Immigration reform is a hot item in Washington, D.C. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are developing proposals aimed at legalizing the status of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States.
Questioning Authority spoke with Professor Matthew McKeever, a specialist in sociology of immigration, about the socioeconomic demographics of the Latino population, the second largest racial group in the United States. Latinos make up the vast majority of illegal immigrants in the United States. Most (60 percent) come from Mexico, with many others arriving from Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—and China. The number of undocumented foreign residents in the United States has remained virtually unchanged over the past two years and, in fact, has declined slightly since 2007.
Questioning Authority: Who does the United States let into the country legally, and how do these migrants contribute to the economy?
MM: There are three main ways that foreign residents can obtain long-term visas: through occupational preferences, family reunification, or refugee status. The first is determined by what occupations U.S. authorities determine are in need, such as doctors, nurses, engineers, and so forth. Immigrants who invest a given amount in a job-creating business are also granted visas. These immigrants all bring economic resources and pay taxes that benefit the economy. There are also some refugees admitted each year, although over the past 30 years this has been a very small proportion of total immigration.
QA: We frequently hear in public discourse that illegal immigrants do not contribute to the U.S. economy, they take citizens’ jobs, and they don’t pay income tax. Is this accurate?
MM: Studies of the impact of immigrants on the national and local economy tell a much different story. Nationally, undocumented immigrants add much more to government revenue than they receive in benefits. All immigrants, legal or non-legal, pay sales and real estate taxes (through rent if they don’t own their own property).
Anyone who is formally employed by a company in the United States also pays income and Social Security wage taxes, even if they reported a fake Social Security number to obtain work. The only workers who earn enough to pay income taxes but don’t are those paid under the table, which happens for both native and immigrant workers.
In addition, most undocumented immigrants do not use the government programs they contribute to. They are not eligible for most social welfare programs, including Social Security, unless they obtain legal residency status. If their children are with them, they generally use public education, and, if injured, they cannot be turned away from hospitals due to lack of ability to pay. Of course, many who do get sick or injured avoid treatment rather than risk being deported. Locally, costs might exceed revenues in areas with a large number of undocumented immigrants, but this is rare.
Another crucial question is whether immigrants raise unemployment, or lower wages, in a local labor market. Recent work on this question shows that there are few areas of direct competition between undocumented immigrants and native workers. Where it does exist there is some lowering of local wages. The main consequence is for male workers without a high school degree, whose wages can be depressed slightly. Otherwise, though, the presence of immigrants in an area raises wages for native workers. Finally, undocumented immigrants tend to go to areas with low unemployment. If there are no jobs available, they have no reason to move there.
QA: What might be the economic impact of legalizing millions of people who have been working in the United States for years either with false papers or off the books?
MM: While 11 million unauthorized residents might sound like a large number, it’s just roughly 3 percent of the U.S. population. Many are younger, in age brackets that would not draw heavily on public services other than public education, which is already being provided.
The potential benefits to the United States could be substantial, however. Allowing this population to fully participate in higher education and the labor market could lead to rising wages, which would in turn strengthen the economy. Allowing them to more fully participate in their communities will make neighborhoods safer and stronger for everyone.
QA: In the 2012 general election, Latino voters overwhelmingly favored President Obama. How important will Latino votes be in future elections?
MM: The Latino population in the United States has steadily grown over the past 40 years, from about 10 million in 1970 to 48 million in 2010. Today, they are the second largest racial/ethnic group in the United States, roughly 17 percent of the total population, second to non-Hispanic whites (63 percent) and ahead of African-Americans (13 percent). Demographers expect this population growth to slow down somewhat, but not end. The Census Bureau estimates that the Hispanic population should more than double, to just over 100 million, by 2050.
There have been two recent changes that have made this group more visible on the national political scene. First, a group can only have a strong political effect when they represent a large voting block. Immigrants (non-citizens) don’t have the right to vote. Consequently, there are fewer Latinos registered to vote than African Americans, but they are catching up and will soon pass the latter group in number. Second, the Latino population is increasingly spread across the country. Latinos have been an important voting block in the Southwest for years, as well as in some cities in other parts of the country where they represent a large proportion of the voting population (such as Miami or New York). This has changed as the Latino population has grown in the rest of the country. Both of these changes have made Latinos a more powerful political presence in local politics nationally and in national political races.
Latino voters have just begun to exercise their political power. In any close election, having the support of this growing population is crucial. One lesson that both parties have reaffirmed in the aftermath of the recent presidential race is that it’s increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to win elections without the support of Latino voters.