In praise of Latin American immigrants

By Bernd Debusmann
April 30, 2010

The United States owes Latin American immigrants a debt of gratitude. And Latin American immigrants owe a debt of gratitude to lawmakers in Arizona. How so?

Thanks largely to immigration from Latin America (both legal and illegal) and the higher birth rates of Latin immigrants, the population of the U.S. has kept growing, a demographic trend that sets it apart from the rest of the industrialized world, where numbers are shrinking. That threatens economic growth and in the case of Russia (U.N. projections see a decline from 143 million now to 112 million by 2050) undermines Moscow’s claim to Great Power status.

A country’s population starts shrinking when fertility falls below the “replacement rate” of 2.1. births over the lifetime of a woman. For white American women, that rate is around 1.8 now. For Latin American immigrants, the rate is 2.8. According to the U.S. census bureau, nearly one in six people living in the U.S. are Hispanics. By 2050, they are projected to make up almost a third of the population.

That translates into the biggest minority group of consumers. Their spending is expected to exceed $1 trillion by next year despite the recession. A point worth noting but rarely mentioned in the often overheated debate about immigration: illegal immigrants in effect subsidize social security payments to Americans over 62.

This is because people working with false papers have their social security taxes withheld from wages but are not entitled to receive benefits. The sums involved are substantial — the Social Security administration has an “earnings suspense file” of payments under names that do not match social security numbers. The file has been growing by around $7 billion a year which goes to pay benefits to legal workers.

And the benefit to immigrants of the Arizona law?

“It may finally wake up the whole country to the consequences of the current approach to illegal immigration in which ever tougher border enforcement is seen as the only solution to the problem,” says Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank. “That approach is gravely flawed.”

So is the argument that the federal government has done so little to secure the U.S.-Mexican border that states need to take things into their own hands? The number of Border Patrol agents along the 2,000-mile frontier has doubled in the past five years, to 20,000. Arrests of border crossers have dropped 60 percent since 2000, evidence that tighter controls are discouraging illegal crossings (as does a shortage of jobs at a time of high U.S. unemployment).

Under the law, the toughest of its kind in the country, state and local police are required to “determine the immigration status” of anyone “where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is illegally present in the United States.” Failure to carry identification documents at all times would be grounds for arrest. Critics say “reasonable suspicion” opens the door to racial profiling.

Despite the acrimonious debate sparked by the Arizona law — which faces legal challenges and might never take effect — there is common ground on the issue between a good number of politicians on both sides of the aisle: the present system is a mess that needs fixing.

The last serious attempt to fix it was in 2006, when the U.S. Senate failed to agree on a bill that would have paved the way to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants — the most widely used estimate is around 11 million, most of them Mexicans — and introduce a guest worker program to meet demand for unskilled and low-skilled workers.

At the time, the late Senator Edward Kennedy, the Democrats’ most vocal champion of immigration reform, asked its opponents what they were planning to do with the millions already in the country. “Send them back …? Develop a kind of Gestapo here to seek out these people that are in the shadows?” Critics of the Arizona bill think that prediction has come true.

Much of the immigration argument has glossed over the fact that for decades both the authorities and employers turned a blind eye to illegal immigration because the country has been deeply dependent on cheap labor — in effect one of America’s ways of competing with the low-paid workers of the Third World.

The link between demographics and economic growth has rarely featured in the discussion but this week former president Bill Clinton took it up and added a frank interpretation of the anti-immigrant anger reflected by a nationwide poll that showed 60 percent of voters nation-wide favoring Arizona-type laws.

The real reason for anti-immigrant sentiment, he said, was the fact that the economic downturn in the last few years disproportionally fell on white males without college degrees, such as factory workers. “But they’ll get more jobs if the economy grows. Their taxes will be lower if we’ve got more taxpayers. The pressures on Social Security … will be less if we have more people contributing to the system.

“So I don’t think there’s any alternative but for us to increase immigration,” he said, adding that bringing in more immigrants must be part of the overall strategy.

So far it is not.


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The real reason for anti-immigrant sentiment, he said, was the fact that the economic downturn in the last few years disproportionally fell on white males without college degrees, such as factory workers. “But they’ll get more jobs if the economy grows. Their taxes will be lower if we’ve got more taxpayers. The pressures on Social Security … will be less if we have more people contributing to the system.

“So I don’t think there’s any alternative but for us to increase immigration,” he said, adding that bringing in more immigrants must be part of the overall strategy.”

Really? That’s the only strategy? Then it never ends, does it? If you have to increase the population to pay for the older generation, guess what you will have to do when the next generation grwos up? Yes, increase it even faster to keep up. Sounds a lot like the deficit answers – just keep spending more and push the real solution into the future where I don’t have to deal with it. What a short-sighted, egotistical clown.

Posted by NewtoMuncie | Report as abusive

I support laws against Illegals. Most of those that want Illegals to have Amnesty including Obama, it is all about any money the Federal Govt. can make off them.

Problem is the Border States and many others also carry the brunt of the Financial Costs of many illegals. As stated, social, medical costs and in border states, it is a fortune to house illegals in our Prisons for crimes.
This is a huge major cost to states. Our states and mainly boreder states are financially suffering for Prison costs, many of whom are illegals commiting Felons.
It is tough to compare these type people to “good people that are hardworking and want to be here.” But the bad outweighs the good financially, besides breaking our laws of course. The subject is about Illegals and cannot be compared to our awful white collar criminals.
Some of these Illegal females get here and are forced into the sex trade all over our country, of which the US has a huge trade. Frankly, I admire much work that the Mexican men seem to not only do, but are good at.

I hope in the near future, that Mexicans can try to get Visas in Mexico to come here legally. Their President is Nuts to blame Arizona for not wanting illegals, when He should be doing something to improve Mexico and “get rid of those drug lords”.

Posted by Journe | Report as abusive

My biggest problem with this law is that it tramples over the civil rights of American citizens in an effort to fix a largely imaginary problem. There is virtually no way a person can deduce the nationality of a person other than racial profiling. In fact, this new law makes it specifically OK for officers to use race as a factor in deciding to question ones citizenship. This law not only condones, but encourages the harassment of US citizens for no other reason than their complexion is comparable to a paper bag.

Most of the issues I see being raised for those supporting the new Arizona law are “It’s illegal!” and “They’re destroying our economy / way of life!” The first argument is childish at best. Any mature person knows there is a massive disconnect between what is legal and what is right. In fact, laws (and legal statuses) are often changed to adopt “progressive” stances on issues such as civil rights, suffrage, child labor, etc. The second argument is also a proven falsehood. As this article mentions, illegal immigration has a net positive effect on the US economy. Furthermore, illegal aliens are incarcerated at a much lower rate than your average citizen, and are LESS likely to commit the violent crimes they are often accused of importing.

While I agree with Clinton that this sudden swell for fixing the illegal immigration “problem” stems from people needing to blame some external force for the tribulations of their own lives, it is in no way limited to uneducated white males. History has proven time and again that ignorance, bigotry, and hatred know no bounds.

Posted by RexMax46 | Report as abusive

The article is a flash in the pan. It reads in part,

“… People working with false papers have their social security taxes withheld from wages but are not entitled to receive benefits.”

Well, that is the price paid for having false papers and a status of ILLEGAL!

A Limited Number of Jobs.

To say immigrants do not take jobs from citizens appears incorrect. “X” number of candidates for “X” number of hourly jobs is the real-time condition.

A great many if not most immigrants from LatAm probably represent unskilled or semi-skilled labor, and when they are trying to secure work in the U.S. they are in fact competing with citizens of the same level.

The Mysterious Underground Cash Transaction.

For every illegal working in a restaurant in NYC or a major metro city, there are probably dozens that work as unskilled and semi-skilled day laborers. I don’t know what the restaurant workers get as an hourly wage, but the day laborers in major cities in the northeast get (demand) $10. per hour for general labor, OFF the books.

Beyond their contribution to the U.S. economy by way of sales tax at the retail level and the unmeasured tangible results of their labor, the overall contribution to society by an illegal day laborer working for cash, is difficult to define. The remaining portion of that $10 per hour is absorbed by rent (probably paid in cash) and remittances back home. The local, state and federal governments don’t benefit from that total employment transaction, as both parties, the employer and employed escape taxation beyond the retail consumption level.

In the meantime, those citizens that are legal and traceable, contribute a greater share of their earnings and productivity as compared to an illegal worker.

A Debt of gratitude?

Mexico and its Central American neighbors should be glad they just happen to be landlocked with the USA. Without access to the USA and Canada, what would all those clumsy governments do with their unemployed and underemployed populations? And more important, what would they do without those remittances? That external source of cash being wired home, weekly, monthly, is gravy for those governments, and has the same impact as foreign direct investment.

The Western Hemisphere has two economic engines the U.S. and Canada. The remaining countries need to carry more weight. It appears as though the governments of the region are satisfied with the current economic migration patterns, and clearly have no intentions on making their economies and societies attractive enough so their citizens will not bolt to the U.S. and Canada.

Posted by rror | Report as abusive

America as we know it, and as we have known it for some time, has been made great because of immigrants–legal and illegal–whether the immigrants came here as free men and women, or whether they came here against their will as slaves. America has been and is made strong by immigration. That said, there is no country in the world that can have, in effect, a very open border as America has had for years. It’s a thorny issue and I have no answers, but my response to the complexity of the issue is not to take a racist stance toward Latinos or others whose skin color differs from my own.

Ever since the election of President Obama, I’ve heard and seen a lot of (almost always white) Americans complain about how the government is awful–it’s too intrusive, it spends too much money, it’s moving in the wrong direction, etc. Well, as the conservatives in the 1960′s and 1970′s told liberals: “America, love it or leave it.” That’s my response to people today who don’t like America: GO. Go elsewhere. Pack your bags. Emigrate. Get out and stay out. There are plenty of people risking their lives to come into this country illegally, because they know what opportunities await them here. The exodus of the home-grown complainers to other countries would no doubt help ease the unemployment problem.

Posted by 1AmericanGuy | Report as abusive

This issue feels a bit like the bank bail-outs, or the auto bail-outs, or the mortgage bail-outs to me. It just seems wrong that most of us who pay our mortgages, and pay our taxes, and act legally and morally are the ones being punished for it.

Legal immigration is a very positive thing. The country grows and prospers because of immigrants. The bureaucratic INS drags their feet far too long and many terrific people get denied for the wrong reasons or just get frustrated by the process and leave.

Most people see government as unfair and inefficient. Because of this, as a society, many people think it’s acceptable to cheat on their taxes, or work under the table, or immigrate illegally. But hey! That’s not fair to the rest of us!

Posted by JohnZNYC | Report as abusive

Illegal status gives the purchaser of labor enormous bargaining advantage. Insisting that legality is all that matters and only apply it to the laborer and not the labor purchaser is discrimination.

Using legality as leverage is the main reason this whole scam works. Enforce and apply criminal law to purchasers of illegal labor and see what happens.

Posted by NoraCharles | Report as abusive

In theory, a guest worker program would not be a bad thing if it required employers to see to it that the workers they brought in are housed, given medical coverage and aren’t used simply as a tool to drive down the wages of unskilled Americans. The problem is that the pro-immigration factions have almost no credibility. No one believes that they have any intention of re-gaining control of our borders and enforcing whatever limits and restrictions such a law would include. Even Ronald Regan, who signed the first amnesty and the mandate that hospitals treat non-paying illegal immigrants, didn’t seem serious about securing our borders. And nothing reeks of insincerity more than someone who responds to a question about “illegal immigration” with a generalization about “immigrants” as if the questioner were attacking all immigrants. Without more intellectual honesty than that, there is no way a guest worker program will gain the support of the American people.

Posted by PCL1 | Report as abusive

Illegals: collage of criminals, inmates, underground economy, sending earnings back to Mexico, using social services to which they are not entitled, unskilled laborers, cannot speak English, unfamiliar with any history of states or US. Nice! Rather, let’s citizenize all applicants from Canada, India, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Eastern Europe and Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil.

Posted by rushyoungberg | Report as abusive

A common theme: “They come here to do the jobs that Americans won’t do.”

I’ll suggest that they come here to do the jobs that Americans are paid not to do. We have such a strong network of social benefits that we don’t have to do those jobs that are “beneath us”; so many folks without a job find it easier just to stay home, watch the telly and collect the fruits of their various safety nets. Those who wish for fewer “illegals”, might want to turn their attention to reducing the freebies for the home folk.

Posted by RSw | Report as abusive

I may be a little slow, but I do know the difference between what is legal and what is illegal. Why is this such a hard concept for most people to grasp? Illegal means you are breaking the law and if caught, you will suffer consequences. Being legal means, have a nice day. Why would someone jeopardize their family’s welfare by breaking the law?

STOP breaking the law and everything is A OK.

Google “Operation Wetback” to see how Truman and Eisenhower handled this situation previously.

Posted by FirePilot | Report as abusive

You live in Ivory Tower,

Take a walk to nearest Latinos neighborhoods. They taxes cannot even pay for the schooling of their kids. Their kids will give birth before they graduate. They will never contribute to society.

I know people who actually work at schools in Latinos areas.

You talk economy.
Illegals deny jobs for our poor – the most insecure part of US society. They drive wages lower and don’t ask for social net. Yep. Businesses are happy to hire them. This is XXI century slavery. As slavery back in XIX, illegal workers stagnates industries. Low labor cost don’t provide incentive for business to innovate.

You pointing to Russia, take another lesson from Russian and European history 1890-1920:
Uneducated abused mobs is a weapon of mass destruction.

Posted by sk_usa | Report as abusive

There would be no need for a Guest-worker program if the hosts had to earn their own keep.

Posted by RSw | Report as abusive

Except for staying here illegally, they’re hard-working, law-abiding, family-oriented people. It’s not their fault to come here illegally because they had no other legal means to improve their lives. Think again.
Except for molesting boys the priest is a good citizen, well loved in the community, and contributes a lot to the society. It’s not his fault to have illegal sex because he can’t have it legally under church’s law.
Bernie Madoff was a great member of the society, and contributed a lot to many causes. It’s not his fault that he illegally appropriated other people’s money because he had no means to do so legally, and he badly needed it to support his life style.
See? What’s the difference? Law is not a la carte restaurant where you can pick and choose what you like. Illegal entry is a crime just as illegal sex (aka rape) or illegal appropriation (aka theft) is. Even the argument that it’s victimless crime doesn’t hold water. There’s no job Americans wouldn’t take, there are jobs that pay too little because the bosses know that there are illegal aliens willing to take it. If there were no illegal aliens, the boss would have to raise the pay so that Americans would be willing to take it. As simple as that.

Posted by An0nym0us | Report as abusive

Aboriginals were the first ones living here in North America and everybody else is here illegally. You took our lands and destroyed our environment and instituted your own laws upon us; includng these immigration laws based on Anglo-Saxon, Judeo Christian philosophy. I think whites should move back to Europe, blacks back to Afria and hispanics back to Latin America.

Posted by l_rutherford | Report as abusive

… remember all you white folks that you came to American and stole the land away from the Native Americans….so who are the real illegals????

Posted by froggy101 | Report as abusive

As a parent of a 1st grader, I see the problems the illegal Latino’s cause in the public school system. In my son’s class there are 27 kids — 12 Latinos, 3 Asians, 1 Indian and the remainder “white”. I volunteer in the classroom 2x a month helping the kids with reading, writing, grammar, etc. Guess who comprise 11 of the 12 lowest performers in the class??? 4 of these kids cannot even read or write at a K level, much less a 1st grade level. Parents are no help — these kids do not complete homework nor do the parents have any involvement in the school. The Asian and Indian immigrants do just fine – learn the language, do homework and have parents that participate. Both me and my wife work. We also have another child. Yet my son does homework every night and my wife and I take the time to participate in the school. I have spent a lot of time in Latin America (primarily Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua) as well as Asia and Europe. Latin’s far and away put the LEAST importance on education (the Lord will take care of them). If you want to come to the US to take advantage of the opportunity, LEARN ENGLISH. Reading and writing is fundamental to success at any level. Oh yeah, and with a birth rate almost 2x that of white Americans this problem will only get worse.

Posted by bigcamtom | Report as abusive

I am allin favor of immigration and even of people coming here to work and send money home. But right now the people along the AZ Mexican border cannot live the way they are living. The drug cartels own the trails: you either pay them $2500 or you carry their dope. People say they cannot hike or picnio on large swaths of land for fear of encountering smugglers. These people carry guns and have no compunctions about using them. If you oppose Right to Carry in national parks, you’ll support AZ trying to protect its citizens. People near the border assume that if they leave their houses unoccupied for a few hours, there WILL be break-ins. They have had home invasions, vandalism, burglaries … They cannot- nor should they be expected to- live like this. Psst. Media. The law does not criminalize illegal immigration. That’s what “illegal” means.

Posted by lemonfemale | Report as abusive

Name-calling (“RACIST”) detracts from the issue. This is one of the tactics out of Saul Alinsky’s book “The Radical”. (You can get this book on Amazon.) He is an old time Chicago community organizer from the 1930s on. And Hillary Clinton did her senior year college thesis on Alinsky and his theories. He asked her to join him in Chicago, but she decided to go to law school instead. His tactics continue to be employed by people today, and originated from Alinsky and the liberal left.

People who feel at a disadvantage employ this tactic, hoping to detract from the real issue. Hugo Chavez is one such person.

Name-calling hopes to avoid discussion of the issue, which here appears to be whether to follow the law or not, pure and simple. No one denies illegals are for the most part good, hard working people. But this sidetracks the real issue of obeying the law or not. For those who spent years following immigration procedures in becoming a legal citizen, this must seem like an affront to their hard work in doing so.

What we really need is a discussion on the law and applying it. We don’t need a boycot or a discussion on the merits of immigrants or name-calling.

Posted by JB1111 | Report as abusive

The comments all seem justified, except for the ones that belittle Bernd, he’s just presenting a side that most people have never heard of and there is value in learning about his information since it apparently impacts our society. That said I think the main issue here is that basically if you are not caucasian the probability of being stopped is very high just becuase of what you look like even if you are here legally. You could be second, third, fourth generation immigrant in this country which most people are in the USA, including whites, and you will still be pulled over for looking latino, but not if you are caucasion. If you are caucasion in the USA you have very likely never been racially profiled and pulled over and will likely never know what its like.

As a working professional and a legal immigrant from Asia, but latino looking, I am the grand child and nephew of men who have fought and risk their lives for this country in WWII and Korea, as US citizens, let me tell you what its like. I have been a model citizen all my life and lived the life that my forefathers have worked so hard for me to have. Never took hand-outs and never cheated on my taxes which apparently 70% if the country does. While driving through Cleveland in a new Subaru station wagon I was pulled over for looking like me. The police claimed I didn’t use my blinker, but I actually did because I was warned of the racial profiling in this area I was very vigilant not to disobey anything. It was windy on I90 and 40degress out which made it feel more like 10 below. They offered me to sit in the back of the police car. I stood outside for over an hour while the police turned my car upside down looking for drugs, as some drivers honked their horn driving by and accellerated well above the speed limit. We all know that illegal immigration is illegal, that is not the issue. At issue here is humilation and isolation of an entire race. Although not as many as latinos, but there are also an estimated 75,000 Canadians and Europeans who live in this country illegally. If we would justly enforce the law across all races then we wouldn’t have an issue with this law. Please go ahead with the law, just enforce equal quotas of each race that you stop. Caucasian citizens won’t mind, they obey the law and they never cheat on their taxes especially the ones that do yard businesses, cut hair from home, and home contractors who work hard so they can afford nice homes, giant new trucks that accellerate like they own an oil rig, bass boats, ATV’s, barrels of beer, satellite big screen TV with premium channels, Vegas vacations, but can’t afford health care.

Posted by richmitch | Report as abusive