Splitting the Difference on Illegal Immigration

January 9, 2013

The life of an illegal immigrant is not an easy one. There is the matter of the day to day- work, taking care of family and in the case of younger illegals (the vast majority of them) simply growing up. Then there is the underbelly- the exploitation many illegals have to live with, the challenges they face in procuring necessary documents in this increasingly document- and computerized- society. 

While the media tends to focus on the criminal element (Jose Q Public going to work day and day out won’t sell newspapers), the vast majority of illegals are honest, law abiding and hard working  seeking no more than than a better life for themselves and their children.

There are many Americans who believe that is liberal spewed hogwash but it is the truth- and it has nothing to do with politics.

Imagine you lived in an environment in which it was virtually impossible to support your family. Imagine your parents, grandparents and other close relatives lived in poverty with no hope of escape. Imagine that environment was filled with corrupt politicians and bureaucrats or criminal gangs. Wouldn’t you do whatever you could to change that reality? Isn’t that what generations of immigrants- legal and otherwise- have done?

Since when has offering the teeming masses an opportunity for a better life, become a political football? How have we become a nation which turns it’s back on ‘wretched refuse’?

Yes, we are a nation of laws- but we are also meant to be a merciful nation. We can find a way to accommodate those who have circumvented the legal and appropriate ways to apply for immigrant status. They may have to wait for those legal applicants to move to the front of the line (where they belong) pay back taxes and so on.

This nation has been enriched by immigrants since her inception, believing in and following the American dream. Shortchanging those law abiding illegal immigrants will hurt them, to be sure- but it will us as a nation, even more.

National Affairs:

In the controversy over illegal immigration that has roiled our politics for decades, the image of “living in the shadows” has been invoked by all sides. For immigrant advocates, “the shadows” are where the undocumented are harassed by overzealous law-enforcement officers and exploited by unscrupulous landlords and employers. For many other Americans, “living in the shadows” conjures vaguely sinister intruders using public services to which they are not entitled and preying on law-abiding Americans through illicit activities and crime.

Yet regardless of one’s views on the issue, this imagery is profoundly misleading. It helps to perpetuate the myths and exaggerations that have made our immigration debate so fruitless. Undocumented immigrants are hardly mere victims of economic or political forces beyond their control. But neither are they dangerous criminals or public charges lurking on the fringes of our society. Rather, they are responsible agents who have made difficult choices in a complicated and risky environment — an environment for which all Americans bear some blame.

These choices produce both beneficial and negative consequences for the nation and for the immigrants themselves. And our policies must contend with both sets of effects. If we are to find our way to a solution, we must examine the genuine predicament of the millions of illegal immigrants in our midst without ignoring the legitimate concerns millions of Americans have about their presence.

If we succeeded in removing the hyperbole and stereotypes from the immigration debate, our politics might open itself to a balanced approach to the problem: legalization for as many undocumented immigrants as possible, but citizenship for none of them. Under this proposal, illegal immigrants who so desired could become “permanent non-citizen residents” with no option of ever naturalizing.

Such a policy would do much to address the predicament faced by the undocumented while at the same time respecting and addressing the concerns of those Americans who have long demanded that illegals be penalized for breaking the law. It would respond to the challenge of illegal immigration in its genuine complexity and ambiguity. And only when we acknowledge that complexity, looking beyond the simple caricatures that too often shape the immigration debate, can we see our way to a plausible policy solution.


The first step in clarifying our debate is to move beyond some familiar distortions about just who illegal immigrants are, how they live, and how and why they got here. Based on a variety of surveys and estimates, we actually have a decent understanding of the illegal-immigrant population in America. The latest figures compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center indicate that there are more than 11 million undocumented immigrants, a number that includes more than one million children under the age of 18. Overall, the undocumented represent approximately 4% of the nation’s population, 5% of its labor force, and 28% of its foreign-born population.

These numbers understate things somewhat, for the simple reason that the undocumented often live with relatives who are here legally. Some illegals have spouses who are either legal immigrants or citizens. Still more numerous are the 4.5 million native-born (and therefore citizen) children under 18 with at least one illegal parent. As a result, the total number of individuals living in households with at least one illegal immigrant exceeds 15 million, representing about 6% of the population.

The classic image of illegal immigrants entering our country is one of silhouetted figures sneaking across the Mexican border. About half of the undocumented arrived this way; less noted, however, is that the remainder initially came legally — typically on work or tourist visas — but then overstayed their allotted residency periods. While there are sizable contingents of illegals from Asia, Europe, Africa, and Canada, almost 60% are from Mexico, and about 20% more are from Central and South America or the Caribbean. Therefore, about 80% of illegal immigrants are Latinos.

Today’s figure of roughly 11 million illegals living in the U.S. is actually lower than the record high of 12 million in 2007. This decline reflects decreased inflows since the Great Recession of 2008, though there does not appear to have been much, if any, increase in the number of illegals voluntarily returning home in recent years. This lower number is also the result of steadily tightening border enforcement, including increased deportations initiated by the Bush administration and now sustained by the Obama administration.

Because of these developments, the undocumented population is now generally believed to have stabilized at this lower number. And one result of this stabilization is an increase in the length of time the average illegal immigrant has resided in the United States. In 2011, Pew estimated that more than three-fifths of adult illegals had been living in the United States for at least ten years. More than a fifth had lived here between five and nine years. And only 15% had been here less than five years. By contrast, in 2000, Pew reported that 44% of adult undocumented immigrants had been living in the United States for at least ten years and about one-third for less than five years.

However long they have been here, the undocumented are strikingly young. Pew reports that the median age of undocumented adults is 36.2, compared to 46.1 for legal-immigrant adults and 46.5 for native-born American adults. These numbers reflect the fact that the many risks associated with illegal status — travel through dangerous terrain, larcenous smugglers, unscrupulous employers — are more easily negotiated by the young, and particularly by young men. This is one reason why men significantly outnumber women among the illegal-immigrant population: Of the undocumented immigrants over the age of 18 currently residing in the U.S., there are approximately 5.8 million males, compared to 4.2 million females.

The age and gender profiles of the undocumented translate into a large cohort of young, unattached males — with no spouses, partners, or children, at least in this country. According to Pew, nearly half of illegal-immigrant men are “unpartnered adults without children,” while fewer than one-fifth of illegal-immigrant women are. Such patterns account for the recurrent image of undocumented immigrants as single males noisily crowding into run-down apartments or hanging out on street corners looking for work and getting into trouble.

On the other hand, their youth and fertility mean that illegal immigrants are frequently young parents. They are actually much more likely to live in a household with a spouse (or partner) and at least one child than are legal immigrants and native-born adults. Pew estimates that 45% of undocumented immigrants live in such situations, compared with 34% of legal immigrants and 21% of native-born Americans. Consequently, while illegals represent about 4% of the U.S. adult population, their children account for 8% of newborns. These numbers point to the challenges that illegal immigration poses for schools, hospitals, and other service providers. Anxiety about these challenges has translated into charges that the undocumented are here primarily to sponge off the nation.

But while concerns about illegals’ reliance on social programs may be warranted (as discussed below), most undocumented immigrants are not here looking for “freebies.” Overwhelmingly, they migrate in pursuit of work. This is particularly true for undocumented males: Among all men in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 64, illegal immigrants are the most likely to be working. In 2009, for example, 93% of undocumented men participated in the labor force, compared to 86% of legal-immigrant men and 81% of native-born men. Yet the opposite pattern is evident among women. In 2009, 58% of undocumented women were in the labor force, compared to 66% of legal-immigrant women and 72% of native-born women. So while a majority of undocumented women do work, more of them remain at home — presumably to care for their children — than do other women in America.

However hard undocumented immigrants work, their professional prospects are limited by their low skill and education levels. Almost half have not completed high school, and nearly a third have less than a ninth-grade education. Pew notes that 22% of U.S. residents between the ages of 25 and 64 with less than a high-school education are undocumented immigrants.

Their incomes are commensurately meager. Even though undocumented-immigrant households contain, on average, more workers than do households composed of native-born Americans, the former’s median annual income in 2007 was $36,000, compared to the latter’s $50,000. And while legal-immigrant households have experienced significant income gains over time, illegal-immigrant households have not. Moreover, the latter’s poverty rates are also disproportionately high: About one-third of the children of undocumented immigrants are poor, compared to about a fifth of the children of native-born parents.

Little of this comes as news to most Americans, who are not surprised to hear that illegals are concentrated in jobs that are unpleasant, unsafe, or low-paying — and sometimes all of the above. For example, as of 2008, illegal immigrants were 21% of parking-lot attendants, 25% of farm workers, 27% of maids and housekeepers, 28% of dishwashers, 37% of drywallers, and 40% of brick masons. By industry, again as of 2008, the undocumented were 10% of workers in leisure and hospitality, 14% in construction, 20% in dry cleaning and laundry, 23% in private household employment, and 28% in landscaping. In addition to what these data tell us about living standards among the undocumented, they highlight a particularly difficult aspect of the nation’s illegal-immigration challenge: Important sectors of the U.S. economy have become dependent on undocumented workers.

These are sectors where workers are often vulnerable to exploitation by small businessmen, many of them fellow immigrants. In such jobs, wages are meager and benefits are often non-existent. So it’s not surprising that, as of 2008, three-fifths of undocumented adults lacked health insurance, compared to 24% of legal-immigrant adults and 14% of native-born adults. Yet it is too easy to overlook the corollary of this statistic: that two-fifths, or 40%, of illegals do have health insurance. “Life in the shadows” is not uniformly dark.

Similarly, the Pew Hispanic Center reports that, as of 2008, “[o]nly 35 percent of unauthorized immigrant households [were] homeowners, half the rate of US-born households” (emphasis added). Pew goes on to note that, among undocumented immigrants who have lived here for a decade or more, “only 45 percent own their own homes” (again, emphasis added).

These data are doubly revealing. At one level, they indicate a degree of material well-being that would not be anticipated from the household-income figures cited above. But they also suggest, once again, that the undocumented have not exactly been cowering in the shadows. Rather, these immigrants have taken major steps toward entering the American mainstream, like buying homes. They have been encouraged to do so by an assortment of public policies, including the Internal Revenue Service’s move to supply illegal immigrants with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers in lieu of Social Security numbers, which has allowed undocumented workers to secure mortgages. To be sure, these immigrants relied heavily on sub-prime loans, and their home-ownership rates are undoubtedly lower today than they were before the housing bust. But the tendency to regard the undocumented as victims leads organizations like Pew — as well as much of the American public — to focus on the gap between them and the rest of us, consequently overlooking the advances made by illegal immigrants.

Similarly, illegal immigrants have been joining labor unions and participating in demonstrations, including highly visible and angry street protests in 2006 against proposed punitive legislation in Congress. Meanwhile, their undocumented children have been educated in public schools, with many preparing for higher education and loudly demanding in-state tuition at public universities. Such young people have also been visibly advocating passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide illegal immigrants who came here as minors a path to citizenship.

To be sure, none of this means that illegal immigrants live at ease in America. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that, in 2010, 84% of undocumented Latinos worried “some” or “a lot” that a family member, a close friend, or they themselves could be deported. Only 35% of the polled illegals said they were “satisfied with the way things are going in this country today.” This sentiment tracked with the response among Hispanics generally, which was 36%.

Yet what should surprise us about these numbers is not how low they are but how high they are — higher, in fact, than the 25% of all Americans who expressed satisfaction with the direction of the country. As Pew emphasizes, ever since this question was first asked in 2003, “Hispanics have nearly always been more positive than non-Hispanics about the direction of the country.”

Similarly, after years of vituperative debates over immigration and record-high deportation rates, overwhelming majorities of undocumented immigrants still say there is more opportunity in this country than where they came from. In 2010, 79% of undocumented Hispanics told Pew that “the opportunity to get ahead is better in the United States.”…

Read it all.

2 Responses to “Splitting the Difference on Illegal Immigration”

  1. Define “hispanic.” The debate is overwhelmingly about illegal Mexicans. Mexicans who, like the muslims who actually come here legally, DO NOT wish to integrate into society, seeing that American corporate interests have already begun pandering to their needs.

    We should not reward criminality. We should not allow the dilution of our traditions.

    This nation was not created by Mexicans or muslim. It was created by white people. This is, for some, obviously a difficult notion to grasp.

    Note that this is not meant to demean “people of color.” Not at all. But to begin — and end — a debate such as this, we must speak the truth.

  2. Veritas Says:

    Where does the 11 million figure come from. Today you can go to States that never heard of a Mexican 20 years ago and find entire cities filled with them. California is now mostly Latino. Your article is good but until we build a great wall along the southern border we will have millions of illegals. Better yet lets build a new Panama Panal along the southern border.

    And for all the idiots saying a wall will not work I served on the DMZ in Korea. You had better believe it worked.

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