Is it really 'illegal' immigration?

By RiShawn Biddle

Expresso • March 7, 2006

Before 1882, there really was no such thing as illegal immigration. Save for prostitutes and ex-convicts, an emigrating Mexican or Chinese could simply walk into this country and after five years, become a citizen. And the nation, especially those who were able to transport themselves and their goods by railway from New York to California, were to benefit from their arrival and settlement.

After 1882 this was no longer the case. A wave of anti-Chinese sentiment that year brought the first round of federal immigration laws, banning the emigration of laborers from China to the U.S. -- along with the so-called insane, retarded and potential welfare risks. By 1917, Congress further codified the nation's bigotry into immigration law by creating the Asiatic Barred Zone to keep the Chinese -- and this time, other Asians -- from arriving to the nation's shores.

Four years later in 1921, amid a wave of Klu Klux Klan- and nativist-inspired bigotry against those who weren't White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, Congress enacted the first of many quotas, restricting the number of Russian, Polish, Irish, Italian and other European, and Asian émigrés. A British immigrant was welcomed; Russian Jews were not.

By the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Mexicans were targeted out of fear that they took jobs from Whites. By the 1940s, it had lessened largely because of the need for additional labor as a result of the Second World War; the Bracero program for contract workers brought in Mexicans to work as migrant farmers for a time, then return home when they made enough income to feed their families.

By the time of the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, attitudes had changed against codifying bigotry into immigration law as quotas against Mexicans and Asians were all but eliminated.

But as my colleague Jane Lichtenberg notes in her post, America is back to using immigration laws to deal with issues that have almost nothing to do with immigrants. Commenters certainly are blaming the ills of rising state and local budgets, along with lost jobs and tax revenues, on immigration. But they are wrong.

It's forgotten that so-called illegal immigrants are taxpaying citizens. As members of both the mainstream and informal economy, they must buy groceries, furniture and other household goods, to which sales taxes are applied. Since they don't always benefit from the government services funded through such taxes, they are usually a net gain to this state's tax coffers.

Since many of them work under false Social Security numbers, they also contribute to the retirements of many Americans -- as much as $7 billion a year -- and lessen the burden of those costs that fall upon the rest of us. Essentially, they help keep this pas-through pension scheme stay afloat. Since illegals aren't as likely to become citizens, their contributions are a net gain to those of us who pay into Social Security and will be paid benefits -- maybe -- upon retirement.

These immigrants provide a myriad economic benefits -- and not just cheaper yard-cleaning services. The children and grandchildren of immigrants, often born in this country, become the entrepreneurs, executives and businessmen that drive this nation's success. Consider people such as Paul Orfalea, the founder of the Kinko's copy chain or even locals such as radio bigwig Jeff Smulyan. Immigration, be it undocumented or not, benefits this country, including those opposed to all of it.

One can argue that there is a cost in terms of emergency room stays in public hospitals and the like. But that's not the fault of the undocumented. As with the cost of caring for dying smokers, it's the fault of we the people, who decided decades ago that governments should have a role in providing health care. Same for schools; the citizens of this state and country decided long ago that a public education was an important service government had to provide and thus free riders are going to always take advantage of an item for which they are not charged.

The problem isn't the undocumented workers, but this nation's system of deciding who shall be allowed to stay -- or not stay -- in this country. There is no rhyme or reason as to why some are allowed to stay here and take the steps towards citizenship while others don't get permission to do so. An émigré to Canada, for example, gets a free pass if they are wealthy or have marketable skills. Such isn't practiced by federal officials here.

Today the United States maintains a restrictive H1-B visa program that limits the numbers of those workers for no other reason than out of fear that those workers will take jobs from Americans. This despite the fact that with three of every ten Americans dropping out of school and low rates of educational achievement, the prospect of Kanye West becoming the first billionaire hip-hop star is more likely than large numbers of native Americans filling jobs as physicists.

The reality is that contrary to the assertions of xenophobes and natives -- especially those who make up part of this site's and parent newspaper's readership -- most immigrants, including Mexicans, successfully assimilate into Indiana -- and American -- society. Consider the Germans who built the Rathskellar here in Indianapolis; their descendants are now the very Hoosiers near and dear to your heart. Same for the Italians, Eastern European Jews -- most of whom came here as undocumented immigrants -- Asians and yes, Mexicans.

Immigration of all kinds is a part of the Hoosier heritage. And it's part of the American heritage too. Perhaps the best way to end "illegal immigration" is to simply allow all but criminals, terrorists and those carrying communicable diseases, into the country.