OK–Let’s Talk About Immigration Again

Among the many things that set my hair on fire these days is the national “discussion” of immigration. I put quotation marks around the word discussion because there is virtually nothing about the use of immigration as a wedge issue that resembles a calm, fact-based discussion or debate. As David Brooks once wrote, the only people who have less actual data on their side than the anti-immigration folks are the people who deny climate change.

If anyone harbors doubts about the entirely political approach to what the media routinely calls the “border crisis,” it should have been dispelled when the GOP abruptly walked away from a bipartisan proposal that–after difficult negotiations–had given Republicans pretty much everything they’d been demanding, so they could use the “border crisis” as a campaign issue.

What has gotten lost in this deeply-dishonest politicization of the issue is the importance of immigration to the American economy. A reader recently shared a report from the Economic Policy Institute, listing six reasons that immigration isn’t hurting American workers–and explaining why immigrants are a vital part of America’s workforce.

What are the facts?

Immigrants make up about 14% of the U.S. population; some 43 million people. Together with their children, they are about 27% of us. Approximately 11 million are undocumented, and most do not come via the southern border; individuals who have flown in and overstayed their visas vastly outnumber those who cross the border illegally. 

Immigrants made up 17% of the U.S. workforce in 2014, and two-thirds of those were here legally. Collectively, they were 45% of domestic workers, 36% of manufacturing workers, and 33% of agricultural workers. Those percentages help to explain why state-level efforts to curb immigration have come back to bite them: in Alabama a few years ago, the state passed a draconian law targeting immigrants, and crops rotted in the fields. Farmers couldn’t find native-born residents willing to do the work, despite offering to pay more than minimum wage.

What about those repeated claims that immigrants are a drain on the economy? The data unequivocally shows otherwise. Undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars into Social Security for benefits they will never receive. These are people working on faked social security cards; employers deduct the social security payments and send them to the government, but because the numbers aren’t connected to actual accounts, the workers can never access their contributions. The Social Security system has grown increasingly—and dangerously– reliant on that revenue; in 2010, the system’s chief actuary estimated that undocumented immigrants contributed roughly 12 billion dollars to the program.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that approximately half of undocumented workers pay income taxes, and all of them pay sales and property taxes. In 2010, those state and local taxes amounted to approximately 10.6 billion dollars.

By far the most significant impact of immigration, however, has been on innovation and economic growth. The Partnership for a New American Economy issued a research report in 2010: researchers found that more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies had been founded by immigrants or their children. Collectively, companies founded by immigrants and their children employed more than 10 million people worldwide; and the revenue they generated was greater than the GDP of every country in the world except the U.S., China and Japan.

The names of those companies are familiar to most of us: Intel, EBay, Google, Tesla, Apple, You Tube, Pay Pal, Yahoo, Nordstrom, Comcast, Proctor and Gamble, Elizabeth Arden, Huffington Post. A 2012 report found that immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a business as native-born Americans. As of 2011, one in ten Americans was employed by an immigrant-run business.

On economic grounds alone, then, we should welcome immigrants. But not only do we threaten undocumented persons, we make it incredibly difficult to come here legally. If there is one fact that everyone admits, it is the need to reform a totally dysfunctional and inhumane immigration system. Based upon logic and the national interest, it’s hard to understand why Congress has been unwilling or unable to do that. Of course, logic and concern for the national interest have been missing from Washington for some time. 

The GOP’s anti-immigrant hysteria is part and parcel of its White Christian Nationalism. Granted, there has always been a nativist streak in America; Ellis Island was first established to keep “undesirables” from entering the country. “Give me your tired, your poor, your masses yearning to breathe free”– was Emma Lazarus’ response to the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Know-Nothing Party was formed largely by people who feared that Irish Catholic immigrants would take jobs from God-fearing Protestant “real Americans.”

The current eruption of that old bigotry gives new meaning to that old expression about cutting off your nose to spite your face…


  1. Powerful evidence would be a meaningful counter-point to bigotry, if evidence counted in public discourse. Thanks for this blog.

  2. It’s so simple to me since we all were immigrants via our ancestors, that is unless your heritage is Native American Indian. We (USA) were/are the melting pot, aren’t we? We enjoy the vast culture we are exposed to; the food, drinks, dance, arts, etc. The hypocritical plea by “white men” to close the border is just their fear of being a minority, and they of all people certainly know how they treated minorities and don’t want that treatment foisted upon themselves.
    My, my, what a state of turmoil we are in, what are we to do? Vote blue because they care about people, because it takes people to perform tasks, and the rest will take care of itself.

  3. Some of those resources are a bit old – “2010.” We’ve had a record number of illegal immigrants flood the US just in the past year. No mention of the cause. What countries are being destabilized?

    Where are they supposed to live, considering we have a housing crisis? Real Americans cannot even afford to pay rent in many markets. The influx of illegal immigrants at the Southern border has grown exponentially. There cannot be enough jobs for all of them. Are they ending up on the streets living in tents?

    I know Trump told the MAGA agents to vote against the bipartisan package because it would have subdued the issue from national politics. He wants to talk about deportation to his MAGA crowds, who are all pearly white and scared.

    Meanwhile, the media is playing into his hands by writing about attacks on police and the recent murder in GA of a college student by an illegal.

    Doing nothing does not help the situation and only fuel the fire. Once again, Washington falls short of solutions.

  4. Let me play Devil’s advocate. If Democrats truly cared about people, would they not work toward a solution that allows anyone paying into the system to collect benefits? If not, that seems to be extremely exploitative. That 12 billion mentioned in the article the government is now dependant upon,seems to be another example of exploitation.

    The companies mentioned as examples for emigre’ entrepreneurship is misleading. How many of those endeavors were started by poor undocumented immigrants?

    This is the perfect example of how the Democrats have joined the Republicans in the exploitation of those working people at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

  5. You say
    > it’s hard to understand why Congress has been unwilling or unable to do that
    I find it easy to understand, the Republicans said it out loud after the failure of the recent border bill: it’s useful to them as a political weapon. They prefer to run on it rather than address it.
    This is not a problem of “Congress” it’s specifically a problem of the Republicans in Congress. The last chance Democrats had to fix this problem was 2009-2010 when they had a filibuster-proof Senate, and they were using all their energy to get Obamacare over the line.

  6. You would think a political party that once was aligned with worker’s rights would be appalled at the thought of supporting an environment exploitative to workers and complicit in making excuses for the support of no protections for said workers.

  7. Ian,

    I believe Michigan is getting ready to send Genocide Joe and the Democrats a huge message by voting for “Uncommitted” in the primary.

  8. Thanks for the history lesson. Until today, I never knew why Irish immigrants were so deeply hated back in the 1800s. They were the main workers that dug the Wabash and Erie Canal. It was back-breaking dangerous work and many of them died from poisonous snake bites, malaria and cholera. Without Irish immigrants that canal might have never been built.

  9. “Real Americans” Todd? Your language shows your spin.
    Bona-fide statistics, and actual information count for nothing in
    the “discussion” we are not having in this congress.

  10. Back in the 1600sthe Native Americans were friendly towards the white-skinned European immigrants until those immigrants started killing them and stealing their land. This country’s white-skinned colonial settlers sure were a nice bunch of immigrants, weren’t they?

  11. Good for Michigan voters!

    You cannot trust any person or persons supportive of genocide. Not.At.All

  12. In a comment a few weeks ago, I gave an outline of a proposal to end the “crisis” and bring everyone waiting at the border into this country, while creating opportunities for citizens as well as immigrants. If a solution were wanted, there are numerous ways to resolve this issue!

  13. Re: Nancy.

    It’s incumbent upon present day land owners to give back the land their ancestors had taken from the Native Americans. Perhaps reparations to the Native American population would be a much more Nobel endeavor than spending billions supporting the pensions of Ukrainian political executives?

  14. Todd – I have no idea where you obtain news, but tRump told the MAGA repubs not to sign the bipartisan package it would have drastically cut down illegal border crossings because it would have given Biden and the Dems a HUGE Political Win. It has been his and other maga republicans’ major campaigning issue.

  15. The “genocide Joe” slur is getting old, and screams antisemitism—genocide is wrong unless Jews are the target? I’m no fan of Netanyahu and his ultra right supporters, and from where I sit, the entire debacle in Gaza has been horrifically bungled. Meanwhile, let’s remember who started it.
    And on the topic of the upcoming elections, yes, definitely vote third party and ensure TFG gets back in the White House. Good plan.

  16. Todd,
    Is that “record numbers” at the southern border, or really record numbers? Because of the way we treat undocumented immigration, there are not good numbers on undocumented immigration because it’s UNDOCUMENTED! So, if there are estimate that most of the undocumented immigration is from people that just fly in and over stay their VISA, there must be some basis for that statement despite the great campaign photo op pictures from southern border.

    Cities like Minneapolis have proven that the housing crisis isn’t too many people, it’s exclusive and restrictive zoning. The need to keep “those” people out of rich white peoples neighborhoods overrides the need for affordable housing.

    The Republican plan seems to have always been to do nothing. A major reform was killed under Obama. Republicans did nothing when they controlled the White House, Congress, and the Senate under Trump. Most obviously now, when given almost everything they demanded, they killed the latest immigration bill. It IS the one campaign issue that seems to work reliably, now that overturning of Roe V Wade is killing them.

  17. Illegal immigration is victimless. However, it easily scares people as it is portrayed on some entertainment channels like Fox “News” (Republican propaganda). Immigration has always been foundational to our economy, no matter which border was crossed and what the paperwork does or doesn’t say.

    As an issue, it’s approved by Donald Trump, who leaves a long, large trail in his wake of victims of his lies, which never seems to end.

  18. Ian – Paying reparations to Native and African Americans is a very noble idea, but we all know that will never happen. Some African Americans have been fighting in court to take back valuable land that was stolen from their freed -slave ancestors who legally bought the land in the late 1800s-early 1900s. I hope they win their court cases. Of course, if they win then the state(s) must also
    pay the current value of the land and any improvements to the current owners.

  19. Lester – I wasn’t referring to what Biden has stated in the news. I was referring to the Bill that a bipartisan committee spent six months negotiating. The public has not been told about its full contents – only that the Ds gave the Rs everything they had been asking for.

  20. For years I’ve wondered if our country’s consistent failure to update and improve immigration laws is because large corporations that financially benefit from employing illegal immigrants keep fighting it.

    Approximately fifteen years ago some members of the Indiana legislature authored a bill that would have imposed large fines on corporations caught employing illegal immigrants. The bill was close to being passed, but died at the eleventh hour and the reason it died was not made public.

    There are several large corporations in north Indiana that prefer employing as many illegal immigrants as they can. Hiring them at extremely low wages enables those corporations to offer low wages to legal Americans. I’ve been told that some of those corps pay illegal immigrants ‘under the table’ because that eliminates employer tax expenses for those employees.

    So, I think that IN immigration bill died because some of the corporations either offered new large ‘under the table’ reelection campaign donations or threatened to pull their already large campaign donations if the bill passed.

  21. Nancy,

    Thanks for pointing out the connection to Corporate America. And, of course, “they” are the funders of both parties. There are no innocents here except those dead in the Rio Grande.

  22. The real “border crisis” is not on our southern fringe states; it is in the Republican House caucus, who openly admit that the bipartisan solution agreed to with Democrats in the Senate where Republicans got about everything they wanted was turned down by the House because of its value on the stump as a political issue. Perhaps, among other things, we should remind voters that those prices for produce at the supermarket are higher because of the rotting of such unpicked food due to the lack of labor to do such backbreaking work, and that House Republicans have placed the politics of chaos over practical solutions and the pocketbooks of Americans of all political persuasions.

  23. The Times (for a rare change) got it pretty right this morning:

    “The bottom line: Biden does have the power to reduce the very high migration levels of the past three years. And it’s true that he has been slow to do so. It’s also true that an enduring solution to the country’s immigration problems will require Congress to pass legislation.”

  24. Ian. The atrocities in Gaza have nothing to do with liberalism or Joe Biden. They have everything to do with denying the wisdom of the separation of church and state in the Middle East, including Israel, and the US which is a long term policy of right wing politicians everywhere.

    Without religiosity in politics and our nonsensical reliance on oil we would have no Middle East interests at all. Let Islam and Judaism carry on their never ending war over whose gods are more powerful. If that restricts our fossil fuel supply chain so what? In fact that would help us off fossil fuels which are unaffordable and unnecessary now anyway.

  25. No,Pete,you’re being wilfully disingenuous. Your Dear Leader,a.k.a. Joe Biden is complicit of genocide. That’s the truth,and with exception of the usual DNC lemmings, the entire world is aware of it.
    You’re either against genocide or your not. There’s no sitting on the fence for this subject. N.O.N.E.

  26. Thanks for this post. I practice immigration law and know the value that people from other countries bring to the US. That said, I think it is very important to clarify that the wide majority of people entering by the US southern border are being processed and placed in proceedings in order to protection claims. These individuals are not “undocumented” or “illegal” (the later being a term that has rightly been banished by most style guides). From the moment they enter the US and turn themselves in to authorities they are fingerprinted and subjected to monitoring—often via digital surveillance apps which track their movements and which they must use to take photos of themselves on demand to confirm their geolocation. Many are work authorized, lawfully present, and in a process that becomes more complex by the minute as the government seeks to restrict asylum protections. This new flow of migration is unique in our history and is a challenge which our nation must deal with. experts largely agree on solutions: Allow for additional legal pathways to come to the US and you will take the pressure off the asylum system. Congress doesn’t look poised to do that any time soon. So while Congress plays politics hundreds of thousands of people will continue to do what comes naturally to us humans—seek protection and safety for their families, even if that means leaving everything they know.

  27. The term “immigrants” is too broad to describe the full spectrum of people who want to enter the US. India and China, for example, send us many educated people, often already having advanced degrees and skills (physicists, computer gurus, electronics experts, physicians, etc.). Others come on student visas to get advanced degrees, medical residencies, or US work experience. There are serious barriers to their remaining in the US after student and work visas expire. One aspect of immigration reform ought to be rationalizing the process for absorbing such skilled and valuable people into our society. Some of the most brilliant and productive people I’ve met immigrated as children or adults. We need them.

    Then there are the countless numbers of people coming from the south, who are mostly uneducated or poorly educated, not proficient in English, and eligible only for low-paying, exploitative jobs in agriculture, meat processing, motel housekeeping, back of the house restaurant work, roofing, and other manual labor. As pointed out above, these people are escaping desperate conditions only to be used as cheap labor here. I do not know what is fair or doable, but it is a fact that absorbing millions of uneducated people and bringing them up to good employability is an enormous challenge. Another issue is the influx of many thousands of non-English-speaking children into our already overburdened school systems. In some cities, 90% of some classes are made up of children who must be taught English before anything else.

    My conclusion is that there is no one great solution to these problems, maybe not even “good” solutions; we have to search for “possible” or “feasible” solutions. Guns and razor wire at the border are clearly not answers.

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