June 1, 2001


Undocumented Immigrants as Heroes?

By Domenico Maceri

In 1994 California's Governor Pete Wilson tried to sue the federal government for reimbursement of money the Golden State spent on the schooling, health care and law enforcement related to undocumented workers. Recently a new study confirmed that counties bordering Mexico incur expenses because of illegal crossings.

Interestingly, when we talk about immigration everyone focuses on cost. The idea of benefits rarely comes up. But the facts are there if we want to open our eyes. Immigration -legal or illegal-benefits the US economy and of course the American consumer.

A study conducted by the National Research Council found that immigrants add more than $10 billion to the economy each year and have relatively little negative effect on job opportunities for most US citizens. Benefits from immigration raise the standard of living for all Americans.

Immigrants, whether documented or not, do work that native US citizens shy away from because of low wages or considered of little prestige. Thus in food service, janitorial, domestic, agriculture, and construction you often see immigrants doing the work.

Who benefits form these people's sweat? Everyone does, from the consumer who pays less for the hamburger or the salad to the hotel guest who might have to pay more if respectable wages were paid. Many small contractors would not exist if they had to find union workers who would demand fair treatment in addition to decent wages. The financial benefits of these immigrants' hours on jobs are difficult to quantify because much of the benefit is hidden. It's not totally hidden however. It comes as a "donation" from immigrant workers, especially the undocumented ones.

One of these donations has been going to the Social Security fund. In the past eight years about 20 billion dollars have been contributed to the Social Security System, which cannot be traced. Since these funds cannot be accounted for, officials estimate that they have been contributed by undocumented workers using phony Social Security numbers. And they don't even get a thank you. Imagine if by some miracle all undocumented workers were to go on strike: billions would be lost in agriculture as crops would rot, and food prices would skyrocket.

Even Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, has acknowledged that to keep the economy going we need more immigrants. Although the benefits from immigrants' work go to entire country, border states rightfully claim that they share an inordinate amount of expense to care for new arrivals, particularly in the field of health care. It's interesting that anyone traveling in many European countries, citizen or not, and gets sick can walk into a medical facility and receive treatment without paying anything.

Europeans welcome tourists because overall they provide economic benefits. In the US we do don't look at the total picture about immigrants. The benefits immigrants bring in become appreciated only when their grandchildren become fully integrated into American society. Then we look back at immigrants with nostalgic eyes and value their sacrifices.

The first generation is always seen as a cost and a problem. It's been like that throughout the history of this country. All ethnic groups have had to endure discrimination as they tried to make it in the US. Irish job applicants faced "No Irish Need Apply" signs. Racial and ethnic epithets were commonplace. Most newcomers were considered less intelligent than native born Americans. In 1921, for example, fifty per cent of the special education students in New York City schools were Italian immigrants.

Today's immigrants, whether they come form Latin America or Asia, are seen with the same lens used when European immigrants arrived. In some ways even worse. Immigrants of the past were perceived as docile. Today's immigrants appear cocky. They are seen as demanding education in their native language, creating thus more negative feelings for themselves in the eyes of native Americans. And one Mexican national, Martha Sandoval, even sued and won in local and federal courts for her right to take the driver's license test in Spanish in the state of Alabama. Today's immigrants are seen by natives as unwilling to Americanize and too eager to become an economic burden to the US.

The fact is that recent immigrants are better educated than their counterparts of the past and less willing to be treated unfairly. They have a better sense that they are not an economic burden but an asset.

Unfortunately, as long as the economies of other countries continue to hemorrhage poor people into the US, it's the images of cost rather than contribution that will prevail. However, once the economic conditions improve in other countries and immigration to the US comes to a halt, we will look at today's immigrants with the same benevolent eyes we now regard the European immigrants of the last century. Time will allow us to view people as assets rather than liabilities.

America is land of immigrants. Some came thousands of years ago through the Bering Strait while others just stepped on US soil. The only difference among Americans is how long they have been here. As time passes, we will see today's immigrants, especially undocumented ones, who risk their lives to come to the US, as nothing short of heroes.

Maceri (dmaceri@aol.com), PhD, UC Santa Barbara, is a freelance writer.

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