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The Immigration Debate, a Primer

Ioana Patrigenaru | April 17, 2006

Students March in
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UCSD students participate in thousands-strong pro-immigration demonstration in San Diego.
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Lawmakers in Washington, D.C, need to reconcile two very different proposals if they want meaningful immigration reform to happen this year, experts said last week.

Members of the House of Representatives passed a bill in December that would make illegal immigration a felony. Anyone helping illegal immigrants also would face charges. The bill also calls for the construction of 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Meanwhile, earlier this month, the Senate failed to pass a bipartisan bill that would have created a guest worker program. The bill also provided a path toward green cards and, ultimately, citizenship for illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for more than five years.

Four UCSD experts talk about the issues that lawmakers will have to resolve.

The Politics

Opponents of illegal immigration insisted on pushing the issue to the forefront in this election year, said Wayne Cornelius, director of UCSD’s Center for Comparative Immigration Studies. But cooler heads realize that the Republican party could be left on the wrong side of the immigration issue in the eyes of Latino voters, Cornelius said.  Lawmakers underestimated the reaction of the Latino community to the reform proposals, said UCSD sociologist Tomás Jimenez. Immigrants will ultimately become citizens and vote, as will their children, their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren, he said. The GOP risks making the same mistake that Gov. Pete Wilson made in 1994, Jimenez said. That year, Wilson won reelection after backing an initiative that would have denied state services to most illegal immigrants. But the Republican party paid dearly for Wilson’s decision, Jimenez said. Many Latinos mobilized and registered to vote.

“They made this state really blue,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Senate proposal became a victim of partisan election year politics, Cornelius said. Democratic senators feared that Republicans would pass amendments that would gut the bill. But the bill’s authors, Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain, believed they had at least 70 votes to defeat any amendments that would have changed the proposal drastically, he said. Senators will probably try to tackle the issue again when they come back from recess on April 24.

“It appears that neither side wants to be blamed for failing to get a compromise immigration bill passed this year,” Cornelius said.

Still, Cornelius predicted it will be very difficult to get a bill out of the Senate that can be reconciled with the bill the House passed in December. He puts the odds of passing an immigration reform bill this year at about 50-50.

Any serious compromise might have to wait until after the November mid-term elections, said Jorge Mariscal, director of the Chicano-Latino Arts and Humanities Program at UCSD.

“A lot of it has to do with posturing in an election year, but the problem is very real,” Mariscal said. “There are 12 million people here who are working very hard and contributing to the society.”


And that’s where economics come into the picture.

Experts disagree about the overall financial impact of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy. Cornelius said he believes that the social costs of illegal immigration are largely offset by the taxes undocumented immigrants pay. UCSD economist Gordon Hanson said illegal immigration probably has costs for the U.S., albeit small.

Undocumented immigrants drive down wages for low-skilled legal workers; at the same time, they allow businesses to make more money, Hanson said. So that equation has a positive result. But undocumented immigrants use more services than they pay for in taxes, Hanson said. Also, most immigrants’ tax dollars go to Washington, D.C., and never trickle back down to the local agencies that provide services for them, Cornelius said. In 2000, $48 billion dollars a year was going into a special account, where the Social Security Administration holds taxes paid with fictitious social security numbers, presumably used mostly by undocumented immigrants. The account’s total value was $463 billion in 2003 and is probably more today, Hanson said. 

Hanson, Cornelius, Jimenez and Mariscal said it made sense to try and legalize undocumented workers. Right now, these workers don’t have incentives to invest in their career and their neighborhoods, Hanson said. But you also have to make sure that immigrants are paying their own way, he said.

“You want immigration to respond to market forces,” Hanson said.

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