Immigration and American Society
In the 2008 election, immigration became one of the most controversial issues, arousing passionate debate on different sides of the topic. After efforts to reform immigration law failed in 2006, many states and localities enacted their own tough laws, punishing employers who hired undocumented workers and landlords who rented to them. The new laws reflected fears that immigration had gotten out of control and was harming America. Opponents of tougher laws argued that they unfairly punish law-abiding people who have been in the United States working and paying taxes, many of them for much of their lives. Moreover, they argue, the American economy depends on the work that undocumented immigrants do and the taxes they pay. These two poles in the immigration debate reflect starkly different views about the costs and contributions of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States.
Those who advocate taking a tough stand on immigration emphasize the fundamental importance of securing the nation’s borders in an era of unprecedented threat from terrorists. To reduce the number of illegal immigrants currently living in the United States and to discourage others from coming, illegal immigrants should be treated as the lawbreakers that they are, in this view. In 2006, Congress passed legislation that reflected this line of reasoning. The bill approved construction of a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border.
Proponents of getting tough on immigration also point to the problems that the large immigrant community pose for American society. Noting that the vast majority of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America are low-wage workers, they cite studies showing that immigrants depress the wages of low-skilled American workers.a They also highlight the financial burdens that immigrants place on state and local governments with their use of social services and schools. Finally, those who favor getting tough on immigration often express fears about the difficulty of assimilating such a large group of newcomers. At worst, they fear that the United States will become partitioned into areas dominated by Spanish-speaking immigrants whose culture is fundamentally different from that of the rest of Americans. The existence of such different social groups in one country will undermine American political culture and American democracy.
Pro-immigration advocates argue that it is impractical to seal off the Mexican border. Instead, the United States needs to find ways to regulate the entry of noncitizens to work in the United States. Proponents of this view contend that illegal immigrants do not harm native workers because they are doing jobs that Americans will not do. They point to studies showing that illegal immigrants have minimal impact on the wages of less-skilled American workers.b They also emphasize that many illegal workers pay income taxes and Social Security taxes, as well as sales taxes.
The central policy goal of immigrant advocates is to create a path to earned citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Although proposals differ, most would require immigrants to demonstrate proficiency in English and pay a fine for having entered the country illegally. Such a path toward citizenship is essential to the health of American democracy, which suffers from having large communities of people who cannot vote and are fearful of public authorities. There is much less agreement on the pro-immigrant side about how or whether the United States should regulate the entry of noncitizen workers. Some support a guest worker program, which would allow noncitizens to work temporarily in the United States. Others oppose creating a guest worker program, fearing that it could create a permanent subclass of workers in the United States.
a. Kathleen Pender, “Labor’s Complex Situation,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 27, 2006, p. C1.
b. Pender, “Labor’s Complex Situation.”