“What part of illegal don’t you understand?” is a common retort in discussions of what should be done about undocumented workers in industries such as construction. The answer isn’t as clear-cut as it seems.
Illegal immigration is the result of complex economic, legal and political factors that many Americans don’t understand. They’ve had little reason to. Most native-born citizens have had no contact with the complexities of our immigration system.
We didn’t either. Several months ago, we embarked on a project to develop the next topic for the Rational Middle video series. After a successful run examining the complexities, misconceptions, and divisions of America’s energy needs, we wanted a new topic that would provide the same opportunities for understanding and insight.
Immigration, however, provokes deeper, more visceral feelings than solar power or oil pipelines. On one end of the arguments are those who believe all illegal immigrants should be rounded up and sent back to their countries of origin as quickly as possible. On the other are those who believe America doesn’t need to restrict immigration at all. And in the middle are those who recognize the national security concerns of open borders, especially in an age of terrorism, but who also recognize the economic benefits that comes with immigration.
Although our series is called the Rational Middle, it doesn’t mean we simply accepted all these arguments as equally valid. The key word is “rational:” What is the most effective response to today’s immigration problems?
The answer is that doing nothing isn’t an option. While it’s true that existing immigration laws have been poorly enforced, that’s partly because the federal government doesn’t have the money to deport an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, as President George W. Bush noted in 2007. Even attempting to do so would cost somewhere between $200 billion and $300 billion, as Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office, points out in the second segment of our series.
That’s money the government doesn’t have, and no one in Congress is willing to suggest raising taxes to pay for deporting illegal immigrants.
Even with recent attempts to step up deportations — and with the feds’ growing reliance on local law enforcement to assist and help pay for the initial arrests and detentions — the fact is we’re doing little to reduce that 11 million number.
In other words, no amount of big government is going to solve the problem.
The rational approach, then, is to look at an economic solution — not just the economics of enforcement, but also the economics of illegal immigration in general. Myths about illegal immigrants abound — they’re criminals flooding into the country, they’re terrorists, they come here to have babies, they soak up welfare benefits and contribute nothing.
These arguments aren’t supported by the facts. Immigrants commit far fewer crimes per capital than citizens, and from 1975 to 2015, your chances of being killed in a terror attack by an illegal immigrant was more than one in 10 billion. You are far more likely to be killed by lightning, flesh-eating bacteria, road rage or a toddler with a handgun. Most illegal immigrants are men, which casts doubt on the baby argument, and illegal immigrants are not eligible for welfare other than some emergency Medicaid programs. Not only that, the undocumented pay the same sales and property taxes as everyone else, so they are paying for services such as education and health care in the same way many citizens do.
What we found in our research is that illegal immigrants come here mostly in pursuit of economic benefit — jobs. Yet our immigration laws have never been based on economics. For decades, we’ve relied on quota systems that were based on keeping the ratios of immigrants in check within our own country.
But immigrants — both legal and illegal — are vital part of our economy. Shipping all the undocumented home would cost about 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, says Holtz-Eakin, who’s now president of the American Action Forum, a conservative think tank.
Nowhere is this more evident than the construction industry in Texas. Almost two-thirds of the construction workers in Texas are believed to be undocumented, yet the industry still can’t find enough workers to meet demand.
And those demands will only increase as Houston and other Gulf Coast cities rebuild from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.
“What part of illegal don’t you understand?” The part that we didn’t understand before we began work on this project was that for decades the U.S. encouraged immigrants, especially from Mexico. America recruited Mexican farm workers during World War II and wrote policies that encouraged them to stay. Then in 1965, we adopted a law that made hundreds of thousands of those same workers criminals almost overnight. It would be as if the government, after bailing out the automakers, suddenly decided that everyone who drives a Chevrolet is violating law.
Our hope is that the Rational Middle will provide some insight into these and other issues surrounding how America copes with the illegal immigration issue and how it builds a better plan for the future. Immigration has always been America’s source of strength, and it has enabled the country to create a democracy and an economy that is the envy of the world. Fixing the issue is essential to the country’s future.
Watch Episode 1: The Immigrants Promise below:
Gregory Kallenberg is the award-winning director of the Rational Middle video series. Loren Steffy is a journalist, author and executive producer of the Rational Middle — Immigration. Learn more at www.rationalmiddle.com.