Our hidden population
The Bush administration began cracking down on illegal immigration after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But many state and local governments are now granting aliens new rights. Does the U.S. have a coherent immigration policy?
How many illegal immigrants are there?More than 8 millionand the number grows by a half million every year. The population of illegal aliens in the U.S. more than doubled in the 1990s, the biggest increase in the nations history. Most came over the border from Mexico, looking for work in border states. In recent years, though, undocumented workers have spread across the country according to a clear pattern, says Jeffrey Passel, an immigration expert at the Urban Institute. The pioneer immigrant leaves Mexico and goes to California, he says. After a while, he goes to Iowa, and gets a job in a pork-processing plant. He sends word to Mexico that, hey, there are jobs here.
How did all those people get here?Forty percent of the nations illegal immigrants arrive with visas valid for temporary stays. When the documents expire, they simply melt into populous cities and suburbs, invisible to immigration authorities. The other 60 percent mostly enter the country by slipping over the Mexican or Canadian border, or by boat from the Caribbean. Immigration authorities have 10,000 agents working to stem the flow along the most popular routes from Mexico, but its almost impossible to close off 2,000 miles of border. The border with Canada is 5,000 miles long. Once you make it past the Border Patrol, says Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), you are home free.
Cant the government do anything about it?The biggest obstacle is tracking down illegal immigrants. The U.S. does manage to kick out 150,000 to 180,000 foreign nationals every year. Most of these are caught only because they take no steps to elude the government when their visas expire. Others land in the governments lap when theyre arrested on some criminal charge. After Sept. 11, the Bush administration spent $10 million to round up and deport nearly 400,000 people with expired visas, focusing first on people from 33 Middle Eastern, African, and Asian countries considered to be havens for terrorists. The U.S. deported 75 percent more undocumented Arabs and Muslims last year than the year before. But people from the Middle East still make up a small percentage of those booted out. The largest number of deportees are from Mexico.
Why not let them stay?One argument is that illegal aliens are a burden on taxpayers. Illegals pay no taxes on their income, yet use schools, health care, and other services. The Center for Immigration Studies has calculated that one illegal immigrant can end up costing the government $55,200 over a lifetime. Also, the average Mexican worker makes only 10 percent of what the average American does. Labor unions complain that illegal workers often accept sub-union wages and poor working conditions. That, union officials say, drives down wages for citizens who work in the same industry. It creates an underclass, a secret class where they can be exploited, says Roy Beck of NumbersUSA, an immigration-control group. And that creates exploitation for American workers.
Then why not kick out all illegals?We cant afford to. Our economy would tank, says Theresa Cardinal Brown of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Foreign-born workers provide crucial cheap labor for farming, restaurants, construction, and numerous other industries and small businesses. By driving down costs and boosting profits, illegal immigrants pump about $10 billion into the economy every yearwith many cost savings being passed on to consumers. Advocates say its also an issue of fundamental humanity: Illegals, they say, are simply hardworking people pursuing the American dreamtrying to make a better life for themselves and their families.
Do they have any rights?Illegal immigrants cant vote, but they share most of the rights that citizens enjoy. They can even receive welfare, provided they have a child born in the U.S. A 1982 Supreme Court decision said that their children could attend public schools. The federal Emergency Medical Act guarantees them emergency-room treatment. In California, they receive the same protections that citizens enjoy under state labor lawa minimum wage of $6.75 per hour and overtime pay for more than 40 hours of work in a week. Gov. Gray Davis expanded the rights of illegal residents last month by signing a law permitting them to get a state drivers license. In New York City, another prime immigrant destination, Mayor Michael Bloomberg last month proclaimed the city a safe haven for aliens, promising that public employees would not ask about their status, and would never turn in anyone to immigration authorities.
Why help people who break the law?Politics. Thirty-three million American citizens, out of a population of 288 million, were born in a foreign country. Millions more have immigrant parents. Politicians who crack down on illegal immigrants run the risk of angering this huge pool of potential voters, and losing their support. The government also risks a clash with another powerhouse, corporate America, if it tries to punish businesses that depend on illegal immigrants as a reliable source of cheap labor. All this adds up to intense pressure on immigration authorities to look the other wayat the same time that many politicians are demanding that they seal off the nations porous borders. No matter what we do, says one immigration official in Arizona, we piss half the people off.
The Mexican tide