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Columns, Opinions

Shanmugam ’23: Why illegal immigration is good for America

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, October 6, 2020

How do you solve a problem that’s 340 million pages thick?

Stephen Goss, chief actuary of the Social Security Administration, is currently trying to figure that out. Over the past few years, the Social Security Administration has accumulated an astronomical number of unclaimed tax forms, sent by Americans who pay their Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax under Social Security numbers that don’t exist. Even in the wake of the government’s extensive efforts to track down the missing taxpayers ― 171 million tax forms have already been matched to their rightful owners ― there are still more than enough unclaimed filings for every one of the approximately 140 million tax-paying United States citizen to have filled out their paperwork twice.  

This remaining sea of homeless papers, located in what is known as the Earnings Suspense File, is anything but idle. Most of that money has made its way to Social Security trust funds, the sources of the payments that older Americans receive every month. Indeed, for an administration staring down severe sustainability challenges as America’s population ages, these mystery tax payments have kept over a decade of budgets out of the red. Without the extra revenue, Social Security would have been unable to cover payouts starting in 2009.

Who are these mystery donors, responsible for a whopping 10 percent of Social Security funds, but unable to receive a cent in benefits?

They’re undocumented immigrants

While many undocumented workers are paid under the table, and consequently do not pay income tax, many others use illegitimate Social Security numbers instead. An estimated 1.8 million undocumented workers did this in 2010. Employers generally don’t pay much notice, so phantom forms, and the payments that accompany them, end up with the Social Security Administration.

This reality flies in the face of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that Donald Trump rode to the White House in 2016 and is counting on this November. His claims that undocumented immigrants are a drain on society, that they are stealing American jobs in a zero-sum game for economic viability, simply don’t hold up against the facts

Undocumented immigrants are a net positive for the U.S. economy. They aren’t just helping Americans to retire comfortably; they’re also making it easier for millions of citizens to meet their basic needs affordably. And even the claim that undocumented immigrants are stealing low-skilled jobs en masse from American workers is muddled at best.

As of 2017, one in 22 American workers was undocumented nationally. This figure, however, belies the true gravity of this demographic; undocumented workers are even more concentrated in economically important states such as California and Texas, where they constituted around 9 percent and 8 percent of the statewide labor forces, respectively, in 2016. In these states and others, they tend to take up generally unpleasant work: farming, construction, cleaning. Services that Americans depend on ― and take for granted ― are delivered seamlessly by undocumented immigrants for cheap.

Because undocumented immigrants don’t have access to the social, economic and cultural institutions that citizens depend on, they generally lack the bargaining power to demand above average wages. This has produced a situation where entire industries rely on the cheap work that the undocumented provide. The impacts of this awkward symbiosis are particularly pronounced in agriculture. The National Milk Producers Federation, for instance, claimed in 2009 that the price of their namesake good would increase by 61 percent if they could no longer employ immigrant workers, a large proportion of whom are undocumented. In a country where nearly 80 percent of workers live paycheck to paycheck, undocumented immigrants aren’t just doing our dirty work; they are, quite literally, putting food in our mouths. 

The irony is painfully obvious. In Texas, a red state, undocumented immigrants were estimated to have created almost $145 billion of gross product in 2015. In Nebraska, another red state, where an estimated three-fourths of rural residents want tighter borders to prevent illegal immigration, people drink milk, cut apples and peel bananas made affordable by illegal immigrants ― all while railing against the supposed displacement of American workers. 

Incidentally, does that last worry hold up against the data? The answer certainly isn’t black and white. Many studies have concluded that illegal immigrants reduced the wages of native workers. However, because illegal immigrants allow employers to reduce costs, economists Andri Chassamboulli and Giovanni Peri have argued that job creation gets a boost, increasing native workers’ employment opportunities. At the very least, illegal immigrants aren’t putting American workers on the streets, as President Trump might claim. 

To view illegal immigration solely as an assault on American sovereignty is to neglect its real impact. Americans need to put data before pride and consider how their own economic reality changes when illegal immigrants make the extremely difficult decision to come to the United States.

The Social Security Administration isn’t going to be able to give many of their nameless tax filings homes anytime soon. But as they continue to pile up, so do the benefits that undocumented immigrants afford our nation’s economy.

Arjun Shanmugam ’23 can be reached at arjun_shanmugam@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. So is there a recommendation in all of this or do we just let things go as is?

  2. Erik Kengaard says:

    “The connection between the oversupply of labour and plummeting living standards for the poor is one of the more robust generalisations in history.” Peter Turchin, Return of the oppressed, aeon magazine.

    “The three decades . . . from the mid forties to the mid seventies, were the golden age of manual labor.” Why were times so good for blue collar workers? To some extent they were helped by the state of the world economy. They were also helped by a scarcity of labor created by the severe immigration restrictions imposed by the [ Johnson–Reed ] Immigration Act of 1924.” Paul Krugman, Conscience of a Liberal, Chapter 3 (pages 48-49)

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