Should Illegal Immigrants be allowed to work in the United States? (opinion)

Mexican agricultural workers cultivate lettuce in California. Photo Copyright: Getty Images

Fear of the unknown fills our hearts when we hear immigrant stories in the United States. Stories of risks, courage, and sacrifices are very common to immigrant families. Amidst this, many mixed-status families risk being separated and potentially never able to see each other again. In contrast, while immigrants suffer to see another day, politicians take advantage of stereotypes and racist rhetoric to villainize undocumented immigrants. In 2020, we saw the level of treatment immigrants face at government facilities. The imagery of immigrants in cages reminds us of the inhumane conditions that have cycled in history. Furthermore, images of immigrants wrapped in aluminum foil blankets demonstrate the animalistic conditions that dehumanize immigrants. An opinion piece titled “The Heartache of an Immigrant Family” by Sonia Nazario from the New York Times covers the struggles immigrants face coming to the United States. In Nazario’s article, she provides the story of Lourdes Pineda, a single mother with two children who lives in Honduras. The article adds, “Lourdes sells tortillas, plantains and used clothes door to door, but barely earns enough to feed her children, and fears not being able to send them to school past the sixth grade” (Nazario). Lourdes wants a brighter future for her children, and for those reasons, she will do anything to secure better conditions for her family. Nazario then adds, “For those reasons, Lourdes made the painful decision to leave her children in Honduras, and find work in the United States” (Nazario). The so-called “American Dream” takes a twist when many in the United States make it impossible for undocumented immigrants such as Lourdes to obtain equal opportunities. Many critics argue that immigrants lessen the opportunities for native-born Americans and, for those reasons, should not be granted legal status or any opportunities. But, how can one deny a mother’s ambitions of a better future for her children? The debate of immigration has for many devastated many mixed families in the United States. Children who are native-born Americans will see their immigrant parents get deported and be separated. The continuous and politicized debate of immigration asks the big question, should immigrants be allowed to work in the U.S.? Despite the negative stigmas, data suggest that immigrants serve a deep impact on the U.S. economy and diverse work fields.

Alamo, Texas. Photo Copyright: Getty Images

One of the preliminary concerns in allowing immigrants the legal right to work or citizenship status is that immigrants are criminals. Former President Mr. Trump tirelessly claimed that immigrants were criminals and rapists. However, an article titled “Here’s the Reality About Illegal Immigrants in the United States” by Vivian Yee provides a fact check on immigrant rhetoric. Yee adds, “Such people do exist. The Migration Policy Institute has estimated that 820,000 of the 11 million unauthorized have been convicted of a crime. About 300,000, or less than 3 percent of the 11 million undocumented, have committed felonies” (Yee; par 20). Fortunately, not all immigrants are criminals as Former President Trump claimed. Trump’s claim is only a speculation and a fallacious argument that generalizes on behalf of all immigrants. Furthermore, the study also provides that, “The proportion of felons in the overall population was an estimated six percent in 2010, according to a paper presented to the Population Association of America” (Yee; par 20). In comparing points, native born U.S. citizens have a higher rate of being felons than undocumented immigrants. Less than three percent of eleven million undocumented immigrants are felons vs. six percent of the entire U.S. population. According to the U.S. Census, “the total population in 2010 recorded 309.3 million Americans” (U.S. Census). Applying the six percent rule of the general population would approximately estimate that 18 million U.S. Americans are felons. Based on this premise, native-born Americans are at a higher risk of being incarcerated than immigrants. In addition, a report titled “The Integration of Immigrants into American Society” by Mary C. Waters provides, “Studies demonstrate that immigrants and immigration are associated inversely with crime. Immigrants are less likely than the native-born to commit crimes, and neighborhoods with greater concentrations of immigrants have much lower rates of crime” (Waters 330). Based on this claim, an immigrant runs a lower probability of committing a crime than a native-born citizen. Therefore, the stereotype of immigrant criminalization is flawed, misapplied, and should not limit an immigrant’s right to work in the U.S.

Detention center in McAllen, Texas. Photo Copyright: Center for Border Protection

A second claim that denies immigrants the right to work in the United States regards the concerns that an overflood and massive population of immigrants is taking over U.S. resources. According to Jynnah Radford’s “2016’s Foreign-Born Population,” “the number of foreign-born residents of the United States was 43.7 million in 2016, or 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population” (Radford; par. 1). However, this does not compare to other countries that have a far larger population of immigrants. In “America Is One of the Least ‘Generous’ Countries on Immigration,” David Bier adds that, “In many other developed nations, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, the foreign-born have a higher immigrant population than in the United States” (Bier; par. 9). Most significantly, immigration to the U.S. has been far lower than in previous decades. In Daniel Griswold’s article titled “Net U.S. Immigration Rate Well within Historical Norm,” he adds that, “The current annual U.S. net migration rate is 3.3 per 1,000 U.S. residents. That is less than half of the U.S. migration rate in the peak years of the Great Atlantic Migration from 1880 to 1910 and below the historical U.S. average since 1820 of 4.3 per 1,000” (Griswold; par. 1). As follows, the data shows a decline in immigration compared to two centuries ago. The misconception of an overflow of immigrants and a lack of jobs for native-born citizens is not true. Data suggest otherwise that the rate of immigration has been declining and, for those reasons, lowering the chances of immigrants taking jobs from native-born U.S. workers.

Photo Copyright: ELIZABETH FLORES - Star Tribune

Many argue that immigrants take jobs that belong to native-born Americans. And, under that rationale, immigrants should not be granted an equal opportunity to work. But I ask, who will then take the position of fulfilling the low pay agricultural jobs? Who will take these positions with dreadful conditions, long hours, endurance in hot weather, and health sacrifices to pick the groceries that arrive in your kitchen? According to David Frum’s “Does Immigration Harm Working Americans?”, “Economists do not deny that immigration pushes wages down in the jobs that immigrants take” (Frum; par. 26). This point adds that immigration does drive down lower wages for native-born citizens. However, immigrants take those positions that require lower education and lower skills, removing themselves from the competition of native-born American workers who speak English and may have a high school diploma or even a college degree. Immigrants encounter many disadvantages and do not directly compete with native-born American workers. Many immigrants do not speak English fluently, have no social security identification, or have a high school or college degree. It is under this impression that immigrants are automatically removed from jobs dedicated to native-born Americans. Because low-wage jobs don’t ask for much skill, Lourdes, an undocumented mother, can come to the United States and find work easily without denying the opportunity for U.S. native-born workers. A report by the New York Times from Miriam Jordan titled “Farmworkers, Mostly Undocumented, Become ‘Essential’ During Pandemic” looks into immigrants during COVID-19. Jordan recognizes, “About half of all crop hands in the United States, more than one million, are undocumented immigrants, according to the Agriculture Department. Growers and labor contractors estimate that the share is closer to 75 percent” (Jordan; par. 17). Finally, the argument weighs that 75% of agricultural work is primarily made from undocumented immigrants. States such as California that produce most of the agriculture in the U.S. would be ruined if not for immigrants. Who else could stand the conditions of fiery smokes, COVID-19, low pay, and hot weather? Should we get rid of our workforce that picks our crops and food on our table?

One of the fears regarding immigrants is that their primary intention in coming to the U.S. is to gain welfare benefits. However, immigrants are not granted the ability to apply for welfare benefits. A report titled “Myths and Facts of Immigration” by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce states that, “Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for federal public benefits such as Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Medicaid, Medicare, and food stamps” (U.S. Chamber of Commerce). The concern that immigrants come to get welfare benefits is untrue. Like Lourdes, who is not a native-born citizen, she escapes a country of volatile conditions to send money to their families. In relation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also reports that, “immigrant families are less likely to use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or (SNAP) (commonly referred to as food stamps), than native-born families.” (U.S. Chamber of Commerce). Based on this premise, the concern for abuse to the welfare system is deceptive and distorted towards denying equal job opportunities.

Despite the negative stigmas about immigrants, immigrants have a considerable impact on the U.S. economy through innovation, entrepreneurship, and taxes, thereby bringing more money to the U.S. commerce industry. Studies by the American Immigration Council indicate that “Immigrant entrepreneurs in the U.S. generate tens of billions of dollars in business revenue” (AIC; par. 10). Alternatively, one might counter-argue that immigrants are the cause of a recession and declining economy. However, the American Immigration Council reported the following, “Immigrant-led households across the U.S. contributed a total of $308.6 billion in federal taxes and $150 billion in combined state and local taxes in 2018” (AIC; par. 8). In addition to providing tax money to the government, immigrants are bringing revenue, thereby increasing welfare programs to U.S. citizens. Thus, the taxes then received from immigrants provide the necessary funds for native-born Americans to cover bills and expenses through the help of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unemployment checks, and health care such as Medicaid. For these reasons, immigrants not only pay taxes but help grow many of the welfare programs which U.S. citizens depend on when they are unemployed, on leave, sick, or laid off.

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Immigrants also diversify funding through commerce and purchases in the U.S. Since immigrants live in the U.S., they have no option but to invest in local markets. The flow of money to retailers such as local businesses, gas stations, retail stores, and restaurants further increases economic growth. The American Immigration Council grants, “In the U.S., residents of immigrant-led households had $1.2 trillion in collective spending power in 2018” (AIC). In synthesis, the higher immigrant population creates a higher flow of money spent in local cities and businesses adjacent to where immigrants live. Without immigrants in the U.S., many of the fields that consist of low-labor work and lower education would be vacant, leading the economy to low levels of consumership and revenue to local businesses.

Another added benefit is that an immigrant’s social and economic mobility improves the U.S. economy. The study titled “Myths and Facts on Immigration” by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce adds that “Immigrants learned English, bought homes, got better jobs, became U.S. citizens, and integrated into their communities in many other ways” (U.S. Chamber of Commerce). The heightened development of immigrants spurs productivity to the U.S. economy and expands government revenues. When mixed-status families buy houses, they are forced to pay property taxes, bills, and government fees. Purchasing a home benefits the city’s fiscal taxes and the community from local property tax. Not to mention, schools are primarily supported by local property tax. In essence, immigrants pay rent and help support the finances of government buildings like schools through local and property taxes. For these reasons, the economic and social development of immigrants should be upheld. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also adds “that immigrants and their descendants become integrated into U.S. society, many aspects of their lives improved, including educational attainment, occupational distribution, income, and language ability” (U.S. Chamber of Commerce). Based on the research, an immigrant’s social and economic mobility benefits their families and the government since it provides a higher probability of mixed-status to earn better jobs from their educational attainment. We should not deny the legal right of immigrants to work since a percentage of their income from local taxes goes directly to funding schools and neighborhoods. The enhancement of new road pavements, the fixture of LED lights, and the brand-new park enhancements have been possible from the money earned by immigrants in one’s neighborhood.

Immigrants help strengthen the GDP of the U.S. A study conducted on behalf of the IMF by Florence Jaumotte titled “Impact of Migration on Income Levels in Advanced Economies” shows the importance of immigrants to the economy. Jaumotte provides, “Immigrant workers allow important sectors of the economy to expand, attracting investment and creating employment opportunities for native-born Americans. The study concluded that Immigration significantly increases GDP per capita in advanced economies” (Jaumotte). The benefits from the GDP are important at the international level since they indicate the economy’s health. If we denied immigrants the work opportunity, by that logic, it would decrease the GDP since it is immigrant’s low-skill and low-pay labor that has granted the opportunity for the U.S. GDP to withhold its strong value.

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Previous reports have indicated that immigrants influence a rise in the wages of native-born American workers. In the report titled “Immigration Wages” by Heidi Shierholz, she reports that, “Immigration has increased the wages of native-born workers by an average of 0.4 percent. The amount of the wage gain varied slightly by the education level of the worker. College graduates received a boost of 0.4 percent, high school graduates 0.3 percent, and workers without a high school diploma 0.3 percent” (Shierholz 16). Although the impact of immigrants is minimal, it demonstrates that it creates a rise in wages for native-born Americans in the U.S. . Similarly, a study by Giovanni Peri proved similar results in his work titled, “Immigration and National Wages: Clarifying the Theory and the Empirics”. Peri adds that “from 1990 to 2006, immigration increased the wages of native-born workers by, on average, 0.6 percent. In the long run, native college graduates experienced an increase of 0.5 percent, workers with some college 0.9 percent” (Peri). Furthermore, both studies indicate that immigrants have been responsible for a gradual increase in rising wages for native-born citizens. Based on these results, immigrants should be granted equal opportunity to the workforce.

Finally, immigrants provide innovation and entrepreneurship to the U.S. economy. In “The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration,” Francine D. Blau notes that “Immigrants are more likely to start a business than native-born Americans, whether it’s a corner shop or high-tech startup” (Blau). Additionally, an article by Yoree Koh titled “Study: Immigrants Founded 51% of U.S. Billion-Dollar Startups” presents that, “Among startup companies that were valued at more than $1 billion in 2016, half were founded by immigrants.” (Koh). Furthermore, without immigrants, we would not have most of the companies we have today, such as Google, PayPal, and Yahoo. For these reasons, immigrants shall be provided the opportunity to work in the United States. Despite the negative stigmas, immigrants have been able to establish companies that, to this day, have created many jobs for native-born U.S. workers. Who can deny that these companies have not benefited native-born U.S. workers?

Photo Copyright: Getty/Mario Tama

The pushback on immigration has made all of us forget our familiar roots of human empathy for struggling families. The daily struggles of families to secure proper living of basic human necessities have been denied in developing countries. Not to mention, immigrants have traveled to the U.S due to their country’s unprecedented surge of gang violence, unstable political agendas, and poor economic conditions that have made immigrants flee their home countries. The dangerous and unsafe conditions force immigrants to start a new life, where they can potentially earn a higher wage compared to their home countries. Unfortunately, immigrants face another challenge, which deals with potentially being deported, mistreated, and discriminated against due to their legal status. Despite the U.S. being recognized as the land of opportunity, it discriminates against the unprivileged and undocumented. This begs the question, should the U.S. sacrifice most of its workforce due to politicized debates and negative stigmas? Nobody can deny the results that immigrants have on the U.S. economy and, for those reasons, should be granted the equal opportunity to work without discrimination.


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Jose, formerly being undocumented, shares his passion for immigration law. Jose has graduated from Santa Clara with a B.S. in Political Science and Pre-Law.