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By Brittany Keegan
April 7, 2017
Immigration can be a divisive topic, with some embracing globalization and others preferring a more nationalist approach. This issue is particularly contentious when considering irregular migrants, or those who live and work in a country without the required documents and authorization (sometimes referred to as “undocumented” or “illegal” migrants). As the United States continues its transition from one presidential administration to another, and as citizens and politicians seek solutions to policy issues over which they disagree, it will be crucial to first identify common ground. This essay does not aim to take sides on the issue of irregular migration, but rather to examine key arguments and proposals, debunk common myths and offer policy suggestions that consider all perspectives. By seeking common ground, perhaps a bipartisan consensus may be reached.
Concerns regarding irregular migration
With irregular migrants making up five percent of the American labor force, economic issues are a primary concern. Many worry irregular migrants, who tend to hold lower-skilled jobs, will “take” jobs that could be held by native-born workers and documented immigrants. There is also the concern irregular migrants will accept lower wages, thereby driving down wages for industries as a whole. According to a 2013 report from the Center for Immigration Studies, irregular migration decreased wages of native-born workers while creating gains for businesses. Also related to economic concerns is the issue of taxation, with some questioning if irregular migrants are using services without paying their fair share.
Security-related concerns also arise. Many worry open borders and a lack of documentation on newcomers can pose a risk to the United States. Others worry about a loss of American culture.
Contributions made by irregular migrants
Just as arguments disparaging irregular migrants focus on economics, security and culture, arguments in favor shows ways in which irregular migrants benefit, or at least do not pose a threat to, these areas.
For example, irregular migrants do pay taxes. The Revenue Act of 2013 mandates non-American citizens living in the United States, regardless of documentation status, must pay income taxes. According to Francine Lipman, irregular migrants have paid “hundreds of billions, or perhaps trillions of dollars in federal, state and local taxes” and are expected to contribute approximately $611 billion to social security by 2082. Irregular migrants also pay sales taxes, excise taxes and property taxes, and their lower income levels means much of their income goes back into the economy through their purchases. In fact, they tend to pay a higher percentage in consumption taxes than those who are native-born.
Regarding security concerns, research has indicated immigrants are less likely than native-born citizens to commit a crime or to be imprisoned. There are also social benefits that come with migration. These are generally harder to measure than economic benefits, though in general the diversity brought by migrants leads to stronger communities. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, 40 percent of those surveyed felt immigrants made food, music and arts in their community better, while 46 percent felt that immigrants had no effect. Only nine percent felt immigrants had made food, music and arts in their community worse.
How can we move forward together?
Some are in favor of mass deportation, yet past attempts at this have had negative impacts on all involved. In 2007, for example, Arizona saw a labor shortage and had its economy shrink by two percent following a crackdown on irregular migration. Wages did increase, but no more than in nearby states. Because of this, and because of the many contributions made by irregular migrants, perhaps work permits or a path to citizenship may be more successful options.
Addressing economic concerns, particularly wage issues, will play a key role in determining if a bipartisan consensus can be reached. Darrell West suggests governmental policies that promote the benefits of migration while alleviating fears will be the best option. Similarly, Lipman suggests policies guaranteeing jobs for native-born workers while still allowing opportunities for migrants may partially alleviate concerns.
To address social and cultural concerns, some companies have found success through practices aiming to integrate their non-native workers. These integration practices include English classes, having employers learn key phrases in the native language of their employees and hiring and promoting bilingual staff. McDonald’s, for example, has implemented an English Under the Arches program that provided English lessons to employees. Integration efforts may also take place in schools, as children of migrants receive language and cultural integration while sharing their cultural background with classmates. Many nonprofit and faith-based organizations also provide integration services. Rather than depending on the government only, all three sectors – public, private and voluntary – can work to address this issue.
There is not a simple answer as to how irregular migration should be addressed, but there is common ground. By working to promote the economic, social, and cultural well-being of all involved, we can increase chances of finding a bipartisan solution.
Author: Brittany Keegan is a Ph.D. student at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. Research interests include conflict studies, nonprofit organizations, immigration policy, and gender-based violence. [email protected]