May 26, 2005

Illegal Immigrants

Illegal immigration is one of those issues that liberals and conservatives can vehemently argue about. The conservative line goes something like this: We have laws that put certain restrictions and procedures on entering the country and how long one can stay. If someone breaks those laws they have to be held accountable. Furthermore, the illegal immigrants put a drain on public services because they use but don’t contribute. The liberal line: People immigrate to the US to escape poverty and persecution, and they make a tremendous contribution of labor to the US economy. We have a moral duty to care about the fate of illegal immigrants.

I agree with both lines of thought, and both seem a bit idealistic. Given the number of illegal immigrants we now have – estimated by Bear Stearns at around 20 million – we have to take a pragmatic approach. It’s unrealistic to send millions of people back to their home countries, and it’s unjust to allow illegal immigrants to live in an underground economy.

Not a small number of companies employee illegal immigrants, paying them off the books, providing no health care, paying no employment taxes, and withholding no employee taxes. The IRS estimates that $400 billion per year in federal tax obligations goes unpaid because of this. That’s a fair amount of money that could be used to offset the deficit, improve Medicare/Medicaid, and so on. And that number doesn’t include state and local taxes.

Hollow Business Complaints

Some businesspeople will argue that if they can’t employ illegal, or undocumented, workers then they will lose customers because their costs will be too high to compete. But that’s like saying if I don’t cheat on the SAT I won’t be able to get into college. If everyone plays by the rules, then no one has an unfair advantage via breaking the rules.

Still, some businesses will protest that without such undocumented laborers they will lose revenue to foreign firms who don’t have to play by the same rules. But if their business model, once held to a legal framework, can’t compete with foreign competition then maybe they need to find a more profitable business to focus on. Many countries have lower labor costs than the US, that’s just a simple economic fact.

And some businesses will say that the hassle of complying with more stringent immigration law is a costly burden. Well, where do we draw the line with government compliance reporting? Governments can make compliance reporting easier, that is sure, but such reporting is a fact of running a business. It’s hard to see how compliance reporting would sink a business.

Social Justice Concerns

I see two economic justice points here. First, it’s unjust to the undocumented workers to not pay their employment taxes. Employment taxes are used, primarily, to fund unemployment benefits and Social Security/Medicare. Both are social safety nets put in place for good reasons. If an illegal alien is unemployed, they can’t go draw on the state’s unemployment insurance fund. And since they are not participants in Social Security and Medicare, they can not benefit from those programs either. When undocumented workers are unemployed, injured or otherwise unable to earn a living, there is a cost to the rest of society. These undocumented workers do consume public resources – resources which are provided in large part by employment taxes.

The second economic justice issue is that when employment taxes are not paid, that share of the social safety-net burden falls on employers who do follow the law. The law-abiding employers are paying more than their fair share.

Many illegal workers are counted among the poor in our nation. One of the pillars of Catholic social teaching is the ‘option for the poor’ and working to end the causes of poverty. I don’t know of anything that says we are to be concerned only for the poor who are citizens of our country.

Moving Forward

It seems to me there are tremendous benefits of bringing the underground economy into the light by making undocumented/illegal workers legal and forcing employers to adhere to their employment tax duties. The fact is that millions of illegal workers are here, our economy depends on them, and we’ve looked the other way far, far too long. We will benefit by making them full participants in our society and economy.

At the same time, we could also benefit from enforcement of current employment and immigration law. We have laws for a reason, and in this case the enforcement of employment and immigration law can bring benefits to both immigrants and the nation as a whole. There will be arguments over what the laws ought to be, and that is how the political process works. We won’t get it all correct at the outset; it will take years to reform and improve.

Our country is based on immigration – how many of us can claim Native American heritage? Immigrants don’t threaten our country, society or economy. The threat that exists is based on our refusal to approach immigration in a rational, pragmatic way.