nothing perspective ignored the complexity of the immigration issue. In reality, the institutional inadequacies highlighted by this crisis permeate every sector of American life: health care, education, prisons, employment, ethics, and the rule of law. Neither mass deportations nor amnesty offer a long-term solution to these problems.
Proponents who frame the immigration debate in terms of consumer benefit often argue that illegal immigrants perform jobs which Americans won’t do. Hypothetically, this cheap labor ensures the continued availability of bargain produce and affordable home cleaning services. However, such characterizations sidestep the actual costs of illegal immigration. James Carafano, Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, notes that Americans are not actually receiving cheaper produce by utilizing underpaid illegal workers. He argues that Americans receive “subsidized lettuce” stuffed with the hidden costs of “emergency room care,” public education, and “incarcerating criminal aliens.” Reducing illegal labor could normalize the costs of these services, allowing Americans to perceive the true cost of goods, and shift a larger proportion of costs back onto producers.
According to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), undereducated illegal immigrants will cost the American taxpayer $89,000 throughout their lifetime. Contrary to the rhetoric, most illegal aliens don’t pay income taxes because of their low wages, and those eligible for social security would receive approximately $100,000 in benefits if allowed to stay. With 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants eligible for amnesty, these costs could exceed $3.78 billion.
Enforcement alone seems insufficient to fix immigration woes. According to a new study by the Center for Data Analysis at the Heritage Foundation, reducing the current number of illegal laborers by 50% and reducing illegal border crossings by 60% percent would produce a temporary wage increase for American workers. The resulting labor shortage could cost the American public 2.5 million jobs and reduce the nation’s GDP by $171 billion annually. While the American economy may not be reliant on cheap illegal labor, it is reliant on the influx of human capital and ideas. Increasing enforcement while reforming legal immigration could attract many educated, talented workers whose goal is to make a prosperous America their home. And they may actually respect our laws and pay their taxes.
Bethany Stotts is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.