Coming to America
New Mexico is at the center of the debate over immigration policy—which is really a debate about America's future.
By David A. Fryxell
The first of May, 2007, was much like any other spring day in Silver City's Gough Park. A few children half-heartedly played basketball. A young couple sought the shade of the park's towering trees against the strengthening sun. Traffic shuffled past on Tuesday errands.
The placid scene was nothing like a year ago, when May 1 brought placard-waving protesters to Gough Park as it did to parks and streets and courthouse steps across a nation grappling with the presence of 12 million among us who arrived illegally. Then the faces were fervent, the posture of those pressing their placards at the Pope Street passersby bordering on angry: "Immigration Reform Now!" the hand-painted signs demanded, and "No Human Is Illegal!"
Immigration activists elsewhere did stage rallies on May 1, 2007, but they drew nothing like the millions who marched in 2006. Some organizers blamed this year's low turnout on fear, sparked by raids by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers like that recently resulting in the deportation of 30 Santa Fe illegal immigrants. At least those who did march had learned a PR lesson from the year before, waving US--not Mexican--flags.
Other activists, arguing the marches have been ineffective, say they're focusing instead on voter-registration drives--with the help of the Spanish-language TV network Univision--and lobbying Congress. They're hoping to shape the landmark immigration legislation that's this summer's hot topic. The action, they say, has shifted from places like Gough Park to the halls of the nation's capitol.
Like it or not, however, two years after Gov. Bill Richardson declared a state of emergency along the border, New Mexico is once again at the center of the national debate over immigration policy and border security. Sen. Pete Domenici was one of about a dozen senators from both sides of the aisle who helped craft the compromise legislation backed by President Bush. (Domenici has not been as out front on the issue, though, as fellow Republican Sen. Jon Kyl from neighboring Arizona, whose support for the plan caught flak from the state GOP chairman and led protestors to urge Kyl's recall.) Sen. Jeff Bingaman authored a critical amendment to the compromise legislation, cutting the number of guest workers from 400,000 to 200,000 and eliminating a provision that would have allowed that number to escalate to 600,000.
After a procedural vote in early June put the bill on hold, both New Mexico senators then voted to resurrect it for one more try in the Senate where as this issue went to press it failed to get enough votes to shut off debate. The House may wade into the fray later this month.
Richardson, meanwhile, after initially saying he would support the immigration package, instead became the first Democratic presidential candidate to urge its defeat. "This is fundamentally flawed in its current form, and I would oppose it," the governor said. "We need bipartisanship, but we also need legislation that is compassionate. I'm not sure that this is." He argued that the plan places too great a burden on immigrants, separates families and creates a permanent group of second-class immigrant workers. Richardson also has long opposed the building of a 700-mile border fence that the measure finances.
In speaking out against the compromise bill, Richardson also cited the anti-immigration fervor firing some segments of the electorate, ranging from CNN news host Lou Dobbs to many of the GOP presidential candidates. "I was just very disheartened by all the Republican candidates at the debates," he said. "They were trying to overtake each other over who could be the most anti-immigrant. . . .
"I'm going to be speaking out on this issue, given that I'm a border governor and my heritage," added Richardson, whose mother was Mexican. "Maybe it won't help me nationally--but I believe it is my responsibility to do that and not take a mushy position. I notice everyone else is taking murky positions."
Brian Sanderoff, a New Mexico pollster, told the New York Times, "This is typical Bill Richardson. Bill Richardson tends to take a middle-of-the-road emphatic position with an act of toughness with it. That's Bill. He's hard to pigeonhole as being definitely anti-immigration or pro-immigration. He's going to take a middle stance where he'll seem to have positions on both sides of the fence."
As passions flare, whether from Latino protestors or conservatives decrying "amnesty," the facts in the current immigration debate can get lost in the smoke and rhetoric. One thing is clear: The bipartisan proposal that Domenici helped hammer out--and to which Bingaman made the first major amendment--is the most sweeping attempt to deal with the nation's immigration policies in two decades. Ultimately, as Congress and President Bush grapple with the core question of who gets to be an American--and what becomes of those who don't--the debate will help shape the face of the nation in the 21st century.
Like most compromise legislation, the original 326-page proposal was a hodgepodge designed to offer something for everyone but not everything for anybody. In an attempt to placate conservatives, before any legalization or guest-worker programs can begin, the package required certain "triggers" be met on increased border security. These included hiring an additional 18,000 Border Patrol officers, constructing more than 20 new facilities capable of detaining 27,500 illegal crossers, installing 70 high-tech monitoring systems along the border, and building 370 miles of border fencing and 200 miles of vehicle barriers. According to a draft map of the fencing plan, New Mexico would have only 12 miles of actual fencing, but would get the bulk of the vehicle barriers, along with Arizona.
Last month, right in our backyard, the government began testing the first 28-mile section of a high-tech "virtual fence" supporters view as an essential boost to border security. Designed by Boeing, the nine 98-foot towers were erected along the border southeast of Tucson. These "eyes in the sky" use video, motion sensors and radar to zoom in on people at distances up to five miles and vehicles as far as 15 miles away. Data can be beamed directly to border agents' patrol vehicles. Dubbed "SBInet," the system is budgeted at $8 billion through 2013--a figure that Homeland Security's inspector general warns could balloon to $30 billion.
Besides border security, the proposed "triggers"-which the Bush administration estimated could be met in 18 months-also included a requirement for employers to verify that all new hires are in the country legally. Within three years, all current employees would likewise have to be checked against a national database.
Even before the triggers were met, illegal immigrants could come forward and be placed on probationary status, working here legally while the Department of Homeland Security does background checks. It's estimated that all but 15 to 20 percent of the 12 million illegally in the US would pass this check for criminal records.
Once the triggers were in place, illegal immigrants could pay a $1,000 fine and receive a new "Z" visa, renewable every four years. They could then stay in the US indefinitely.
Z-visa holders wishing to become citizens would have to wait until a backlog of more than 4 million green-card applicants already in line gets processed--about eight years. Then Z-visa holders would have to make a "touch-back" visit to their native country and pay another $4,000 in fines. The total wait for a green card is expected to be 9 to 13 years.
The bill would make a dramatic--and, some say, heartless--change in how those candidates for citizenship are evaluated. Whereas past policy has prioritized family reunification, the new plan would shift the emphasis to reward workers in science, technology and health-care fields and other areas where America needs employees. The new merit system would also reward English proficiency and education.
The third key aspect of the plan, after enforcement triggers and a path to legalization, was the guest-worker program that Bingaman succeeded in slashing by half. The original plan called for 400,000 workers annually to be admitted on two-year "Y" visas to meet the needs of employers who've proven they can't find enough US help. Bingaman's amendment cut that to 200,000 and eliminated a twice-yearly adjustment based on labor needs that could have upped the limit to 600,000. The change, which passed 74 to 24, was supported by all of Bingaman's fellow Democrats except Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado, both members of the bipartisan group that forged the original plan. Fellow New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici voted against Bingaman's amendment, which was opposed by business groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce.
Under the plan, guest workers could renew their visas twice, for a total of six years working in the US, but a year back home must precede each renewal. Only a tiny fraction of guest workers would ever be eligible for citizenship.
Other than the border fence, the security provisions of the plan probably sparked the least controversy. In the two years since Gov. Richardson declared a state of emergency along the border, most Americans have come to see the importance of boosting border security. They may not agree with the do-it-yourself approach of the Minutemen, who've also grabbed headlines in recent years, but the consensus is that the porous US-Mexico border needs fixing.
No wonder: From the mid-1990s to 2005, the number of illegal immigrants arriving in the US annually averaged about 700,000, according to the Pew Hispanic Center--more than the total of new legal immigrants to the US from the entire globe. Compare that estimate to the 1980s, when the annual illegal flow was only about 130,000 and the US illegal population hovered around 3 million, not 12 million. The Pew study says two-thirds of the illegal aliens in the US have arrived since the mid-1990s. New Mexico is home to between 55,000 and 85,000 illegal immigrants, according to the report.
A 2004 Time magazine report painted an even more dire picture of the border crisis. It put the annual number of illegal arrivals far higher--at 3 million, "enough to fill 22,000 Boeing 737-700 airliners, or 60 flights every day for a year."
Immigration by the Numbers
$17,166—estimated minimum cost per illegal immigrant to deport the 12 million now in the US
35.7 million—number of foreign-born people in the US in 2005, legally or otherwise
1,954 miles—length of the US-Mexican border
700 miles—length of proposed border fence
$2 billion—cost of constructing proposed border fence
3—factor by which the size of the US Border Patrol grew from 1990 to 2005
2—factor by which the US' population of illegal immigrants grew from 1990 to 2005
3—factor by which the death rate of border crossers increased from 1990 to 2005
4.9 percent—illegal immigrants' share of the US civilian labor force
19 percent—percentage of Americans who say they or a family member have lost a job to an immigrant worker
92 percent—percentage of Latinos who believe it is "very important" to teach English to children of immigrant families
Source: Center for American Progress
The US had responded to this surge in illegal border crossing by dramatically increasing the size and funding of the Border Patrol. Before Congress passed the last major immigration bill, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), the Border Patrol was a relatively small agency with an annual budget of just $151 million. By 2004, that budget had soared to $3.8 billion and the number of Border Patrol agents approached 11,000--a staffing figure the compromise legislation proposed to more than double.
Ironically, however, nearly 20 years of Border Patrol buildups failed to stem the illegal tide (see "Borderline Insanity," October 2005 Desert Exposure). If anything, by forcing crossers to ever more remote stretches of border such as those in the Yuma, Ariz., sector and the New Mexico portion of the Border Patrol's El Paso sector, the enforcement buildup proved counterproductive. More crossers died in the attempt and the "coyotes" paid to escort them enjoyed record profits. But the stream of those seeking a better life in the US was merely redirected, not stopped. The cost of apprehending one illegal border crosser soared from $100 in 1986 to $1,700 in 2002.
So, for close observers of the border dilemma, the most surprising thing about President Bush's beefing up of border security with 6,000 National Guard troops is that--unlike all previous such efforts--it worked. Rather than simply spring a new leak, every area along the Southwest border has shown a drop in apprehensions--considered the best measure of illegal-crossing activity. Overall, according to the Border Patrol, apprehensions from October 2006 through March 2007 were down 30 percent compared to the same period a year ago, from 594,142 to 418,184. The Yuma and Del Rio, Texas, sectors showed the greatest declines--68 percent and 57 percent respectively.
Some experts expected that the crackdown in Arizona would drive crossers to the New Mexico stretch of the border. But the Border Patrol's El Paso sector, which includes southern New Mexico, saw a 42 percent drop in apprehensions from October through March. As crossing traffic has dried up, Mexican border villages like Palomas have become virtual ghost towns (see the Borderlines column in the April 2007 Desert Exposure).
Normally cautious Border Patrol officials voice optimism. "I think this is maybe the first time in history that we know that deterrence is taking hold," Michael Nicely, recently retired chief of the Tucson sector, told the Los Angeles Times.
Perhaps it's just the military appearance of the National Guard. "It's as if Mexico and the United States are at war," one frustrated crosser told the Times. If that's the case, the illegal flood may resume when the Guard, now numbering about 3,000 and due to be cut in half come September, departs completely after another year.
This buildup is also different, however, because it stretches the full length of the border, instead of trying to plug one or two holes. "The Border Patrol was everywhere," another would-be border crosser, who wandered in the hills for two days with a group of 200 trying to reach Tucson before turning back, told the newspaper.
The crackdown on employers who hire illegal workers has been far less sweeping than on border crossers. Despite a few well-publicized raids, enforcement has budged only slightly from its recent all-time lows; the number of criminal work-site enforcement arrests and charges in 2006 was 716--nationwide--up from just 25 in 2002.
Enforcement still has a long way to go. In the decade between 1992 and 2002, after all, investigations of employers hiring illegal workers dropped more than 70 percent, from 7,053 to 2,061. Arrests on job sites plummeted 94 percent in the same period, from 8,027 to just 451. And the number of final orders levying fines on companies for immigration-law violations dropped 99 percent, from 1,063 to 13. According to the Migration Information Source, "Clearly, the data show employer sanctions enforcement activities have dropped to levels that cannot reasonably be expected to create an effective deterrent to the employment of unauthorized immigrants. The current system tolerates both the large-scale employment of the unauthorized and the discrimination and retaliation fostered by the Immigration Reform and Control Act's employer sanctions provisions."
But that may be about to change, if the bipartisan immigrant proposal passes. The plan called for a huge expansion of the Basic Pilot employment-verification system that's now used by only one in a hundred employers. The proposed Employment Eligibility Verification System (EEVS, pronounced "Eves") would require employers to check all new hires against a national clearinghouse database; EEVS would then tell companies within 10 days whether a prospective employee is legal to hire. Within three years, EEVS would be expanded to require verification of all the nearly 150 million workers in the US. Company CEOs would be held legally liable--facing perjury charges--for documentation that's not in order. Penalties for hiring illegal workers would also jump from $250 for a first offense to $5,000 per employee, escalating to a whopping $75,000 each by the third offense.
How can employers make sure they're hiring legal workers? That may be the proverbial fly in the ointment of the whole immigration-reform package. Most workers would be required to produce identity cards with "biometric" data such as fingerprints. Plus the Social Security Administration would have to begin issuing fraud-resistant cards and to study adding a photo to Social Security cards. Those requirements go a long way down the road toward a national identity card so feared by civil libertarians.
"The threat this poses to our privacy is extraordinary," Tim Sparapani of the American Civil Liberties Union told the Wall Street Journal.
For conservatives, the hot button on immigration is the specter of "amnesty" for the estimated 12 million people who are already in this country illegally. Opposition to "amnesty" fired up the talk-radio and Internet grass-roots surge that derailed the bipartisan bill last month. As Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a supporter of the measure, told the New York Times, "It's a lot easier to yell one word, 'amnesty,' and it takes a little more to explain, 'No, it's not, and if you don't do anything you have a silent amnesty.'"
President Bush and presidential hopefuls in both parties can debate whether the bipartisan plan offered this summer represents "amnesty" until they're blue (or red, depending on the state) in the face. The fact is, it's impractical to round up and deport all the illegal immigrants who are already here: A study by the Center for American Progress puts the cost of such a mass deportation at $206 billion to $230 billion over five years, and estimates that 10 million people would have to be deported by force. Besides, some 3.2 million US citizens by birth, mostly children, live in households where the head of the household and/or the spouse is an illegal immigrant. Do "family values" politicians truly propose making orphans of millions of young US citizens by deporting their parents?
The only practical question is how best to accommodate the illegal immigrants already among us. Despite the heated rhetoric over "amnesty," most Americans seem to understand this: A recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that 78 percent of Americans favor some sort of earned citizenship for illegal immigrants living in the US. Similarly, a Washington Post/ABC News survey found that 62 percent of respondents supported giving illegal immigrants now in the US "a chance to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status"--a percentage roughly unchanged since 2005. When CNN pollsters in 2006 asked half their sample if they favored "amnesty," 70 percent supported the idea even with that loaded term attached; when the question was phrased to the other half as allowing illegal immigrants to "stay in the US and apply for citizenship," support rose to 80 percent.
Another survey, by the Tarrance Group and Lake Research Partners, found that one-third of Americans think so-called "earned citizenship" is "the same as amnesty"--but 62 percent of these respondents support it anyway. As immigration expert Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, puts it, "Even many voters who consider earned citizenship 'amnesty' so badly want the immigration problem solved that they no longer care about the label."
Is the proposed "Z visa" route to earned citizenship too lenient--or too tough? In the second Democratic presidential candidates debate last month, Gov. Richardson was critical of the so-called "touch-back" provision, arguing that it would require people to leave their jobs and families for essentially a punitive trip back to their native country. Others have suggested that the total of $5,000 in fines en route to a green card would keep many off the path to citizenship.
But Cecilia Munoz, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a leading Hispanic activist group, says, "People will do everything in their power to get on the path to legality. It's a lot of money for people who are low-wage workers. But it is accomplishing something that is incredibly valuable. . . . People will move heaven and earth to be able to afford it if they believe that they are really going to get there."
When it comes to selecting Z-visa holders for citizenship, the debate over the balance between reuniting families versus bringing in needed workers becomes entangled in the fundamental question of what jobs immigrants are--and should be--doing. Whether the issue is doling out green cards or bringing in 200,000 "guest workers" with little hope of citizenship, the answer begins with the impact of non-US citizens on the workforce and the economy. In short, is it true, as President Bush is fond of saying, that illegal immigrants do the work that Americans won't?
Not exactly. The fact is, the stereotype of the illegal-immigrant maid, farm worker or poultry processor is an imperfect picture of America's illegal workforce. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, about 20 percent of illegal immigrants work in construction, 17 percent in leisure and hospitality industries, 14 percent in manufacturing and 11 percent in wholesale and retail trade. They add up to at least 10 percent of the total workforce in construction, leisure and hospitality, and agriculture and related industries. In certain specific occupations, however, illegal workers make up 20 percent or more of the labor force, including cooking, painting, washing cars, hand-packaging and installation of carpeting and flooring.
Though the work might be grueling or unpleasant, the pay isn't always merely minimum wage. According to Jeffrey S. Passel, a senior associate at the Pew center, pay rates for illegal workers often range from $10 to $20 an hour. Some 55 to 65 percent of illegal workers are not in the "underground economy," Passel adds, but are making the same wage as legal co-workers.
But what effect are illegal laborers having on the wages and jobs of those legal employees? That remains a topic of fierce debate. A recent New York Times analysis points out that the total number of US unemployed--about 6.5 million--is less than the estimated 8 million illegal immigrants with jobs. If all the illegal workers were deported, would America even have enough warm bodies to fill their jobs?
When it comes to farm workers, at least, industry spokesmen say the answer is clearly no. According to the US Department of Labor, at least half the nation's 1.8 million crop workers are undocumented. Representatives of the $30 billion agriculture industry say they simply couldn't put food on America's tables without illegal workers. Where enforcement crackdowns have shut off the flow of illegal farm labor, as in Colorado, the industry has even turned to prison labor (ironically, under legislation authored by a Latina Democratic legislator, Rep. Dorothy Butcher, who says, "What do you want me to do? Let the farms dry up? This is not fantasyland.").
In the same Times article, Robert J. LaLonde, a professor of public policy at the University of Chicago, argues that the presence of illegal immigrants may actually boost overall employment, at little cost to wages. Investment money follows illegal immigrants into the country, he maintains, increasing overall labor demand.
Still, LaLonde concedes that Americans might want some jobs now held by illegals, "but they don't want to work at the lower price." You don't have to hold a degree in economics to conclude that means illegal workers are depressing US wages.
Indeed, in arguing against a major new guest-worker program, economics columnist Robert J. Samuelson contends, "Tight labor markets raise wages. Admitting more poor, low-skilled Latino workers hurts Latinos already here by depressing their wages. It's anti-Hispanic and anti-assimilation. Almost certainly, it also hurts the wages of other low-skilled Americans."
Who gets hurt most by allowing several hundred thousand guest workers into the country? Ironically, the low-skilled Hispanic workers--legal and illegal--already in America, along with other minorities and those on the lower end of the income scale. Much the same case could be made about border security: Slamming the door benefits US workers, including those here illegally. While Samuelson believes we must come to an accommodation with the 12 million illegal immigrants within US borders, enabling still more cheap labor to enter the country helps only big business.
"Liberals have embraced an unholy alliance with business in which business gets most of the gains and immigration's costs are thrown onto the public sector," Samuelson writes. Since 1990, he notes, some 60 percent of the increase in those lacking health insurance has been among Hispanics.
Says New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, "We shouldn't be placing American workers in the position of competing with an unlimited number of guest workers."
Even in the supposedly special case of agriculture, Los Angeles Times writer Gregory Rodriguez argues, "Farmers want indispensable labor to also be disposable. Like the nation at large, they think they can benefit from temporary labor without having to accommodate and integrate permanent laborers. But that's the very illusion that has gotten us into this immigration mess in the first place."
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does project that 22 of the nation's 30 fastest-growing occupations through 2014 will require on-the-job training. That suggests a need for unskilled immigrant and guest workers.
But Samuelson dismisses claims that the US suffers a shortage of unskilled workers: The unemployment rate for people with a college diploma is currently about 1.8 percent; compare that to the 7 percent jobless rate among the 13 million US workers without a high-school degree.
There's another, often overlooked drawback to the idea of allowing hundreds of thousands of guest workers into the US: They may not leave. The Pew center reports that already, 45 percent of America's undocumented workers arrived legally. They didn't scuttle across the border at night; they simply overstayed their visas. As a New Republic editorial argues, "A decade from now, thanks to a burgeoning population of guest workers who have avoided going some, we will find ourselves having this debate all over again and hearing yet more nativist cries for deportation."
If the US needs to import any workers, it's arguably those with skills and advanced degrees. Part of the tension over family versus "merit"-based green-card rules stems from disagreement over what interests US immigration policies should serve: the humanitarian needs of separated families or the broader needs of an America trying to keep pace with an ever-more globalized economy.
Despite the shift toward merit-based citizenship, high-tech companies still view the bipartisan immigration plan as a "disaster," says Stuart Anderson, executive director of the nonpartisan National Foundation for American Policy. One criticism is that the merit-based green-card plan isn't employer-driven, and thus could fail to keep up with fast-changing needs. Another issue is that, although the plan nearly doubles the number of H-1B visas that employers use to bring workers with specific skills into the US, from 65,000 to 115,000, that's still not nearly enough to meet demand. This year, employers filed 135,000 H1-B petitions on the first day alone.
A Washington Post editorial adds, "The tens of thousands of H-1B rejects will constitute some of the world's best and brightest, and America is foolish to block them from the US economy." One-third of all science and engineering doctorates awarded at US universities, according to the National Science Foundation, go to foreign students--many of whom must then take their newly minted PhDs home, because immigration laws won't let them stay. One out of every four US public companies backed by venture capital, according to the National Venture Capital Association, was started by an immigrant--including Google and eBay. How many such future enterprises are we losing to countries like Australia, which recently changed its immigration rules to attract more highly skilled and educated workers?
In 2006, 63 percent of the 1.1 million immigration visas were awarded on the basis of family ties, to relatives of US citizens or legal residents. Only about 13 percent of visas were granted to workers with government-identified "first priority" skills, including "outstanding professors or researchers." Almost twice as many visas went to the brothers or sisters of immigrants as to these "first priority" workers.
Despite the brouhaha over "separating families," the original bipartisan plan tweaks this ratio only slightly. After the current backlog is eliminated, the proposal calls for 550,000 family-based visas a year and 380,000 merit-based. That's 59 percent awarded on family connections, down from 63 percent last year.
There's little reason to fret, in short, that "only rocket scientists are going to get in," as Laura Reiff of the Essential Workers Immigration Coalition recently put it. That group represents the service industry, which obviously wants to insure a steady stream of unskilled workers to depress the wages it must pay.
Besides the argument that immigrants compete with Americans for jobs--which, as we've seen, may have enough validity to at least be cautious about admitting hundreds of thousands of guest workers, the other claim critics make is that immigrants are a drain on the "social safety net." Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation maintains that the average lifetime cost to taxpayers of each low-skilled immigrant household totals $1.1 million. Immigrants "assimilate into welfare," as Rector puts it.
The Immigration Policy Center, however, rebuts that claim, pointing out that "the vast majority of immigrants are not eligible to receive any of these [welfare] benefits for many years after their arrival in the United States. . . . Legal permanent residents cannot receive Supplemental Security Income [SSI], which is available only to US citizens, and are not eligible for means-tested public benefits until five years after receiving their green cards."
Moreover, the federal welfare reform passed under the Clinton administration reduced new immigrants' eligibility. Since 1994, the percentage of immigrant households collecting welfare payments, SSI and food stamps has fallen by almost half. Only Medicaid payments have risen, as states have liberalized immigrant eligibility.
When it comes to Medicare and Social Security, a Wall Street Journal editorial points out, immigrants have a net positive impact on the bottom line. That's because they're mostly young--70 percent in the prime working age range of 20 to 54, compared to 50 percent of native-born Americans--and thus contribute to payroll taxes for decades before collecting benefits. Social Security actuaries have calculated that over the next 75 years, immigrant workers will contribute $5 trillion more in payroll taxes than they will receive in Social Security benefits.
The impact of illegal workers is even more positive, because many use false Social Security numbers to get hired--but will never see a dime in benefits based on those wages. About three-quarters of illegal workers pay payroll taxes, and Social Security's Earnings Suspense Fund, which accumulates payments by workers who never claim benefits, totals more than $420 billion. Overall, undocumented workers generate $7 billion a year in Social Security taxes and contribute $1.5 billion to Medicare, while receiving zero benefits. Without those contributions, according to the Social Security Administration's chief actuary, the system's long-term deficit would worsen by 10 percent.
It's not just the solvency of Social Security that baby boomers may be looking to immigrants for. Dowell Myers, a University of Southern California demographer, argues in a new book, Immigrants and Boomers, "Baby boomers will surrender their economic role to this generation of immigrants and their children," who will become an essential pool of taxpayers and laborers. Myers cites the changing ratio of senior citizens to people of prime working age, 25 to 64, which will jump 30 percent from 2010 to 2020 and another 29 percent in the decade thereafter. He calculates that the ratio of seniors to workers, including immigrants, will go from 250 seniors per 1,000 working-age people in 2010 to 411 per 1,000 by 2030. Besides paying taxes, he points out, boomers need the next generation to someday buy their houses.
Myers recently told Congressional leaders at a hearing at Ellis Island that the 1.5 million annual influx of immigrant softens the impact of this demographic change by about a quarter compared to what it would be otherwise.
Given Americans' reluctance to boost immigration, however, and possible negative effects of additional arrivals on lower-income workers who are already here, what's the best public policy? Increasing the emphasis on skilled and highly educated immigrants--who can earn more and boost the economy right off the bat--makes sense to most experts, even though it lacks the heartstring tug of family unification. But we can also strive to improve the skills, education and future earning power of the immigrants and minorities who are already here.
Ron Crouch, director of Kentucky's State Data Center at the University of Louisville, makes this argument in some 150 presentations a year to educators, high-tech leaders and government officials. "If I'm an old white person, I'd better be interested in how these young Hispanic kids are doing," Crouch tells audiences. Including immigrants, Hispanics and blacks added up to 80 percent of all US population growth between 1990 and 2005, he notes--and all the population growth ages 45 and younger.
America needs this group not just to pick its crops or even to staff its nursing homes as they fill with aging baby boomers. These young minority workers of the future will also need to be "architects, business owners, doctors and scientists," Crouch says.
And yet, nationwide only slightly more than half of all blacks and Hispanics graduate from high school, compared to 78 percent of whites. In New Mexico, according to the Center for American Progress, only 13 percent of Latino and 18 percent of African-American fourth-graders are proficient in reading, compared to 34 percent of white students.
A healthy economy requires moving more Latino youths through high school and college, USC's Myers concludes. "It's not for the good of Latinos," he says. "It's for the good of the nation."
That's a problem we can't solve by building a wall along the border, or
even by passing landmark immigration legislation.
David A. Fryxell is editor of Desert Exposure.