Immigrant Benefits to U.S. Negate Heated Rhetoric


It is always important to look at original or early sources of thinking on issues, immigration included. There are Indian or indigenous sources and there are Western Civilization sources.

Here is a Western source û the Roman poet Virgil: ôWhat race of men is this? Or what country is barbarous enough to allow this usage? We are driven off from the hospitality of its shores.ö

These lines about the wanderings of Aeneas are worth considering as the United StatesÆ debate on undocumented workers continues to evoke some nasty expressions of bigotry toward brown-skinned people.

They inspired another writer, one of the most prominent theological and juridical thinkers of his time and place, to advocate free immigration: ôIt is reckoned among all nations inhuman to treat visitors and foreigners badly without some special cause, while on the other hand it is human and correct to treat visitors well à

ôIt was permissible from the beginning of the world (when everything was in common) for any one to set forth and travel wheresoever he would.

ôFriendship among men exists by natural law, and it is against nature to shun the society of harmless folk.ö

These arguments, bolstered by several quotations from the Bible, appear in a lecture by Francisco de Vitoria, the 16th-century Dominican professor at SpainÆs University of Salamanca, laying out the rights of Spaniards and indigenous peoples in their encounter in the ôNew World.ö

Vitoria is justly celebrated for insisting on the human rights of Indians. Here, however, he is making the case for SpainÆs right to send its citizens into the lands of the Aztecs and the Incas.

There is an edge to his logic. ôTo keep certain people out of the city or province as being enemies, or to expel them when already there, are acts of war,ö he continues. When Spaniards who come, he says, with harmless intentions meet a hostile reception, they have a natural right to defend themselves and to launch war against those who attack them repeatedly.

This argument makes up the first of seven titles justifying the Spanish wars against the Indians. It is headed, ironically enough, ônatural society and friendship.ö

Indian nations often welcomed the European arrivals in this spirit of hospitality. Early Jesuit missionaries recounted forcing their way into a longhouse in an Iroquois village, knowing that once inside they would not be kicked out by their involuntary hosts.

With this background, Indian country has to look with some bemusement at the hostility shown to new arrivals by descendants of these previous immigrants, who at the very least overstayed their welcome. To heap on the irony, at least half of the estimated 12 million ôillegal aliensö in the United States have indigenous roots in Mexico and the Central American countries created by the uncontrolled immigration of Spanish conquistadors.

It would be an interesting intellectual exercise to ask why VitoriaÆs principles shouldnÆt apply to them as well.

His assumption is that no country has the right to bar entry to folk who intend no harm and would, in fact, bring a net benefit. TodayÆs immigrants are certainly more benevolent than the early Spaniards were. Only the most paranoid demagogue would see them as al-Qaida terrorists or enemies to the United States. The less overheated question is whether they bring a net benefit to the United States.

Certainly the immigration serves an economic function. The whole phenomenon arises from long-range demographic trends in the U.S. population. Simply put, there is a structural labor shortage in the lower-paid, so-called ôdirtierö sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, service and some manufacturing.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does a fascinating annual survey of native-born and immigrant employment patterns. Native-born workers make up a higher proportion of the more desirable jobs. But there are amazingly few U.S. citizens available to pick up the jobs the undocumented workers do.

Anti-immigrant politicians claim indocumentados are taking jobs from millions of Americans. But look at the pool of unemployed native-born workers with no high school diploma û the group most likely to be affected by this competition.

In 2004, when unemployment was higher than today, it numbered less than 700,000. Imagine what would happen if the incredibly misguided Sensenbrenner/King immigration bill succeeded in expelling 12 million workers û the U.S. economy would implode.

The BLS survey does support one contention. Immigrant workers receive lower wages than native-born workers in the sectors where one would expect to find indocumentados. (The survey didnÆt distinguish between legal and ôillegalö immigrants. But in the professional sector, where one would expect the immigrants to have proper papers, salary levels were equivalent.)

The prevalence of undocumented workers probably does depress wage levels in entry-level jobs, or puts the brakes on potential inflation. But the problem here isnÆt the workers; itÆs the lack of documentation.

Fear of deportation can be a powerful damper on wage demands, allowing the notorious exploitation of the ôillegalö work force. But this exploitation conversely keeps prices down for the rest of the country.

If you are totting up economic benefits, this one sadly might be a net gain for U.S. consumers.

The other serious balance-sheet argument is that undocumented workers use social services without paying taxes. This would be a net loss for the country, if it were true, but some little noticed statistics say it isnÆt.

Immigrants who work from street corners might be in an all-cash economy, but a very large number draws regular paychecks with all the standard deductions. Since many give false Social Security numbers, they donÆt receive the benefits they are paying for. The Social Security Administration reports that it has received some $8 billion in contributions that it canÆt match with accounts.

Furthermore, a growing number of indocumentados are paying federal taxes openly through a little-known Internal Revenue Service procedure that issues them substitute ID numbers called Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers. The ITIN was designed for foreigners without Social Security numbers.

The IRS does not ask if the immigrants are legal or not and is forbidden by law from sharing its files with the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Last year, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times newspaper, the taxmen issued 1.2 million ITINs, nearly a 50 percent increase from the year before.

Since 1996, it has issued 9.2 million of these numbers, which translate into tax returns. Moreover, says the Times, the idea is catching on that by filing tax returns, indocumentados can build up a paper trail to show their long-term residence in the country.

The net result could well be that the workers really are footing their bill, after all.

As the recent demonstrations have shown, this vast new population is bringing an intangible benefit to the country as well. It showed an outpouring of enthusiasm for the prospect of citizenship. In all the previous waves, immigration has produced excellent citizens, hardworking in civilian life and valiant in military service, even though they left the continent and the status of the First Nations irretrievably altered.

This new wave of immigration could be different in one major respect. Since so many do descend from the First Nations of the south, they could well help forge the grand alliance with the Indian tribes that will protect and further the great gains of the last generation.

Vitoria might have made a fanciful case for the benefits of Spanish immigration for the American natives, but the balance sheet for Natives of the present immigration seems heavily weighted to the positive.