They waited under the cover of darkness to make their move. They hide under and within anything they can find, out of sight from both the elements and from law enforcement who are constantly on the lookout for any movement or for any signs of life in the vast territory.
They rely on smugglers who know the lay of the land and they paid handsomely for their guidance. Some have given all they possess and others have given up their very freedoms for a time for the chance to make the crossing. Some will die of thirst or hunger. Others will die of starvation, drowning or the heat.
They are the undocumented immigrants of the United States and nearly all have an opinion about them. To some Americans they are a nuisance that need to be dealt with and to others they are the brave people who risk everything for the chance to live their dream.
The very lucky ones will reach their destination and work in a variety of capacities. Nearly all however will work for meager wages, be under constant scrutiny, and will be at the mercy of their employers.
The debate is contentious, the intensity will only continue. The stakes could not be higher and it’s fair to ask: who are they and more importantly do they contribute to this country or simply drag it down?
Based on three separate reports published by the Department of Homeland Security, National Public Radio, and the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project there are an estimated 10.8 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States and they are concentrated in three states: California, Texas, and Florida. The majority, nearly 61 percent, are adults between the ages of 25 to 44 and are mostly male, almost 60 percent.
They are less educated than other sections of the United States population. They also work in different sectors of the economy and they earn less than their legal counterparts, about $36,000 per year versus $50,000 earned by U.S. born residents.
It is this demographic makeup that makes immigration such a controversial issue.
The economic argument
When Rob Luton, an immigration analyst with San Diegans for Secure Borders was asked about undocumented immigrants he said: “Illegal immigrants are having a negative effect on people who are already here.”
The classic economic model states that for a given demand of labor increasing the supply of workers limits opportunity for everyone. After all, jobs are in limited quantity and undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. decreases the likelihood others will be hired for the same position.
Take the example of construction. “I know contractors who are struggling to find work because there are undocumented immigrants who are competing for the same bids (jobs) as the people I know,” Luton said.
Illegal immigration also has a wage effect. The larger the pool of available workers, the lower the wages for everyone will be. Since employers know there are an abundance of available workers they have no incentive to increase pay, they simply hire the next applicant.
Not everyone agrees however, opponents argue that the blue collar jobs that undocumented immigrants compete in are diverse and in some fields there are not enough domestic workers to fill all of the openings.
Carlos Maldonado, community worker with California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) said, “If you don’t have these illegal workers… how much do you think you will pay for an avocado, because of supply and demand?”
His implication is that picking produce is difficult work and few domestic workers are willing to do those jobs so wages would have to increase, exerting upward pressure on the prices that we all pay.
“If we don’t have these low wage workers it’s going to cost us more as consumers to buy everything that we want,” Yolie Rios, another community worker with CRLA said.
The entire labor market is complicated, much more complicated than a simple model and some will win while others will lose. We enjoy lower prices for food but some of us may pay for it with jobs.
At the heart of the immigration debate is the role that undocumented immigrants play in shaping this country. Are they taking in more than they are contributing as some suggest or are they vital to keeping this country going?
Steven Camarota, Director of Research with the Center for Immigration Studies said, “This is a population who arrives in the United States with modest levels of education and a lot of issues, a lot of things flow from that fact. The majority don’t have a high-school education. They’re going to be quite poor, regardless of legal status.”
The suggestion is that since they (undocumented immigrants) are low income they will consume a large amount of social services such as welfare and will contribute very little in the way to tax revenue.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform published a study in 2004 detailing the fiscal effect of undocumented immigrants in California.
The study estimated that undocumented immigrants contribute about $1.7 billion to the state through a combination of sales, payroll, and property taxes. However, they cost California over $10 billion in the form of education, medical care, and incarceration expenditures.
The opposition clearly disagrees with those estimates and argues the calculations do not factor in all that undocumented immigrants have to offer or are offering to this country.
Wendy Feliz, Communications Director at the American Immigration Council said, “An analogy might help. These people will tell you that your roommate uses water and electricity, and acknowledge that he pays half the rent but leave out that he buys the groceries sometimes or that he cooks sometimes.”
Published in the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare a paper titled “Fear vs. Facts: Examining the Economic Impact of Undocumented Immigrants in the U.S.,” university researchers David Bacerra, David Androff, Cecilia Ayόn, and Jason Castillo concluded that undocumented immigrants contribute more than they ever consume through employment, purchases and tax revenue.
The bottom line is that numbers are very fluid and both sides use different numbers to prove their point.
The bill and the future
Ironically enough the one aspect that both sides agree on is the Immigration Reform Bill that was passed by the Senate just last year: both sides have problems with it.
Pro-immigration groups dislike the border provision because it would reinforce the border fence at crossings that people find more amenable, forcing them to find entry points at more dangerous locations along California, Arizona and Texas.
“A lot of people have died trying to cross the border, this bill will increase that,” Enrique Morones, Founder and Director of Border Angels, a pro-immigration group said.
Critics argue the point of reinforcing the border with a double fence is to keep undocumented immigrants from entering the U.S.
Conservative groups detest the provision that permits citizenship for those who have been in the U.S. for a specified period of time, the so-called “amnesty provision.”
Both sides feel they are right, both sides feel they have the facts and support on their side.
In the meantime undocumented immigrants will still attempt to cross the border and work in the U.S. illegally, risking their lives for their own chance at the American dream and those who are already living and working in the U.S. remain in limbo.