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A Perspective on the Immigration Debate


[1] The current debate over immigration in the U.S. is plagued by myths, inadequate theoretical frameworks, and ideological and political motives that seek to scapegoat unauthorized or undocumented[1] immigrants[2] for many of this country's economic, political and social problems. In this essay, I attempt to clarify some of the issues involved in this debate by discussing an alternative theoretical framework for understanding migratory flows, debunking some myths, and critiquing some of the ideological and political motives behind the current debate.

[2] A frequent question asked about immigration is, Why do they come? It is a valid question, since it represents an interest in understanding a significant phenomenon. And yet it seems to imply that immigration is in some way new, unusual or mysterious, when in fact it has been an integral part of the history of the U.S. and the world. There is another assumption behind the question for some, which is that immigration is problematic, but I will return to that issue below. First, I will discuss answers to the question itself.

[3] The most common framework for explaining migration is the push-pull model, which proposes that various negative economic, political or social factors "push" individuals out of their home countries and communities, at the same time that various positive factors "pull" them toward other countries. It is very similar to the model of "cost-benefit" analysis in that both assume that large-scale migratory movements can be explained by individual decisions based on evaluating the relative advantages and disadvantages of migrating versus staying put. The problem with these theories is that they cannot explain what initiates migration; they really only list factors that influence it. On the basis of these models, the better question would be, Why don't more come?, since there are so many people in the world living in very difficult economic, political and social circumstances. Likewise, immigrants should be most likely to come from the poorest countries in the world, because the advantages of moving to the U.S. would be greater for them. In fact the major sending countries to the U.S. are neither random nor the poorest in the world.[3]

[4] Portes and Rumbaut[4] propose an alternative theoretical framework for explaining large, ongoing migratory flows, which involves analyzing the social structures that link countries that send and receive immigrants, and the families and communities on either end of these flows. The first of these structures they call the "structural imbalancing of peripheral societies." This describes the effects of the historical relationship between a powerful "core" nation like the U.S. and a weaker, "peripheral" nation like Mexico. In this case, large-scale migration flows into the U.S. began shortly after the U.S. acquired roughly half of Mexico's territory in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, when U.S. railroad companies and landowners sent recruiters to Mexico for workers to maintain economic growth in these newly acquired lands. The second structure is the social networks that connect immigrants and their relatives and communities in their home countries. Once established, these networks persist and serve to maintain ongoing flows of people, money and information over time and space. These not only provide the context in which individuals decide to immigrate, but they also create a force behind ongoing immigration that was not understood by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986,[5] nor by later legislation and current proposals to "reform" immigration based on increasing the "costs" or reducing the "benefits" to individuals who wish to migrate, as was done in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

[5] Many of the myths about immigration have to do with the effects that undocumented immigrants have on the U.S., especially in economic terms. Three of the most common are that undocumented immigrants are a drain on our economy and our health care and social service systems, that they do not pay taxes, and that they take jobs from native-born Americans. These have been refuted by others,[6] so I will only mention a few statistics. Undocumented immigrants have long been an important source of growth for the U.S. economy, both in terms of production and consumption. As Paral (2005) notes in his executive summary: "Employment in about one-third of all U.S. job categories would have contracted during the 1990s in the absence of recently arrived, noncitizen immigrant workers, even if all unemployed U.S.-born workers with recent job experience in those categories had been re-employed." In his study of Minnesota, Kielkopf (2000, 2) found that "The undocumented labor in the selected industries accounts for at least $1.56 billion, and more likely $3.8 billion, of value added in the Minnesota economy each year." These workers in Minnesota also generated $1.02 billion in tax revenue, with $311 million for Social Security and $345.4 million in local and state taxes and fees. And since many unauthorized immigrants use counterfeit documents, much of the money they contribute to Social Security and Medicare through payroll taxes will never be available to them.[7] Given such important economic benefits, it is not surprising that so many business leaders are in favor of unauthorized immigration.

[6] Finally, I turn to the political and ideological context in which the current debate on immigration is taking place. Over the past 40 years, there has been a dramatic increase in economic inequality in the US, with the rich getting richer and the poor poorer.[8] Many factors have contributed to this trend, including inflation triggered by massive spending on the Vietnam War, large scale deregulation of industry, tax cuts for the wealthy, and a general shift toward favoring the wealthy and corporate interests over the middle and working classes. Beginning in the 1990s, globalization became the buzzword that supposedly "explained" these and many other changes by stating that they were inevitable, controlled by no one, and actually beneficial, at least in the long run. As Manfred Steger clearly argues, the most influential version of globalization is the market ideology of neoliberalism that he calls globalism, which supports "economic deregulation, privatization, free trade, unfettered capital movements, low taxation, and fiscal austerity, especially with regard to social programs." [9]

[7] How does this relate to unauthorized immigration? This is a key question, and one that explains much of the timing and intensity of the current immigration debate, and especially the divisions among Republicans. Contrary to the hopes of free-market advocates, the barriers to truly free markets are significant. Neither states nor corporations are in favor of them, precisely because completely free markets would mean that they would be vulnerable to the destructive dynamics of totally unregulated economic activity. For similar reasons, advocates of globalization emphasize the benefits of easy crossborder mobility of ideas, capital, goods and services, but not of people. Why not? Because to do so would allow for the formation of a truly global workers' movement, since the world would become a single labor market, and thus workers would gain leverage over the corporations that hire them. In both cases, what corporations and states actually want is free trade that benefits them at the expense of others.

[8] In recent years, labor outsourcing has become an increasingly important means of driving down labor costs and raising corporate profits. Although it is usually not framed in this way, unauthorized immigration is another method to achieve the same goal, and thus can be usefully referred to as worker insourcing. This is why so many businesses, and Republicans, are such strong supporters of it. The political difficulty with this method is that, in addition to the legal issues resulting from opposition to the free movement of people across borders, the visible presence of workers from elsewhere presents a large and easy target for those who have suffered economically as a result of the economic policies and changes of the past 20 years. Thus the state has to negotiate between the corporate interests that largely drive policy, and the sentiment of voters who provide legitimacy for the political system and who have the power to change the government, at least potentially. Given the enormously harmful effects of neoliberal policies on the U.S. economy that are increasingly felt by middle class Americans, and the very low popularity of President Bush and Republican policies in general,[10] it is not surprising that the debate over immigration has heated up in recent years. Average Americans are looking for someone to blame for the decline in their fortunes, and politicians need a scapegoat to deflect attention and criticism from their complicity or outright guilt in bringing about the current decline in the U.S. economy. Increasing the minimum wage, strengthening and enforcing labor laws, and requiring corporations and the wealthy to pay their fair share, are necessary to prevent the further economic, political and social decline of this country. Unfortunately, it is easier to blame immigrants for many of our country's economic and social problems than to address their underlying causes. Sadly, there is nothing new about that.

[1] . These terms are neutral, and thus much preferable to the more common "illegal" and "alien," both of which are negative, although many use them as if they were not. Passel argues that "unauthorized" is preferable to "undocumented" because many of these immigrants actually do have documents, even if they are counterfeit. Jeffery Passell, "Unauthorized Migrants: Numbers and Characteristics." Pew Hispanic Center. June 14, 2005. (accessed August 25, 2005). For convenience, I will use both terms interchangeably.

[2] I am using the term in its broad sense to refer to any person who was born outside of the U.S. but who lives here now. Following Foner, (2003, 16), my usage of this term (rather than migrant or transmigrant, for example) does not imply that these individuals will remain in the US permanently, or that they have cut all ties with their country of birth. Nancy Foner, "Introduction: Anthropology and Contemporary Immigration in the United States-Where We Have Been and Where We Are Going," in Nancy Foner, ed., American Arrivals: Anthropology Engages the New Immigration (Santa Fe: School of American Research, 2003), 16.

[3] Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, Immigrant America: A Portrait (Berkeley: University of California, 1996), 272.

[4] Portes and Rumbaut, 271-278. See also Douglas S. Massey, Joaquin Arango, Graeme Hugo, Ali Kouaouci, Adela Pellegrino, J. Edward Taylor, "Theories of International Migration: A Review and Appraisal," Population and Development Review 19 (Sep. 1993), 431-466; Jorge Durand and Douglas S. Massey, Crossing the Border: Research from the Mexican Migration Project (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2004).

[5] Portes and Rumbaut, 278-280.

[6] See, e.g., Immigration Policy Center, "Economic Growth & Immigration: Bridging the Demographic Divide," American Immigration Law Foundation Special Report. November 2005 (accessed June 13, 2006); Rob Paral, "Essential Workers: Immigrants are a Needed Supplement to the Native-Born Labor Force." American Immigration Law Foundation. March 2005 (accessed June 13, 2006); James J. Kielkopf, "The Economic Impact of Undocumented Workers in Minnesota." HACER (Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research), Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota. September 2000 (accessed June 13, 2006); Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, "Dispelling the Myths about Immigrants" (accessed June 13, 2006).

[7] Eduardo Porter, "Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security With Billions." New York Times, April 5, 2005. Business Section. (accessed June 15, 2006)

[8] See "Historical Income Tables - Households, Table H-3. Mean Household Income Received by Each Fifth and Top 5 Percent, All Races: 1967 to 2004" (accessed April 20, 2006)

[9] Manfred B. Steger, Globalism: Market Ideology Meets Terrorism, 2nd edition (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), ix.

[10] Public Disillusionment with Congress at Record Levels
Anti-Incumbent Sentiment Echoes 1994
Released: April 20, 2006
(available at:




© July 2006
Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 6, Issue 7