Illegal Immigration: Boon or Bugaboo?

The thorny issue of the undocumented flushes out all manner of public opinion

By Fernando Oaxaca
Published on LatinoLA: January 9, 2004

Illegal Immigration: Boon or Bugaboo?

The White House has just announced that the Bush Administration is homing in on new initiatives to address the thorny issue of illegal immigration. This news has flushed out all manner of xenophobes, jingoistic conservatives, amnesty advocates, perennial liberal malcontents promoting ''open borders,'' business lobbyists, Hispanic ''immigrant rights'' defenders, and a coterie of pundits across the land, many unburdened by extensive knowledge of the subject.

Nobody quarrels with some basic facts or assumptions on the matter. There are somewhere around 8 to 10 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. If they are adults, they are mostly working. Of those 8-10 million, 25% or something over 2,000,000 live in California.

Probably 35% to 40% of those employed are part of the underground economy. They receive only cash for their labor and pay no Social Security, Medicare, unemployment, and income or disability taxes. Yet they utilize free health care, social welfare, and other local and federal facilities and programs permitted under the law. Their children, whether born here or abroad, are all eligible for a K-12 free education and most of their kids, when of age, are in school.

The remaining 60% to 65% employed adults use fraudulent or fraudulently obtained work documents, including false Social Security numbers. This group generally has payroll taxes withheld by their employers. They take advantage of the same American taxpayer-funded facilities and programs as the ''cash economy'' group. Moreover, their false documentation also allows many to receive, fraudulently, services and benefits for which illegal immigrants are not eligible.

Other characteristics of the illegal immigrant population now in the U.S. complicate the illegality issue. There are handicaps in fitting favorably into U.S. society that will remain with these people, even if they are legalized by changed immigration laws.

Most tend to have quite limited educational attainment, little English proficiency, and little knowledge of the American system's business, legal, civic, social, and cultural aspects. The vast majority of them have no health insurance and those that drive autos or trucks on U.S. streets seldom are licensed or insured.

Beyond the street-driving milieu, if they damage a citizen's property or person elsewhere, they are probably uninsured and unlikely to accept liability or pay for damages they may cause. Finally, being unidentified, these millions of people have an unknown health status and some undoubtedly have criminal records and perhaps criminal tendencies. Thus, there is a probably limited but real societal danger to the rest of us from diseases that may have been introduced by the illegal entry of some of these people. And one has only to watch the evening TV news or read the local press to appreciate that, again, in real but limited fashion, crime is also being introduced into our society within this illegal population.

In sum, to the xenophobe, these are all undesirables and should be deported yesterday! And that, of course, is a political, practical, inhumane, and social impossibility. Conversely, to do nothing, the policy of the last 15 years, has been counterproductive. What are some other complicating factors on what Fortune Magazine this past week called ''the new third rail.'' immigration?

The practical and political complexity of the illegal immigrant problem Mr. Bush and some congressmen are addressing--is almost forbidding. Millions of people are in our country that we cannot identify, locate, or deal with as compared to other Americans that are native-born or legal residents. Some of these unidentified aliens may even constitute a danger to our national security, especially in the post 9/11 era.

In a positive vein, many of these millions of people do indeed contribute to our GDP, providing important services at reasonably low labor cost. Californians in particular will admit that their agricultural industry, the tourism and hotel and restaurant industry, and a raft of service areas would wither without relatively cheap illegal labor. Comparable economic contributions by this undocumented labor force to local economies can now be found in many states, all across the land.

Yet, in their totality, the illegal work force members and their children probably cost local and federal taxpayers untold billions of dollars annually. This is true especially in view of these workers' large presence in the non-taxpaying underground cash economy. Then there is the leakage from the GDP of many billions of dollars which the illegal workers earn but don't spend in the U.S. Instead, they send these dollars to their home country as remittances ($14 billion to Mexico in 2003). This share of their ''production'' must then be subtracted from their contribution to the American economy.

In fairness, though, only imprecise numbers exist for immigrant contributions versus taxpayer costs. And one could consider the cheaper labor cost of illegal labor as a subsidy to local economies, paid for by taxes for services to these workers. The local gross product is increased by this less expensive labor and local businesses profitability is thus enhanced. But taxes must be spent for services these people require but which they cannot afford, given their low wages.

That is a tax subsidy to these businesses--no matter what one calls it! Yet, somehow the system works.

Now the White House, courageously, or in a rare act of foolish politics, has launched an effort to attack this very complex illegal problem. The nature and content of the Bush proposed program is still unknown but it is expected to involve some elements of guest worker projects, perhaps limited group amnesties, so-called ''earned'' immigration status adjustment based on working for varying periods of years, dealing with the ID issue and the false Social Security number problem, managing the dollars paid into the SSA system by workers not slated for permanent residency, etc.

The conventional wisdom and reaction to Mr. Bush's plans being expressed thus far, both by media and their assorted scribes, as well as by pro-immigrant special interest groups, is that President Bush is merely a world-class panderer as he proceeds with possible immigration law changes. The media interests generally accuse Mr. Bush of pandering to the Latino electorate, simplistically assuming that all Latino voters are pro-immigrant, pro-amnesty chauvinistic robots.

Reporters and opinion writers generally commit the felony of assuming that all U.S. Latinos, regardless of where they reside, or their national origin or place of birth, will react as voters in some homogenous bloc! By writing of this bloc they thus promote only their ''Bush panders to Latinos'' theory, thereby denying any humanistic or problem-solving motivation to the President. Further, nobody seems to recognize that Latinos most likely to vote for Mr. Bush, Republican or not, are conservative, law-abiding, hard-working, patriotic, middle-class people. They are not automatically supportive of their taxes going for free services to people not entitled to them. Nor are they likely to approve of the flaunting of immigration laws by anybody, be it an irresponsible employer or an illegal employee. Finally, they certainly feel no obligation whatsoever to keep Mexico or its president, Vicente Fox, content and satisfied with how we set immigration policy!

As to the ''immigrant rights'' cabal, its response to the news of an Administration immigration initiative is what might be expected regarding anything coming from Mr. Bush. These people are cynical and not substantive in their comments. Worse, they express no recognition that the previous administration did nothing for eight years about the illegal question other than to spend billions making our border with Mexico ostensibly less penetrable by aliens--though the net effect on illegal entries was almost nil.

Arguably, that ineffective effort to stop illegal entries, probably led to the hundreds of border deaths of desperate immigrants thwarted by the closing of their normal entry points near border cities. The tighter controls near border cities forced them to try entering the U.S. via blazing deserts in summer or snow covered mountains in winter. It also led to the proliferation of greedy and unprincipled ''coyotes'' that supposedly knew how to guide frustrated immigrants past the new Clintonian barriers--for a heavy price.

Ironically, these immigrant ''human rights'' activists at LULAC, the National Council of La Raza, MALDEF, etc. have tried to place the rap for border crossing deaths on the current administration's stewardship of border security. At the same time, they will not credit the Bush White House for daring to propose ideas, possibly imperfect or limited, but which offer alternatives other than taking the illegal route, to aliens wishing to leave Mexico.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) offered this unenthusiastic and near negative reaction to the White House announcement, ''If proposals that give Hispanic immigrants more rights are enacted, it will certainly help with the community, but if it is just a guest worker program and no legalization, then the community is not going to like it.'' This veiled but toothless threat by Brent Wilkes, national executive director of LULAC, puts forth the same false idea promulgated by the media that all Latinos think alike on the subject of immigration.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), as usual, proposes politically charged public policy far beyond its civil rights charter. Katherine Culliton, a MALDEF attorney, said her group and many others want Bush ''to provide a way for currently illegal immigrant workers to become eligible for legal permanent residence after a certain period of work,'' i.e. eventual amnesty for everybody! How this would be implemented for 10,000,000 people of varying nationalities and characteristics scattered across the U.S. and how the monetary and economic cost of such an effort would be handled and how long it would take--MALDEF did not bother to postulate.

Perhaps the most surly reaction to the possible Bush initiative and its thus-far unrevealed principles and details came from the National Council of La Raza (NCLR.) Its perennially prickly Washington policy spear-carrier, Cecilia Mu?oz, said cynically: ''It looks very much like a political effort and what they do with these 'principles' is going to determine whether this is really a policy initiative or not.'' Munoz is the long-term vice-president for policy at NCLR.

Presumably speaking for 35,000,000 Hispanics, she went on, unfazed: ''The Latino community knows the difference between political posturing and a real policy debate.'' Not telling reporters how she knew, she then said the initiative was crafted by Bush's political strategist, Karl Rove, and key people and groups were excluded from the deliberations.

''We know of no one in the immigration policy community, business groups, or Latino groups who has been consulted,'' the non-profit's spokesperson said. Obviously, this was a not well-hidden complaint that she had not been consulted by the Bush people. NCLR has been an inveterate and at times virulent critic of Bush policies since he took office. One need not wonder too much why the views of these members were not aggressively sought out by the White House!

There is one other special situation around this Bush initiative. Next week Mr. Bush attends the Summit of the Americas in Monterey, Mexico, and a special meeting with President Vicente Fox is planned by President Bush while there. The subject, among others, is immigration. This meeting of the two chief executives will perhaps help shape some aspects of the final Bush immigration proposals. The next few weeks will be vital for administration action in this arena and for subsequent talks with congressional interests.

Summarizing this limited and undoubtedly incomplete sweep of the immigration conundrum as of the beginning of this election year, the following four basic principles are offered for formulating the Bush immigration initiative and the inevitable congressional changes to come. We ordinary citizens might judge what our leaders are planning for us by looking for satisfaction of the following:

NATIONAL SECURITY--Nothing in proposed legislation or resulting rules or regulations shall compromise or place in question the integrity of our national security. Every effort will be made to correct loopholes or enhance current law for positive impact on national security. (We are still at war; our national safety and welfare must always come before that of any individuals, particularly aliens!)

CITIZENSHIP--Any person being granted permanent legal residence under the new law shall commit within six years of reaching legal status to apply for and follow-through to become a citizen of the United States. Failure to do so within the allotted time shall be grounds for revocation of legal resident status and render that person subject to deportation. (If you are going to live here and benefit from it, you must commit to the responsibility and national loyalty of American citizenship!)

COST--The new legislation must be designed so as to result in a net positive budgetary impact on federal, state, or local governments from any action benefiting aliens under the new law. No required action or requirement from implementation or enforcement of the new law shall result in the need for individual or corporate tax increases at any governmental level. (Rewarding those who broke our laws and now are allowed to live here without fear of deportation must not cost the taxpayer one dime!)

U.S. NATIONAL INTEREST--Any aspect of the legislation designed to deal uniquely with relations with or conditions in a particular immigrant-sending foreign nation shall be designed so as to assure that the interests of the United States emerge as paramount in any resulting implementation. (Whatever we do, the U.S. must come out ahead on the deal in any international transaction on immigration policy!)

In a subsequent article, a special examination will be made of the unique situation involving illegal immigrants in California. Lou Dobbs of CNN in a recent column said, ''A full 25% of Mexico's able-bodied male workforce already resides in the U.S.--with or without official documentation.'' Mr. Dobbs, a very vocal enemy of illegal immigration, may be exaggerating but there is no question that the vast majority of new illegal entries and of current illegal population in California is Mexican.

The shape of the new Bush immigration initiative might use California as a model for optimizing its design. If California survives or emerges from the new immigration proposal with a positive and improved outcome, budgetary and social, the initiative can be considered a success. Like it or not, the interface with Mexico, its economy, and its internal population profile will affect the economy and internal population profile of California for many years to come. These matters and how the above four proposed basic principles apply for the new legislation, vis-a-vis Mexico, will also be discussed in a forthcoming article.

About Fernando Oaxaca:
Fernando Oaxaca is a long-term conservative and community activist in Los Angeles. He receives e-mail at:

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