Swans Commentary » swans.com October 4, 2010  



Special Issue on Immigration


We Are All Immigrants


by Jan Baughman



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(Swans - October 4, 2010)   The US wine and agriculture, service, manufacturing, and restaurant industries could not flourish without the cheap and reliable illegal immigrants who risk their lives to come to this country and build our homes, tend to our vineyards, harvest our bounty, slaughter our livestock, cook our food, and wash our dishes. They even work at our shopping Mecca, Walmart, which exploits workers (legal and illegal alike) while its founding family rests nicely among US billionaires with the profits obtained from selling us imported food, cheap drugs manufactured in India, and cheap, toxic jewelry from China. Yet the anti-immigrant rhetoric would have you believe that 15 million Americans are unemployed because there are 12 million illegal immigrants in the country. Visit the United Farm Workers' site takeourjobs.org if you're an American citizen and would like to replace an undocumented worker in the fields. It is backbreaking work, but you'll have the pride of putting food on the tables of millions of Americans...

Other anti-immigrant rhetoric posits that they are a drain on taxpayers (e.g., education, health care). It is difficult to evaluate what that actual drain amounts to (and to refer to their presence as a "drain" to begin with is indicative of the utter inhumanity of this position) but most references outside the biased arena indicate that illegal immigrants' contribution exceeds the cost of their presence. With the crackdown on US companies hiring undocumented workers, an entrepreneurial closet-industry emerged to sell fake IDs and bogus Social Security numbers (SSN) that allow illegal immigrants to obtain jobs. The result is that these workers pay taxes, including Social Security, but will never receive benefits. According to a 2005 New York Times article, the Social Security "earnings suspense file," that is, W-2 earnings reports with incorrect or fictitious SSNs, "...is growing, on average, by more than $50 billion a year, generating $6 billion to $7 billion in Social Security tax revenue and about $1.5 million in Medicare taxes. [...] And "without the flow of payroll taxes from wages in the suspense file, the system's long-term funding hole over 75 years would be 10 percent deeper." Similarly, according to Cristina Jiménez in The Real Economics of Immigration Reform, "...tax dollars from undocumented immigrants are an integral part of our national economy, funding programs like unemployment benefits that support a large number of Americans in a time of economic crisis. This money is more indispensable than ever. The Internal Revenue Service estimates that undocumented immigrants contributed nearly $50 billion in federal taxes between 1996 and 2003."

In other words, while you're unemployed, not taking that farmworker job, and complaining about the Mexicans, they are contributing to your unemployment check... But that's a digression from facts to rhetoric, perhaps a saner approach since countering rhetoric with facts does not appear to work...

According to Wikipedia, "A new report from the Pew Research Center projects that by 2050, non-Hispanic whites will account for 47% of the population, down from the 2005 figure of 67%. Non-Hispanic whites made up 85% of the population in 1960." As a child in the '60s of California, one of the five states today with the highest number of immigrants, my mostly white classmates classified themselves by their cultural background -- half French, a quarter German, a quarter Italian, when they were 100% American. Being something other was perceived as exotic. Decades later the anti-immigrant sentiment appears to be on the rise, particularly since 9/11 and the rise of Islamophobia, Arizona's regressive new anti-immigrant law, and the increasing militarization of the US/Mexico border. In reality, such sentiment is not new -- only its targets are. In a historical review of anti-immigrant sentiment, Lilia Fernandez notes that:

Throughout our history we have depended on the most recent newcomers to do the hardest and lowest paid labor (think the Czechs, Poles, and Hungarians in the meatpacking plants of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle; the Russian and Italian girls in New York's garment district; Irish maids and servants). We have always relied on low-wage immigrant labor but rejected their social difference (their language, culture, appearance, "unassimilated" ways). Immigrants today are very similar to immigrants of the past and recognizing these similarities would go along way in educating the American public about immigration issues, advocating and protecting immigrants' rights, and shaping immigration reform. [...] How does knowing the change our understanding of immigrants today? One thing it teaches us is that the alarmist language used against immigrants -- that they will ruin society and the country -- was as unfounded and preposterous a hundred years ago as it is today.

Fernandez points out that a century ago there was no such thing as "illegal" immigrants; most who came were admitted -- you had to be ill or an anarchist to be turned away -- and today's restrictions for entering did not exist. Most of our immigrant ancestors (the good immigrants) could not have become American citizens under today's policies. Our grandparents, who were born of immigrants, would today be given the incendiary label of "Anchor Baby."

Another aspect of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that should not be ignored is the cultural phenomenon we continue to deny: classism. A recent survey on anti-immigrant sentiment found that Americans "are not necessarily afraid of job competition or supporting public services. Instead, the striking thing about Americans' attitude toward immigration is that they collectively tend to prefer immigrant workers with refined job skills instead of those lacking good training: Citizens will welcome, say, a computer programmer more readily than a manual laborer."

Illegal immigrants are in a zero-sum game in which we simultaneously exploit their labor, accept their taxes, and wage war on them. According to migrationinformation.org, the Customs and Border Protection agency (part of the Department of Homeland Security) budget was $5.9 billion in 2003; $7.7 billion in 2007; $9.3 billion in 2008; $11.3 billion in 2009, and President Obama has requested $11.4 billion for 2010.The billions of dollars spent to keep people out could be better spent on integrating them as the productive contributors to society that they are, and improving education and health care for all children as an investment in America's future. To continue to do otherwise is a great loss -- humanely, culturally, economically. It is time that we drop the rhetoric and recognize that we are all in this country, one way or another, thanks to immigration.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published October 4, 2010