Immigration reform is on the front burner in Washington. As the debate heats up, Americans will have to separate fact from fiction.
An estimated 11 million people live in America illegally, some 70,000 of them in Ohio. Some were legal visitors who didn’t leave when their visas ran out. Most entered the country illegally, often across America’s 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
An estimated 7 million illegal immigrants are from Mexico, 3 million came from elsewhere in Central and South America, and about 1 million are from Asia. Eighty percent are 18 to 39 years old. Most are men.
According to a new Reuter/Ipsos poll, 23 percent of Americans think all illegal aliens should be deported. For this group, immigration reform means tighter border security, not a path to citizenship.
Sixty-one percent of people surveyed said that some undocumented workers should be allowed to stay. They differed on how many: 30 percent said most should be deported; 31 percent believed that most should be allowed to stay.
The poll suggests there is room for debate. It also makes clear that compromise won’t be easy. People who want all or most illegal immigrants deported note that being undocumented is a crime.
They argue that letting people stay who entered the United States illegally is unfair to people who want to move here legally. And they say illegal immigrants take jobs away from Americans, push down wages for native-born workers, increase crime, and drain social services.
A group of senators, including Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.), John McCain (R., Ariz.), and Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), is working on bipartisan reform, and wrestling with legal and fairness issues. Other claims tell only part of the story.
New York Times economics columnist Adam Davidson wrote last month that in places where large numbers of illegal immigrants live, they strain social services, schools, and medical care. But, he noted, “all economists, of all political persuasions, agree that immigrants — those here legally or not — benefit the overall economy.”
According to experts, Mr. Davidson wrote, illegal immigrants depress wages for unskilled workers without high school diplomas. But they increase productivity and raise wages for skilled workers, which results in a net wage gain overall. They also contribute $15 billion a year to Social Security, while collecting only $1 billion a year in benefits.
Mr. Davidson suggested the federal government could transfer the Social Security windfall back to state and local governments to pay for the cost of providing services to illegal immigrants. He says a general amnesty would create a tax windfall for local and state governments where undocumented workers live.
The effect on illegal immigrants on crime rates is unclear. The nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies reviewed data in 2009 and concluded that “it is simply impossible to draw a clear conclusion about immigrants and crime.”
There may be a correlation between crime and illegal immigrants in areas where they compete with unskilled and low-educated Americans. But that competition is more imagined than real. The Southern Poverty Law Center says studies have failed to establish a relationship between immigrant labor and job losses for native-born Americans.
The debate about immigration reform must acknowledge that the United States is not going to deport 11 million people. It would take too long, cost too much, hurt the American economy, and tarnish America’s image.
The real debate is about how many immigrants get to stay, and under what conditions. And it needs to be measured, balanced, and based on fact.