Illegal immigration in the United States has become an extremely divisive and partisan issue. Tones of nationalism stem from the discussion of whether strong borders are necessary for the existence of a nation. As Donald Trump–the 2016 Republican nominee for president–has said, “If we don’t have borders, we don’t have a country.” However, beyond evaluating the emotional significance of the topic, what truly matters is the economic and security impacts of illegal immigration and “open” borders. Whether or not immigration affects the nation’s economy and security will determine how government should go about remedying the issue.
Contrary to popular opinion, the amount of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has actually declined in recent years.
The current estimation of undocumented immigrants is 11.3 million immigrants down from 12.2 million in 2007. 2014 essentially saw net-zero illegal immigration. Of those 11 million, around 8.1 million participate in the U.S. labor force as 5.1% of all workers.
Interestingly, at the southern border more non-Mexicans are now being apprehended than Mexicans. This should add to the context that undocumented immigrants are coming from more places than just Mexico. Many migrants are now coming from poverty-torn nations in Central America instead.
Even while apprehensions are down, deportations actually hit a record high in 2013.
The Security Impact
There has not been evidence that any terrorists have entered the United States via the southern border, yet this can still be a legitimate concern for the future. Terrorists from organizations like ISIS could take advantage of the border’s ability to be illegally crossed to someday commit terror in this country. In addition to terrorism, regular crime is still a legitimate fear in accepting just anyone across the border; however, this fear is not substantiated by the data which find that undocumented immigrants commit less crime and are less likely to be incarcerated than U.S. citizens. Now, as earlier data noted, border security agents are effectively doing their jobs apprehending attempting crossers. Surveillance of the border is strong, but some argue that a wall could be more effective at preventing any illegal immigration.
If our nation cannot monitor exactly who is within its borders, we can be at risk of a terrorist illegally entering to wage horror on our citizens. However, we also wish to be a humanitarian country who provides safe haven for families escaping the poverty-torn nations of Central America. We wish to provide them with a country where they have an opportunity to make a successful living if they work for it.
How to balance those two desires is where the difficulty lies. Donald Trump does not hold such sympathy for Central American families and would like all undocumented immigrants (definitely all criminal ones whereas non-criminals are still subject to deportation) to be deported and a border wall to be constructed. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton would like to deport only undocumented immigrants who are violent criminals and allow families to stay together here.
As I argued in On Trump, a border wall comes with its share of logistical problems. Much human and drug trafficking occurs via underground tunnels in order to avoid border fences and personnel. Even if a border wall was built, say, ten feet underground, these crossers would dig deeper. Even without tunnels, catapults have been used to launch drugs over the existing fences. A wall would not prevent these alternative methods from being used. In the article, I also argue based on findings that “the U.S.-Mexico border lands on many waterways like the Rio Grande and on high mountains, where it would not be possible to build a border wall. Therefore, there would still be gaps for people to cross over the border. Additionally, much of the border lands on American citizens’ own private property. The government could possibly use eminent domain for the wall, yet homeowners may not be happy with that reality. The existing border fence has already been the cause of possibly disrupting animal habitats and Native American graves that exist along the border.” Thus, a border wall may not be even realistically possible nor effective at its goal.
Therefore, if a wall will not be successful at securing the border from possibly being compromised by potential terrorists and traffickers, we ought to look to other options that still uphold our humanitarian mission and security interests. Border personnel could still effectively monitor the border without a wall as they do presently. Possible increases in agents or state-of-the-art technology, such as lasers and cameras, could be used to monitor traffic across the border. This would surely be less expensive and more effective than a wall. These technologies would not prevent tunneling, but it could catch people catapulting drugs across the border. Additionally, it would be less intrusive to private property, wildlife, and grave sites.
As for still providing asylum for poor families struggling to have a chance at the American Dream, people could approach official border crossing locations and apply for refugee or visa status. These methods would include backgrounds checks, in-person interviews with government officials, and official documentation with the U.S. government. Providing these accessible routes to immigrants would enable the government to still allow into the country struggling families while knowing exactly who is in the country and for what purpose. These seem like the most secure yet open-armed tactics we can employ concerning border control.
The Economic Impact
There are many facets of economics concerning illegal immigration. From the wall to border security to consumption to tax revenue, illegal immigration has far-reaching impacts on our national budget and economy.
Besides the fact that a border wall may be ineffective in its security goals, the wall would also be quite expensive. Beyond its estimated $20 billion price tag for construction, it would cost approximately $750 million per year to simply maintain resulting in a ten-year total of $27.5 billion. There are not estimates on the price of state-of-the-art security I earlier proposed; those may be less expensive than concrete walls and fences.
Border personnel alone–with or without a wall–costs $1.4 billion per year resulting in a ten-year total of $14 billion. This is a cost to border security that no serious politician advocates for radically reducing; however, some support increasing funding. I am not an expert in the amount of money we should be spending, but the fact that 2013 brought with it a record high number of border apprehension shows that personnel funding is resulting in substantial results.
Building and maintaining a wall along with funding border personnel have a substantial impact on the federal budget. Building the wall, maintaining it, and maintaining current levels of personnel would cost $61.5 billion over ten years. To put this into perspective, if the federal government were to maintain 2015 spending for every year for a decade, it would spend $35.6 trillion. Thus, border spending is substantial on its own yet measly in comparison to total federal spending (just 0.17% of all spending in a decade).
Illegal immigration can also have a significant positive or negative impact on the economy as well. One example of a negative consequence of illegal immigration is that undocumented immigrants are not legally allowed to purchase health insurance within the United States. Therefore, many receive medical care only by visiting hospital emergency rooms even for small illnesses. Additionally, emergency room visits cost substantially more than conventional doctor visits. Thus, undocumented immigrants can end up raising medical costs for all Americans. The right-leaning Center for Immigration Studies estimates that this costs the health care system $4.3 billion annually.
At the same time, undocumented immigrants positively contribute to the economy as well. Although most undocumented immigrants must largely hide in the shadows in order to avoid deportation, they spend money on goods like clothing, fuel, and even housing. That spending on goods is subject to state and federal sales tax while housing spending is subject to property taxes. This spending amounts to over $12 billion per year in state and federal revenue. U.S. News reports “immigrants in the U.S. without legal permission kick in their billions in the form of income, property, sales or excise taxes.”
In addition to tax contribution, this spending also stimulates the economy. Increased consumer demand for companies’ goods puts pressure on those companies to hire more workers and increase wages putting more money into more Americans pockets. Research finds that illegal immigration has actually increased American wealth by 1%.
If undocumented immigrants end up being employed via the possession of fraudulent or stolen Social Security numbers, they end up contributing to the Social Security trust fund through payroll taxes on their paychecks. Undocumented immigrants actually pay over $13 billion per year into the Social Security Trust Fund, and most immigrants do not end up gaining citizenship and, therefore, never receive any Social Security benefits after retirement. Thus, this $13 billion contribution leads to only $1 billion returning to those immigrants meaning a net $12 billion contribution to the fund for other retiring citizens.
These undocumented immigrants who do work in the U.S. labor force have often been accused of stealing American jobs. However, most reports do not find this to be true as these low-wage, low-skill jobs are often not wanted by American workers. American workers may hold out instead for jobs that pay more or are less physically strenuous. Therefore, these jobs remain open to undocumented immigrants who will work for almost anything in any condition.
However, there are some instances when a hypothetical roofing company will fire a citizen who makes $15 per hour to instead pay an undocumented immigrant under the table a much lower wage. Research finds this to be true concerning the wages of American high school dropouts since their skill or educational level may roughly match that of undocumented immigrants. This may be unpatriotic and unfair to the American, but it would undoubtedly lower costs for the American business owner possibly resulting in lower roofing prices for American consumers. However, this raises the larger debate of whether a minimum wage should exist at all. I would argue that it should exist in order to avoid the exploitation of workers, and also this scenario has resulted in the laying off of an American worker. A potential solution to this scenario is actually the legalizing of these immigrants. Bringing them out of the shadows will allow the government to track this labor and mandate labor laws, which would reduce this exploitation of American workers. Additionally, prohibiting undocumented immigrants from having drivers’ licenses increases insurance costs for Americans while running E-Verify checks to insure the citizenship of workers raises costs for employers; these costs would decline if undocumented immigrants were legalized.
Since the majority of immigrant employment does not replace American employment, employing undocumented immigrants actually raises wages in certain sectors of the economy. Filling job vacancies increases worker scarcity which increases competition for the remaining unemployed labor force. This competition leads to employers raising wages and benefits in order to attract the remaining unemployed workers.
The Overall Impact
Additionally, deporting all undocumented immigrants would cost an additional $400 billion to the government and an estimated ten years to complete. On top of this budgetary cost, the removal of these immigrants would eliminate all their negative effects (i.e. emergency room costs) but also their positive benefits (i.e. taxes, consumer spending, employment, and wages). This is in addition to the cost of the wall’s construction and maintenance along with the cost of border personnel. Acknowledging these data, we see that immigration is not a black or white issue. There are not just positive or negative effects. Thus, removing all undocumented immigrants would impact the nation in many ways. One way to decide what we should do regarding immigration is to weigh these costs.
The Costs of Allowing Illegal Immigration
- Emergency Room Costs – $4.3 billion annually
- Replacement of some American jobs – Undetermined cost
- Stress on infrastructure/resources due to increased population – Undetermined cost
- Inflow of illegal drugs – Undetermined financial and health cost
The Costs of Fighting Illegal Immigration
- Deportation Force – $400 billion
- Wall Construction – $20 billion
- Wall Maintenance – $750 million annually
- Border Personnel – $1.4 billion annually (if kept at current levels)
- Loss of Consumption – Undetermined amount
- Loss of Tax Revenue – $12 billion annually
- Loss of Social Security Contributions – Net $12 billion annually
- Lower employment – 8.1 million fewer immigrant workers; undetermined replacement by American workers
- Lower wages in some economic sectors – Undetermined amount
- Higher prices on some goods – Undetermined amount
Essentially, since many of these variables cannot or have not been calculated, especially due to the fact that undocumented immigrants do exist outside of legal avenues, we cannot determine a specific number for the costs and gains of illegal immigration. There seems to be definite setbacks if the nation moves forward in deporting all undocumented immigrants, but there would also be some gains in health care and other economic sectors. These are the variables we must consider if we wish to move carefully and intelligently regarding this issue.
If my policy proposal of allowing in immigrants as refugees and visa applicants at the border, I believe that this method would allow for maintaining some of the gains of illegal immigration while reducing the setbacks. Immigrants would not gain full citizenship status at least for the time being, but they would no longer have to hide in the shadows. This would allow the government to more accurately track economic growth as less money would be circulated in the underground economy. Additionally, allowing immigrants to follow these legal avenues would reduce the ability for some employers to fire American workers to pay undocumented immigrants a lower wage. With immigrants being paid legally, they could be subject to more labor and wage law. Also, they could also be more eligible to contribute payroll taxes. Keeping these immigrants here and allowing them to be legally above board, they would be more free and comfortable spending money in the economy stimulating it and contributing to various forms of taxation. This higher level of legal transparency could also allow immigrants to purchase health insurance and drivers’ licenses, which would reduce insurance costs for American citizens as well.
These sorts of compromises regarding immigration policy rather than sticking to hardline stances may actually deliver the greatest level of security as well as guaranteeing the highest degree of economic growth. These results are possible if we and our politicians civilly discuss this issue based on the data rather than preconceived ideas of how illegal immigration affects the nation.