November 12, 2010

Seeking the Face of the Lord

The many myths that surround the immigration debate

Emotions run high concerning the status of immigration in this country. There is pretty much consensus that something needs to be done to correct poor legislation.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misleading opinion about the impact of immigrants. I am thinking of several perceived myths that cloud the issue.

There is the perceived myth that immigrants take jobs and opportunities away from Americans.

In fact, the largest wave of immigration to the United States coincided with our lowest national unemployment rate and fastest economic growth. Immigrant entrepreneurs also create jobs for U.S. and foreign workers.

While there has been no comprehensive study done of immigrant-owned businesses, there are countless examples: Silicon Valley companies begun by Chinese and Indian immigrants generated more than $19.5 billion in sales and nearly 73,000 jobs in 2000 (“Immigration and Unemployment: New Evidence,” Alexis de Tocqueville Institution).

Today, our immigration laws do not reflect demographic and economic reality. Our laws should be reconciled with the economic laws of supply and demand.

Immigration reform would address a range of workforce realities—legalizing a workforce that is here to stay, providing more legal visas for workers to come in the future, and providing for the temporary employment of foreign workers who help American employers in sectors of the economy that provide seasonal jobs.

“Immigrants don’t pay taxes” is another perceived myth. Immigrants pay taxes in the form of income, property, and sales taxes at the federal and state level.

As far as income tax payments go, sources vary in their accounts, but a range of studies find that immigrants pay between $90 billion and $140 billion a year in federal, state and local taxes.

Undocumented immigrants pay income taxes as well as evidenced by the Social Security Administration’s “suspense file”—taxes that cannot be matched to workers’ names and Social Security numbers—which grew by $20 billion between 1990 and 1998 (www.Immigrationforum,org/about/articles/taxstudy.htm).

There is the perceived myth that “immigrants come here to take welfare.” Immigrants come to work and reunite with family members. Immigrant labor force participation is consistently higher than native-born, and immigrant workers make up a larger share of the U.S. labor force—12.4 percent—than they do the U.S. population—11.5 percent (U.S. Census).

Aren’t immigrants taking advantage of social services and costing taxpayers? Most immigrants, except for children, are employed. Because most work, albeit many in lower-paying jobs, the ratio between immigrant use of public benefits to the amount of taxes they pay is favorable. In one estimate, immigrants pay about $90 billion in taxes and use about $5 billion in public benefits. Others estimate that immigrant taxes total $20 to $30 billion more than the cost of government services.

There are those who espouse the myth that Catholic bishops, i.e. the Church, support illegal immigration. In fact, the Catholic Church and bishops do not condone unlawful entry or circumventions of our nation’s immigration laws. The bishops believe that reforms are necessary for our immigration system to respond to the realities of separated families, and labor demands that compel people to immigrate to the United States in an authorized and unauthorized fashion.

Why is the Church so concerned about immigration? The Church respects the right of nations to control their borders and to enact laws in the best interest of its citizens. Yet the Church teaches that some rights are inherent in the human condition. These are natural rights, which extend beyond national boundaries. All immigrants, legal and illegal, have natural rights from their inherent dignity as persons. Each person is created in the image of God.

The Church in the U.S. is especially mindful of the immigrant because we are an immigrant Church, made up of people from all parts of the world.

There is a perceived myth that better border enforcement will solve the immigrant problem. From 1986 to 1998, the U.S. Border Patrol’s budget increased

six-fold and the number of agents stationed on the southwest border doubled to 8,500. From 1983 to 2004, spending for border enforcement quadrupled. Yet the number of unauthorized arrivals increased.

There is the perception that today’s immigrants are different compared to those of 100 years ago. The percentage of the population that is foreign-born now stands at 11.5 percent. In the early 20th century, it was approximately 15 percent. If we view history objectively, we remember that every new wave of immigrants has been met with suspicion and doubt, and yet, ultimately, every past wave of immigrants has been vindicated.

There is a final perception that most immigrants cross the border illegally. In fact, around 75 percent of today’s immigrants have legal permanent (immigrant) visas. Of the 25 percent that are undocumented, 40 percent overstayed temporary (non-immigrant) visas.

We are talking about real people who need and deserve our respect and our understanding in charity. †

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