American Competitiveness in the 21st Century

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Marisa DeFranco: Dispelling some of the myths that drive debate over U.S. immigration policy
By Marisa DeFranco
“Close the borders.” “Save ourselves.” “Kick out the aliens.”

The platitudes are flying again, in newspaper opinion columns and private conversation. As an immigration attorney, I am usually on the receiving end of such sophomoric solutions. I always to endeavor to enlighten the speaker with the cold, hard facts.

The foremost myth is that immigrants take jobs away from Americans because they provide cheap labor. The facts, on two levels, belie this myth.

First, we have legal immigration. Legal immigration allows people to enter, live and work in the U.S. as temporary and permanent workers. On the legal level, foreign workers are certainly not cheap. If an employer wants to sponsor a foreign national to work in the U.S., it must pay that worker the prevailing wage as mandated by the Department of Labor.

I have handled hundreds of these cases, and foreign workers, especially in the information technology industry, earn top-level salaries, as do their American counterparts.

Thus, the presumption of cheap labor simply does not withstand the evidence.

On the illegal level, foreign workers are certainly not stealing jobs from Americans. Most illegal immigrants work in low-level positions in the agricultural, hotel/restaurant and services industry, as well as the garment industry (read “sweatshops”).

They pick the crops in the fields so we can have inexpensive produce at the supermarket. They bus our tables when we go out for a fancy dinner.

They make our clothes (I’m referring to sweatshops in the U.S., mainly New York and California. Factories abroad are an entirely different subject.)

They make our beds and pick up our trash when we take a vacation to “get away from all our stress.”

They even pay taxes! A Washington Post article in April of this year reported that in 1998 undocumented workers contributed $4 billion to Social Security, and, from 1990-1998, paid over $20 billion into the fund, but, naturally, received no credit for this contribution.

Undocumented workers are toiling in these jobs simply because Americans have no interest in working in these minimum wage (well, ostensibly minimum wage), labor-intensive occupations. Moreover, large corporations like the system exactly as it is, despite the Bush administration’s talk of giving Mexicans a one-year temporary work status.

Workers in these industries are truly cheap labor. But the problem isn’t the siphoning of jobs from Americans. The problem is the exploitation and brutal, criminal treatment of illegal immigrants for the sake of a fatter bottom line.

A second favorite myth I’d like to dispel is the following: “Illegal aliens come here just to loaf off our generous welfare system.”

Now, that statement is just loaded with laughable oxymorons. Generous welfare? Loafing illegals? Not only are the terms incongruous, they are completely inaccurate.

Illegal immigrants have NEVER been eligible for welfare benefits, and, after passage of the Personal Responsibility Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (a.k.a. the “Welfare Reform Act”), LEGAL immigrants lost their SSI and Medicare benefits. Later, some benefits were restored, albeit under very narrowly defined parameters.

The notion that illegal aliens risk their lives to cross our borders or enter our ports in order to collect minuscule government checks is laughable and plainly incorrect.

The third myth, also cherished by xenophobic isolationists, goes something like this: “Got to close those borders. Problem solved.”

There’s the sheer impossibility of this task. Does anyone who mutters these words ever seriously contemplate how physically and fiscally impossible sealing off 12,380 miles of coastline, 3,986 miles of Canadian border and 2,066 miles of Mexican border would be?

But the concept if also fraught with dangerous implications.

Immigration is necessary for economic growth. Japan has endured 10 years of recession with no foreseeable respite, and one of their major problems is the lack of a strong work force (in numbers). Its strict immigration policies have left it without the workers it needs to fuel its growth.

Furthermore, isolationism will not protect us. It failed to protect us from Pearl Harbor, and it failed to protect us on September 11, 2001 (albeit this was more a failure of security).

The then there’s the fourth myth — that immigration is out of control, and that the U.S. takes an inordinate share of refugees and immigrants, and other countries need to share the burden of relocating displaced peoples.

Again, this myth is completely without merit. The facts speak for themselves. Despite public perceptions, immigration decreased in the 20th century.

In 1907, 1,285,349 people immigrated here (including the grandparents and grandparents of many reading this today). In 1998, on the other hand, 660,477 people immigrated to the U.S.

Undocumented workers account for only a tenth of 1 percent or .001 of the total U.S. population each year.

In 1999, fewer than 1 percent of the world’s 125 million immigrants came to the U.S. Moreover, only 85,010 refugees, or .7 percent, came to the U.S. in 1999 out of a total 11.7 million worldwide.

We absolutely need answers, but not the reactionary, mindless proposals spewing forth these days. True solutions will only come from people with vision who are willing to look at the hard facts and put in the long, demanding work of implementing real solutions.

We need to accept that immigration is an integral part of the American way of life we seek to protect and that undocumented workers are an asset rather than a liability. On an even grander scale, we, and other nations of the world, need to implement foreign policies that improve conditions in peoples’ countries of origin so they need not flee their economically starving or socially oppressive homelands in the first place.

Perhaps if we supported the very eager democratic factions in many nations rather then propping up corrupt dictators and thugs, things would improve for people the world over.

Marisa DeFranco of Peabody if a lawyer who specializes in immigration issues. She ran for an at-large seat on the Peabody City Council last year.

(Please note that typographical errors are not those of the author. The paper mistakenly added them during the editing process.)