6 Common Questions About Undocumented Immigrants

A student's line of questioning showed me where America can stand to learn more about its undocumented population.

11/28/2017 19:49 EST | Updated 12/05/2017 14:05 EST
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Over Thanksgiving weekend, a student, Juan Hernandez, approached me to discuss several aspects of the subject of illegal immigration and undocumented immigrants. I’ve reproduced his questions and my answers here, as I think they cover some common but significant questions on the topic.

1. Should the United States government allow immigrants who are here illegally to become U.S. citizens?

Both major political parties have agreed in recent times that the U.S. government should provide a path to U.S. citizenship for many undocumented immigrants, and, in fact, most Americans agree. Affirming a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants does not mean all such immigrants would achieve citizenship, nor would it likely be available to them immediately. These immigrants are already here, however, and many work and pay taxes, though they don’t draw most of the benefits afforded U.S. citizens.

2. How would that affect the U.S. economy?

Undocumented immigrants are already working in the United States and many of them do pay taxes. That means they are contributing to the social security benefits of American citizens, though they cannot draw on them themselves. Studies show that if undocumented immigrants were allowed to work in the United States, they would contribute further since even more of them would be contributing taxes rather than hiding in the shadows. Even if we allowed them to draw additional benefits as citizens, the taxes they paid would boost federal revenues over the following decades. So yes, by ensuring that so many undocumented immigrants stay in the shadows, we significantly reduce the amount of available taxable income. My recent piece “Immigrants Aren’t Stealing Your Benefits,” discusses these dynamics in further detail and links to studies on the subject.

3. Why should illegal immigrants be granted amnesty?

For better or worse, the U.S. economy has depended on the existence of undocumented immigrants for decades. American companies encourage undocumented immigrants to come here by granting them employment, even when they know their immigration status. The Trump administration and its supporters have spent little time criticizing those companies and most of their time criticizing the impoverished immigrants, who are generally simply try to forge a better life for themselves and their families. As a nation, we have long taken advantage of their labors while still treating them as second-class people and denying them benefits they’ve arguably earned.

4. Are illegal immigrants a threat to the United States?

Absolutely not. Though statistics on criminal activity among undocumented immigrants prove difficult to parse, we do know that criminal activity is generally lower among the larger immigrant population in the United States. Despite the regular presentation of troublesome anecdotes by the Trump administration and other critics of undocumented immigrants, there’s no data to support the idea that these immigrants are more likely to pose a threat to the United States. In fact, studies show that immigrant communities are some of the safer places to live in the United States. This makes sense among undocumented immigrants, if you consider the dynamics of their situations and understand that they are more likely to keep their heads down to avoid scrutiny from law enforcement. Studies which have attempted to pinpoint undocumented immigrants have concluded that the incarceration rate among undocumented immigrants from Mexico, Salvador and Guatemala, for example, are likely significantly lower than the general population. Much of the depiction of immigrants as criminals sadly reflects a long tradition of describing immigrants as criminals, despite the fact that any studies over the past 100 years have shown the opposite. I’ve written much more about this subject here.

5. Does this discourage legal immigration?

No? I’m not sure how to answer this question more completely. Donald Trump’s current policies which denigrate immigrants of many different types have likely done much more to deter legal immigration than the presence of undocumented immigrants. And illegal immigration, it should be noted, was falling well before Trump came into office as President. In fact, there is no illegal immigrant crisis. All the actual data underlines this, but Donald Trump has not used any data or compelling evidence to support his anti-immigrant policies and statements since running for office.

6. How would they be offered a chance at legal status?

Many different plans have been offered, which would allow legal status for America’s undocumented immigrants. These plans would typically allow for a waiting period of some years before such immigrants could attain citizenship and generally require background checks and possibly even require fines to be paid before an application could be continued. Despite fears of “open borders” propagated by the fiercest critics of undocumented immigrants, most supporters of a path to citizenship or legal status for undocumented immigrants simply wish to treat those immigrants who are here already with respect and do not deny the need for reasonable measures to be taken to further reduce the volume of illegal immigration. It’s important, however, for us to honestly examine the role that for-profit companies and other organizations play in maintaining what we could refer to as a “illegal immigration complex.” These immigrants ― some of the most financially deprived residents in the United States ― are largely powerless within these dynamics, which take advantage of their skills as laborers, but refuse them the benefits of the average American citizen.

This piece first appeared

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