Understanding Contemporary Immigration Debates: The Need for A Multidimensional Approach
Published on: Jul 31, 2006

In sum, while many anti-immigration advocates continue to harbor racist sentiments as they have historically, racism is clearly neither the driving nor central concern driving the current debate. Instead, as I will now argue, new factors are now shaping the nation’s view of the issue.

Among the most noteworthy is that the debate has focused on illegal immigration rather than on immigration and immigrants per se.  Historically, all immigrants regardless of their status were targeted when anti-immigrant sentiments held sway. It is reasonable to argue that this narrower and unquestionably legitimate focus is linked to changes resulting from the tragedy of 9/11.

The nation’s response to those attacks includes a transformation in how undocumented migration is perceived and addressed. Among the most important of these changes is that responsibility for immigration issues has been assigned to the newly created Department of Homeland Security. The Department’s published agenda calls for it to:

  • Increase overall preparedness, particularly for catastrophic events

  • Create better transportation security systems to move people and cargo more securely and efficiently

  • Strengthen border security and interior enforcement and reform immigration processes

  • Enhance information sharing with our partners

  • Improve DHS financial management, human resource development, procurement and information technology

  • Realign the DHS organization to maximize mission performance

Clearly, immigration issues are not emphasized by the Department. To the contrary, this agenda has led to linking immigration policies to the War on Terror, such as border security. Given that border security means, among other things, preventing undocumented immigration, the general public’s support of anti-terrorist measures is easily expanded to support efforts to curb undocumented migration. Thus, a lower tolerance for undocumented immigrants may primarily reflect the public’s understandable response resulting from conflating immigration and anti-terrorism issues within the Department of Homeland Security’s agenda.

This is especially troublesome because of the weak linkages between security and immigration issues. The 9/11 perpetrators, for example, had come as tourists or students, not as immigrants. In other words, they would have been able to enter the country if our borders had been perfectly secure. This suggests that the immigration debate could be sharpened and advanced by focusing on the extremely low probability that terrorists will try to enter the country as undocumented immigrants, an approach they are unlikely to engage in because it is such a high risk enterprise for the individuals involved, as compared to entering as commercial travelers, tourists or students, avenues that entail virtually no risk and are widely available to anyone who meets minimal requirements. In other words, to develop productive approaches for dealing with undocumented immigration we must begin by disassociating it from the War on Terror.

Unrelated to the anti-terrorist issue is the public’s concern over the cost of undocumented immigration and its impact on the labor market. Although critics greatly over-estimate the price the nation pays for undocumented immigration, the National Research Council has shown that undocumented immigration is not cost free, particularly to states with large concentration of unauthorized immigrants. In California, for example, undocumented immigrants cost citizens over $1,000 per family. This, combined with the way that immigrant taxes are distributed—the national government gains the most because the cost of the services it provides are much lower than the amount it receives from social security and other taxes, while local governments lose the most since the cost of the services they provide exceed the taxes they receive—create problems that legitimately concern citizens and legal residents. As immigration policy continues to be debated, it is essential to address these patterns. Part of that approach should include a complete analysis of a state’s and the nation’s overall economic relationship to Mexico. The Tomás Rivera Policy Institute’s report on the California-Mexico economic relationship is an example of such a study. Overall, it found that although undocumented immigration generated a net loss for the state, its cost was trivial in the context of the overall relationship. Thus, the report concluded that marshalling attacks on undocumented immigration for economic reasons could result in poisoning the state’s overall relationship with Mexico and jeopardizing the great economic benefits it brings to the state.7

The opposition of large segments of the nation’s workers to undocumented immigration also is an understandable albeit misguided response. In part it reflects dissatisfaction resulting from the loss of high paying jobs in sectors such as manufacturing and meat packing resulting from globalization. Since it is virtually impossible for displaced or down graded workers to vent their anger on the forces driving these changes, they direct their dissatisfaction at immigrants who are willing to take many of the few jobs remaining in these sectors at wages that are much lower than those received by the former workers. While the willingness of immigrants to accept such wages provides communities that were in rapid decline such as Lawrence, Massachusetts and meat packing centers in Kansas and Nebraska a new lease on life, the individual workers suffer because they often either have to accept the new lower wages or migrate to other parts of the country. Either response is likely to generate resentments that can easily be mobilized into anti-immigrant sentiments.

There should be no doubt that undocumented immigrants are not the cause of the changed world economy nor of the downsizing that many formerly thriving sectors have experienced. But it is equally clear that they are now benefiting from this restructuring. Rather than insist that immigrants only take jobs no one else wants, therefore, defenders of the undocumented need to work with the displaced workers and their leadership to pressure the government and the private sector to develop efforts to meet the needs of the nation’s displaced workers.

Also, although national level aggregate studies do not find that overall the undocumented displace less skilled American workers, there is local level evidence that suggests the opposite, especially if they are African Americans.8 Nestor Rodriguez’s studies in Houston describes undocumented immigrants completely taking over specific work sites; my research in Phoenix indicates that white employers prefer Mexican undocumenteds to African American workers; Maria Echeveste, a well recognized Democratic party activist and policy adviser, has publicly voiced concern over the extent to which undocumented immigrants rather than African Americans have been recruited to rebuild post- Katrina New Orleans; and Los Angeles service unions are now dominated by immigrants, many or most of whom are undocumented, suggesting that there, too, less educated white and African American workers have been displaced. The effort to respond creatively to today’s immigration dilemma requires acknowledging such local experiences. Failure to do so will prevent finding policy alternatives that emphasize the rights of the undocumented and ignore the well being of millions of American workers.