How Immigrants Contribute
Derrick Z. Jackson is a syndicated columnist based in Boston. This column first appeared in The Boston Globe and is reprinted with permission.
At a New York rally for the legalization of immigrants, Chung-Wha Hong, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition, said, "We are inseparable, indivisible and impossible to take out of America."
In Phoenix, Victor Colex, a 37-year-old fence builder who makes between $7 and $8 per hour, told The Washington Post, "We are not asking for favors. We only want to work, for our families and parents and children."
In Boston, 26-year-old Robin Martini, a legal immigrant from Guatemala, told The Boston Globe, "We give a grain a day of ourselves to this country. We want to be part of it. We respect the laws. We pay our taxes. We want a piece of the American dream."
Americans seem to get this, in a conflicted way. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 63 percent of Americans now support legalization of immigrants who have lived here for a certain number of years. A new CBS News poll found that 74 percent of Americans favor letting illegal immigrants who have been in the country at least five years stay and work in the United States, provided that they pay a fine, pay any back taxes they owe, speak English and have no criminal record.
The conflicted nature of the acceptance comes in other poll findings that show that Americans still believe immigrants are a major drain on national resources. A Time magazine poll found that 84 percent of Americans were "very" concerned (61 percent) or "somewhat" concerned (23 percent) that it costs taxpayers too much to provide health care and education to immigrants. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found that 87 percent of Americans say they are concerned that immigrants "overburden government services and programs."
But the evidence is becoming clear that it is justified that immigrants give us more than a grain a day. They give their dollars. They are an inseparable and indivisible part of the economy.
In articles in The Tax Lawyer, a publication of the American Bar Association, and in the upcoming issue of the Harvard Latino Law Review, Francine Lipman, a professor at Chapman University's law school in Orange, Calif., writes that the widespread belief that undocumented immigrants cost us more than they give us is "demonstrably false."
In her review article, Lipman wrote that there are 7 million undocumented workers, which is 1 out of every 20 in the United States. Such undocumented workers live in households in which the average annual income is $27,400, compared with nearly $48,000 for legal immigrant families.
They cannot access or easily access many public services, yet in 2003 alone the labor of undocumented workers poured $7 billion in taxes into Social Security, even though they cannot legally claim those benefits. Lipman calls this "an abyss in federal relief for hard-working, poor families. Undocumented working-poor families have higher effective income tax rates than their neighbors who enjoy higher income levels."
They perform jobs that are inseparable from our standard of living. Undocumented workers are about 5 percent of our overall labor force, but according to the Pew Hispanic Center's analysis of Census data, they are between 22 percent and 36 percent of America's insulation workers, miscellaneous agricultural workers, meat-processing workers, construction workers, dishwashers and maids. The American Farm Bureau, the lobbying group for agricultural interests, says that without guest workers, the United States would lose $5 billion to $9 billion per year in fruit, vegetable and flower production and as much as 20 percent of production would go overseas.
Often ignored by anti-immigration forces is the fact that undocumented workers pay sales taxes and real estate taxes--directly if they are homeowners, indirectly if they are renters. Analysts at Standard & Poor's wrote recently that there is no clear correlation between undocumented families and local costs, as the states with the highest numbers of such families also have relatively low unemployment rates, high property values and strong income growth, "all of which contribute to stable financial performance."
Except, of course, for the undocumented families themselves.
Standard & Poor's wrote that the least we could consider in this debate is to redistribute the $7 billion contributed by undocumented workers into Social Security. It said, for instance, that the money could go toward the estimated $11.2 billion it takes to educate the nation's 1.8 million undocumented children. Better still is to take the people who give us a grain a day in the shadows and let them flower in the sunlight of legalization.