COHA Opinion: Hardline Immigration Reform – Misconceptions and National Identity

Arizona’s current crackdown on illegal immigrants has ignited a heated national legal debate –recent federal, state, and local initiatives have been moving in a more restrictive direction. Even in the “blue” state of Massachusetts, a bill proposing stricter limitations on illegal immigrants’ employment rights, as well as tightened standards for tuition benefits, along with more difficult access to subsidized housing, had received widespread popular support before such steps were reined in by the state legislature.1 The most common explanation given for these policy initiatives is that illegal immigrants drain the U.S. economy of public resources while, at the same time, contributing to increased crime and drug afflictions. However, scant evidence supports these claims. In fact, most specialists insist that the U.S. economy as a whole benefits from the inflow of labor, while perceived increases in crime levels that can be traced to immigration are almost always overblown. The main reason for anti-illegal-immigrant policies is usually nothing more than a boost of xenophobic fears resulting from a rapidly changing U.S. national identity. This is an attitude that must change if this country is to remain globally competitive and united in diversity.

A close look at globalization trends and U.S. tax statistics shows that illegal immigrants actually help boost the U.S. economy. Free-market economist Benjamin Powell2 explains that international migrant labor works much like international trade. By allowing illegal immigrants to specialize in jobs in which they have a comparative advantage, Washington could be creating opportunities for American nationals to pursue more advanced professions for which they are more qualified. This division of labor creates greater economic output for everyone: even if wages for blue collar sectors were kept high, without these undocumented immigrants, far fewer of these jobs would actually be available for U.S. nationals, since businesses would tend to outsource jobs overseas for greater profit. Taxation concerns are also magnified: illegal immigrants pay sales taxes yet get no benefits, and many also pay federal income taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). Users of this Social Security Number alternative (primarily presumed to be undocumented) have increased in number from 615,414 in 1999 to 1,837,583 in 2009.3 Undocumented workers’ use of public services would further be balanced out if they were legalized and able to pay state income taxes.


Immigrant crime is almost certainly more hype than fact: a number of studies show no correlation between illegal immigration and crime rates in the United States.4 Drug cartels, gang violence, and human trafficking all pose significant threats along both sides of the border, with Latin American drugs heading north as well as U.S. weapons heading south.5 However, as Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano explained in a June 23, 2010 press conference, the U.S. – Mexico border is more secure today than it ever has been. She also has acknowledged that fully sealing the border to the United States’ third largest trading partner is both impossible and impractical.

As of 2005, undocumented immigrants made up approximately 17% of cleaning, 14% of construction, and 12% of food preparation workers across the U.S.6 Meanwhile, the H-2B Visa cap for such jobs, set at 66,000 per fiscal year, continues to be reached almost immediately.7 Due to this gap between labor demand and legal restrictions, many migrating job-seekers resort to smuggling networks. The U.S. can help sever this connection by adjusting quotas and legalizing the undocumented, permitting Border Patrol personnel, as well as local law enforcement agencies, to tackle violent criminals more effectively.

U.S. society is part of an interconnected world in which labor and crime transcend political boundaries. This reality reflects in the increasingly pluralistic makeup of America’s population. The fundamental, though often denied, reason for today’s immigration-borne anxiety is the prospect of Anglo-Saxon Americans becoming a permanent linguistic and cultural minority. Many “restrictionists” have been calling for a national “English-only” policy, and Kentucky’s Republican candidate for Senate Rand Paul and Senator Russell Pearce (R-AZ)8 have both spoken against automatic citizenship for U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants, a proposition that would require repealing the 14th Amendment. America is at a tipping point—it can either wholeheartedly attempt to foster economically beneficial multiculturalism or redefine citizenship on the basis of national heritage. The best choice is clear: openness to immigration and diversity has allowed this country to become great. Being a magnet for the world’s brightest and most hard-working represents the United States’ greatest strength, and it must continue to embrace this tradition along with the diversity it entails.

References for this article are available here.