Rather than constitute a drag on the floundering U.S. economy, immigrants of all types are providing a critical and needed boost, according to an author and think tank analyst.
“Immigrants contribute to competitiveness because they start businesses, pay taxes, and do seasonal agricultural jobs. We need to recognize their contributions to our economic, social, cultural, and culinary lives,” says Darrell West, author of a new book on immigration titled Brain Gain.
He notes, for instance, that the co-founders of Internet giant Google and chipmaking titan Intel Corp. were both foreigners who immigrated to the United States. “Imagine if Google were in Russia or the micro-chip industry had started in Hungary!” West says.
And illegal immigrants pay sales taxes when they purchase goods, property taxes when they buy or rent homes, and income taxes when they take jobs, he notes.
West calls it “a myth” that Americans don’t want illegal immigrants to remain in the United States, citing public opinion polls that show that more than 60 percent of Americans favor a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally if they “learn English, pay a fine, pay back taxes, and pass a background check.”
“The fact is many people support [immigrants staying in the country] if those specific conditions are satisfied,” he says in comments made during an online web chat.
West’s comments come in the midst of an increasingly loud debate on immigration policy. Last week President Obama delivered a speech on the issue in which he pressed for enactment of comprehensive immigration reform to deal with 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, while this week his administration moved forward on a court challenge of a restrictive Arizona law that critics say amounts to racial profiling.
Although West doesn’t support Arizona’s law, known as A.B. 1070, he doesn’t believe that ultimately, the federal challenge against the statue will be successful.
“The Justice Department claims states can’t make immigration policy when in fact states have been passing immigration laws for decades,” says West, who also is vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “In the 19th century, Southern states limited migration to their states based on race and property. California tried to exclude the Chinese in the late 19th century. And governors today sign all sorts of immigration laws and executive orders related to benefits and law enforcement. I don’t think the courts will buy the idea that only the federal government can make immigration policy.”
Congress Is ‘Incapable’ Of Reform This Year
Nor does West think Congress will successfully pass an immigration reform bill this year.
“Immigration reform this year is not likely because despite the massive dissatisfaction with the status quo, federal legislators are paralyzed,” he says. “They literally are incapable of addressing this issue right now. Of course, their inaction encourages states to pass their own immigration laws so we should expect more states to follow the example of Arizona and enact their own laws. My hope is that Congress will address comprehensive immigration reform next year and do it on a bipartisan basis.”
West suggests reframing the immigration debate because right now, “Americans see the costs of illegal immigration as being broad while the benefits are concentrated.
“In that public opinion climate, it is virtually impossible to pass comprehensive reform. In my book, I suggest ways that immigration costs are more narrow than many believe and the benefits are more widespread,” he says.
Moreover, West notes that the widespread perception of rampant crime generated by immigrants is just not true.
“Crime actually is down across the United States, including in border states. When illegal immigrants commit crimes and are convicted, they are getting deported,” he says. “Many people don’t realize that the U.S. has deported about 350,000 per year over the last decade. Prison authorities now match fingerprints and background checks for those who are incarcerated.”
Still, supporters of immigration reform must take border security seriously, West argues.
“Unless Americans feel secure about borders, there won’t be any immigration reform,” he says. “I think technology can help with law enforcement because it is very costly to have the Border Patrol monitor every mile of our border. We have dramatically increased the money spent on border enforcement over the past decade and illegal crossings are at a 30 year low.”
The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.