Picking Apart the Case for Illegal Immigration


The above-linked op-ed piece, “In Praise of Latin American Immigrants” by Bernd Debusmann, appeared on the Reuters web site this weekend.  Debusmann attempts to make the case that Americans should be grateful for Latin American immigrants, whether legal or otherwise, for their role in boosting the economy and supposedly making the rest of us richer.  His point is not that Hispanics are in some way superior to other immigrants, but that population growth, regardless of the source of supply of immigrants, is beneficial.  His case is based on fundamentally flawed economics.  Let’s pick it apart:

Thanks largely to immigration from Latin America (both legal and illegal) and the higher birth rates of Latin immigrants, the population of the U.S. has kept growing, a demographic trend that sets it apart from the rest of the industrialized world, where numbers are shrinking. That threatens economic growth and in the case of Russia (U.N. projections see a decline from 143 million now to 112 million by 2050) undermines Moscow’s claim to Great Power status.

Apparently, it has escaped Debusmann’s attention that the U.S. now finds itself in decline in relation to much of the rest of the developed world, or doesn’t recognize the potential role of continued population growth in driving that decline.  And, while a shrinking population may threaten macroeconomic growth, a growing number of economists now question the relevance of such measures as determinants of individual well-being.  And he clearly doesn’t understand the relationship between population density and per capita consumption and its role in driving unemployment and poverty. 

A country’s population starts shrinking when fertility falls below the “replacement rate” of 2.1. births over the lifetime of a woman.

False.  While a fertility of 2.1 may be the “replacement rate” (the rate at which each generation replaces itself with another of the same size), that rate only assures further population growth when each generation lives longer than the one it replaces.  As long as life expectancy continues to grow at current rates, a fertility rate of 1.8 is necessary to achieve a stable population. 

Their (Hispanics’) spending is expected to exceed $1 trillion by next year despite the recession.

If Debusmann’s point here is that Hispanics are making a positive contribution to economic growth, his argument just back-fired.  Since Hispanics represent 15% of the population and $1 trillion is only 7% of GDP, then the Hispanic population is a net drag on the economy.  By contributing twice as much to the labor force as they contribute to consumption, they are throwing the labor supply-demand equation out of balance, putting downward pressure on wages.  My point is not to disparage Hispanics, but to illustrate that the very population growth Debusmann is championing here has actually hurt the micro economies of Americans.  While this population growth was disproportionately among Hispanics, the results would have been the same regardless of the race or national origin of the immigrants. 

A point worth noting but rarely mentioned in the often overheated debate about immigration: illegal immigrants in effect subsidize social security payments to Americans over 62.

This is because people working with false papers have their social security taxes withheld from wages but are not entitled to receive benefits. The sums involved are substantial — the Social Security administration has an “earnings suspense file” of payments under names that do not match social security numbers. The file has been growing by around $7 billion a year which goes to pay benefits to legal workers.

Does Debusmann realize how trivial $7 billion is relative to the social security trust fund or relative to the more-than-offsetting burden on other social services like welfare, health care, the education system, etc.? 

So is the argument that the federal government has done so little to secure the U.S.-Mexican border that states need to take things into their own hands? The number of Border Patrol agents along the 2,000-mile frontier has doubled in the past five years, to 20,000.

Do the math.  Divide 20,000 into four shifts.  That’s 5,000 at any one time.  Figure that 1,000 of those are staff personnel working out of offices.  That leaves 4,000 agents guarding a 2,000 mile border – one every four miles.  Far more are needed, along with more impenetrable barrier fencing.

Under the law, the toughest of its kind in the country, state and local police are required to “determine the immigration status” of anyone “where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is illegally present in the United States.” Failure to carry identification documents at all times would be grounds for arrest. Critics say “reasonable suspicion” opens the door to racial profiling.

Of course it does, just as laws passed since 9/11 open the door to racial profiling of middle-easterners.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to enforce them.  It just means that we need to be alert to the potential for abuse and deal with it accordingly. 

Despite the acrimonious debate sparked by the Arizona law — which faces legal challenges and might never take effect — there is common ground on the issue between a good number of politicians on both sides of the aisle: the present system is a mess that needs fixing.

Wait a minute.  Hasn’t the whole point of this op-ed piece been that this “mess” has been a big boon to the American economy?  If so, why fix it?  Why not let it become a bigger mess? 

… the late Senator Edward Kennedy, the Democrats’ most vocal champion of immigration reform, asked its opponents what they were planning to do with the millions already in the country. “Send them back …? Develop a kind of Gestapo here to seek out these people that are in the shadows?” Critics of the Arizona bill think that prediction has come true.

Of course, send them back!  No nation has ever questioned the right of any nation to deport people who have entered illegally.  This law hasn’t changed that.  Nor does it establish a “Gestapo.”  It merely gives police the right to determine whether a person is in this country legally in situations where they have reasonable cause to suspect that they’re not. 

Here’s an example.  When my family was living in the Houston area, my sons were caught up in a multi-vehicle accident, caused when a very old Oldsmobile, loaded with Hispanic people, flew through a red light on a highway at about 60 mph.  The car struck another that had entered the intersection, throwing it into other cars, including my sons’.  When I arrived on the scene, I spoke with police who told me they had determined that the driver spoke no English, had no license and the car had no brakes.  When I asked the officer if these people were illegals, I was dumbfounded when he replied, “We don’t know, we’re not allowed to ask that question.”  I thought the officer was pulling my leg or shirking his duty.  Only later did I find out that he was right.

Another example:  at about that same point in time in Houston, an 18-wheeler took a curve too fast and capsized, landing on a car that contained a family with small kids.  The whole family burned to death, screaming while the flames held rescuers at bay.  In the investigation that followed, it was determined that the driver of the rig was an illegal immigrant.  I realized that I was lucky that the accident my sons were involved in wasn’t worse. 

The first example is exactly the kind of situation that gives police “reasonable suspicion” that the people involved were illegal, and both examples are exactly the kind of problems that the Arizona law is intended to address. 

Much of the immigration argument has glossed over the fact that for decades both the authorities and employers turned a blind eye to illegal immigration because the country has been deeply dependent on cheap labor — in effect one of America’s ways of competing with the low-paid workers of the Third World.

Now he’s appealing to the need to compete with the third world.  No doubt he would be arguing against the abolition of slavery on the same grounds if that practice still existed. 

Next, former president Bill Clinton is quoted:

The real reason for anti-immigrant sentiment, he (Bill Clinton) said, was the fact that the economic downturn in the last few years disproportionally fell on white males without college degrees, such as factory workers. “But they’ll get more jobs if the economy grows. Their taxes will be lower if we’ve got more taxpayers. The pressures on Social Security … will be less if we have more people contributing to the system.

First of all, check your facts, Bill:  unemployment is far higher among minorities, including Hispanics, than it is among white males.  Stop trying to turn this into a racial clash when it is not.  Secondly, isn’t it more likely that taxes will be higher and the demand on social security will be greater as the result of a greater demand for services?  Are we to believe that the more densely populated a nation becomes, the less government is required in order to maintain an orderly society?

“So I don’t think there’s any alternative but for us to increase immigration,” he said, adding that bringing in more immigrants must be part of the overall strategy.

God help us.  This is an example of the kind of intellect that we regularly elect to steer this country off a cliff.  Perhaps Clinton should relocate to Bangladesh, the most densely populated nation on earth, and try to convince them that the reason for their suffering is that they don’t have enough people. 

Nor is there any shortage of columnists who can make a living by appealing to those who can’t think beyond a one-step train of logic.

I’ve said over and over before, but it bears repeating again:  the debate about immigration cries out for a bigger context – a population policy.  If we deem it in our best interest to grow our population to the likes of China or India, or to a population density like that of Bangladesh, then let’s throw the borders open and let everyone in.  If, on the other hand, we see a need for stabilizing our population at a sustainable level, then we’d better get moving fast on halting illegal immigration and cutting legal immigration to the point where it matches the rate of emigration, or we don’t stand a chance.

5 Responses to Picking Apart the Case for Illegal Immigration

  1. ClydeB says:

    Thanks, Pete for putting this thing in perspective. Some one should also call the Reuters village and let them know that their idiot is wandering again.
    This guys analogy of the $7B of SS funds is relative to President Obamas’ braging about finding $100B savings in the nations budget. Virtually meaningless.

    With respect to the new AZ law, does it not limit law enforcement to those incidents where there already is a preceeding reason for contact, such as traffic violation, suspicion of shoplifting or other offense? It will not allow officers to arbitarily make “nationality roadblocks” or neighborhood sweepa in order to locate illegals.
    I think I’ll start a petition that will require writers on economics, population or immigration to have read Five Short Blasts before they can be published. It would eliminate a lot of nonsense such as this piece by Debussman.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      That’s my understanding, Clyde – that the law gives police the authority to check legal status if a crime has been committed and if the police have reason to suspect that the suspects are illegal.

      As George Will pointed out on ABC’s “This Week” this morning, there has been a federal law in place for 58 years that requires all immigrants to carry proof that they are in the country legally. It’s about time someone decided to enforce it.

  2. destructionist says:

    Most people in America aren’t against immigration; they’re just against illegal immigration. For example, like most of our ancestors, my mother’s parents were immigrants. They came through Ellis Island and followed the various legal steps required in order to establish themselves as true citizens of this country. The immigrants crossing the Mexican border, however, have absolutely no interest in following these legal protocols. Once they cross the border, they change their names and/or purchase social security numbers in an effort to conceal their true identities from the law. It is not uncommon for an illegal immigrant to purchase not one, but two or more social security numbers, just in case one is flagged. I have witnessed this crime with my own eyes. (One day, a supposedly legal immigrant was asked to give their social security card to a receptionist for a job application and an interview. When the receptionist happened to ask to see the card a second time, the immigrant mistakenly handed over a different social security card with the same name on it, but with a completely different set of numbers…)

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against Hispanics. I have many Hispanic friends, but they either have green cards to work in the United States or have become legal citizens. They decided to follow the rule of law and work within the boundaries of our legal system. Unfortunately, many immigrants do not, and it those particular individuals that we are most concerned about.

    Now it seems that those who sympathize with illegal immigrants wish to hijack the discussion of reform by attacking the law recently imposed by the State of Arizona through protests and boycotts; a state mind you, that has been besieged with crime, drugs and an ever-increasing population of illegal immigrants. Don’t allow them this option. Speak out and take action. This is your country… fight for it.

    In closing, I consider myself to be a bleeding-heart liberal: a Democrat. My ancestor, Roger Williams – one of our founding fathers, was one too; regarding the acceptance of different nationalities, cultures and religions as the vitality and lifeblood of any country. Nevertheless, I think that he would agree with me; that immigrants wishing to become legal citizens have not only the obligation, but the civil and legal responsibility to follow the rules of law established by any country in which they wish to become authentic citizens, just as our ancestors – both yours and mine – struggled so arduously and righteously to achieve.

  3. MikeF says:

    A population policy would certainly be the answer but would also be counter to our exponential growth culture. A culture that is promised to be continued by the ceaseless cry for growth.

    M. King Hubbert stated, “All we have to do is completely overhaul our culture and find an alternative to money.”

    He also stated that, “There can be no possible solutions to the world’s problems that do not involve stabilization of the world’s population.”

    M. King Hubbert died in 1989, but he gets smarter every day.

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