As the Senate continues to grapple with immigration reform, it’s time to clear the air of some broad misconceptions in the current debate. Since writing about this topic over the last few weeks, my inbox has been flooded with e-mails raising questions.
Some critics seem especially rankled by my arguments that many illegal aliens are "otherwise law-abiding" members of their communities. Most detractors point out that illegal aliens can’t pay taxes since they aren’t entitled to work. But that’s only half right. Confusion and ignorance on the immigration issue abound, so, here are a few facts worth considering.
First, illegal aliens are not currently criminals. They have committed a misdemeanor civil offense under current law by entering or remaining in the United States once their visas expire, but the House-passed immigration bill would automatically make these offenses criminal felonies.
Second, illegal aliens, by definition, broke the law to enter the country, but the way they got here doesn’t differ all that much from the way most immigrants came in previous eras. Until the success of the immigration restriction movement in the 1920s, people who wanted to immigrate simply showed up at U.S. ports, or in the case of Mexicans and Canadians, just walked across the border.
There were laws in place governing naturalization, which varied over time from requiring that an immigrant live here as little as two years to as long as 14 years before being eligible for citizenship. Indeed, laws requiring registration of immigrants were set up to ensure that immigrants met the naturalization residency requirements.
Unless they were from Asia (Chinese and, later, other Asian immigrants were barred or severely limited from immigrating between 1862 and 1952), immigrants had merely to show themselves to be free of "loathsome or contagious diseases"; demonstrate that they were not likely to become dependent on public assistance (still required to gain admission today); attest that they were not polygamists, convicts or prostitutes; and, later, pay a small fee. These requirements were met after the immigrants were already on U.S. soil — in fact, the huge numbers of people immigrating in the early 20th century led to the creation of Ellis Island off Manhattan to process the entrants.
Today’s legal immigrants face a lengthy, sometimes decades-long, process, must have close relatives already living in the U.S. to stand any realistic chance of being admitted, or must possess unusual skills much in demand and have an employer ready to hire them.
Third, the overwhelming majority of illegal aliens pay taxes, including Social Security, Medicare and property taxes, not to mention sales taxes. The chief actuary of the Social Security Administration estimates that three-fourths of all illegal aliens have Social Security (and Medicare) taxes deducted from their wages. How? It’s simple.
Since it is illegal to hire someone who does not present a Social Security number (and show other documentation of legal residence), many illegal aliens use phony numbers or cards to get jobs. In 2002 alone, the Social Security Administration reported it had collected $7 billion in payroll taxes and $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes from workers who could not be matched with valid Social Security numbers.
In addition, illegal aliens pay property taxes just like everyone else, either directly, if they own homes (and surprising numbers of illegal aliens do), or indirectly through their landlords’ property taxes in the form of rent. Most illegal aliens pay income taxes — since these, too, are automatically deducted — but they fail to claim any refunds since they are fearful of drawing attention to their illegal status.
Do these facts mean we ought to ignore the problem of 12 million illegal aliens living in the United States? Of course not. It’s bad for all of us when laws are so wantonly flouted. Those who have entered the country should pay some price for having violated the law — a heavy fine, for example, which is the usual penalty for misdemeanor offenses.
The more difficult question is how to stop more people from coming here illegally — and the best way to do that is to increase border security and change our current, inflexible laws to make it possible for more people to come here legally.