Board of Contributors: What part of immigration don't YOU understand? | March 21, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 21, 2007

Board of Contributors: What part of immigration don't YOU understand?

by Stephen Levy

As I began preparing to be part of a March 31 conference in Palo Alto on immigration, I offered to submit a column to the Weekly on my topic: the economic issues of immigration.

But this has been the hardest article I have ever written. What you are reading is my sixth rewrite. I'm still working on my comments for the conference -- to be held Saturday, March 31, at the Hewlett Packard auditorium. The "Immigration Challenges and Opportunities" forum is sponsored by the Peninsula World Affairs Council, the Palo Alto and Los Altos branches of the League of Women Voters, and the Avenidas senior center of Palo Alto.

I am going to focus on issues related to unauthorized immigration because these have been the most difficult to solve or even to address without arousing anger. Last week I scanned all the online columns written recently about immigration, looking at the reader comments -- as I have been doing for the past year.

Besides the oft-repeated, "What part of illegal don't you understand?" there were references to Lenin, communism, propaganda and dishonesty in columns reporting on recent studies about the impact of unauthorized immigrants on wages and job opportunities.

That's when I decided to join the online comments and see what happened if I was consistently respectful and mostly asked questions.

The results became the basis for this sixth rewrite. There was not another hate word after I joined the comment forum, just disagreement. That seemed like an improvement worth trying to build on.

So I'll try again to get past the slogans and name-calling and look at the economic and legal arguments.

There are two main arguments about the economic impact of unauthorized immigration. One is that unauthorized immigrants hurt the job and wage opportunities available to other residents. The second is that unauthorized immigrants use more public services than they pay in taxes.

Both arguments have an element of truth. Some, but not all, research shows that low-skilled immigrants have a small impact on the job and wage opportunities of other low-skilled workers and it is certainly true that unauthorized immigrant families, because they tend to have low incomes, do not pay the full costs of the education and other public services that they use.

But it is also true that immigration, including unauthorized immigration, provides benefits to the economy. Moreover poverty and unemployment rates are no higher than 20 years ago before the surge in immigration. And all poor families use more public services than they contribute in taxes, which is justified on many grounds -- including that educating the children of poor parents is a great social investment.

It is also true that immigration is not the only example of where there are general economic benefits and some people get hurt. This is true for importing Japanese cars and Chinese apparel and for all sorts of "global marketplace" activities.

The high-wage job losses that disrupted many families during the past 25 years have nothing to do with unauthorized immigration. And we don't prevent activities with general benefits just because some individuals may be hurt.

With regard to "What part of illegal don't you understand?" my reading is that both sides want to change the law. People favoring an earned path to legal status for unauthorized immigrants (including me) want to change the law to specify conditions for earning legal status.

People who are opposed to unauthorized immigration also want to change the law to eliminate the legal citizenship status of children born in the United States to unauthorized residents and to change the legal status of benefits such as public education and emergency health care that are currently legal.

Since we can change laws that don't work, shouldn't we focus on figuring out what the best policy is?

Here are the questions that no one answered in the blog exchange:

1) Since many immigrants are married to legal residents and have legal resident children, what do you think about the costs in money and family disruption that will occur with any mass-deportation policy?

2) Since there are approximately 2 million unauthorized immigrants in the California workforce and no more than 250,000 unemployed low-skilled workers, what do you think will happen to the economy under policies that would remove these workers from the economy?

I hope we can develop a calm discussion about immigration in the Weekly's Town Square Web site, before and after the upcoming conference.

Stephen Levy is Director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy and can be reached at The "Immigration Challenges and Opportunities" forum is free and will be from 9:15 a.m. to noon at Hewlett Packard, 3000 Hanover St., Palo Alto. For information call 650-289-5425 or visit or e-mail


Like this comment
Posted by Buckoux
a resident of another community
on May 25, 2009 at 10:29 am

A Solomon's compromise. Enact a law that enables a path to citizenship for those who are here "undocumented" and, correspondingly, restrict citizenship to those born in the US to illegal immigrant parents until the age of 18, upon which they can choose to be citizens of Estados Unidos de Mexico, or the United States of America. Or the other way around.

Like this comment
Posted by bru
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 25, 2009 at 12:28 pm

bru is a registered user.

Why do people who use economic arguments apparently think that economics is all there is to the world?

Is it clear that most of the people in the country think there is too much immigration, and way too much illegal immigration and want something done about it.

Typically, economist are trotted out to tell us the reality of how wrong people are. They have told us for years that rises in the minimimum wages hurt jobs and business. Yet the numbers show that every time the minimum wage is raised unemployment goes down and the economy gets stronger.

I hate to say "don't confuse me with the facts", because I like to think of myself of intelligent, rational and fact driven. There are however arguments that are not based on facts, but on doctrine, faith, authority, etc.

What is happening to the southern US border area in terms of crime and violence has something to do with porous borders and a gap in culture. I don't like it. I don't care what an economist tells me about it wants me or tells me to think.

I don't like the dilution of American culture, and I do not like being associated with racists or red necks. I am neither. The fact that I do not like tuning through radio and TV channels searching for an English station is not evidence of racism and it does not mean I do not appreciate diversity or other cultures.

I never supported the mainstream US culture discriminating against minorities, and so I really resent it when I encounter discrimination from immigrants from south of the border in stores and restarants. The fact that I mention it, perceive it, or that it makes me mad should not impeach or disqualify my opinion. I have stood up for equal treatment of minorities, only to be treated rudely by a group who are hostile to the very country who has taken them in and provide them with jobs, and helps support their home country.

At this point I favor creating an objective reality that can be determined. That is, when things happen under the table, off the books, then anything can be argued. Close the border and cut off the jobs to non-citizens. Return those who are not supposed to be here to where they should be, and lets start from there.

If there are not enough janitors, waitors, or produce pickers, let's look at the wages for Americans. Why should we have some kind of special class of "virtual slaves" in this country because we want to be cheap and not pay what it costs have certain products and then rationalize it.

This kind of absurdity bleeds over to everything else in the country eventually to the point that no one can stand to not get some kind of special treatment and can always point to someone else who is benefitting by special treatment until we have a completely corrupt country and economy.

Finally, there is a big problem with Mexico. Let's have a discussion about what it does to both the US and Mexico to allow what is an under the table corrupt reality that takes advantage of desperate people, keeping them desperate, with no pressure exerted to fix their country or clean it up.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on May 25, 2009 at 1:27 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

At the very least we should not grant any privilege to a foreign national that his country does not grant us.

Like this comment
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Midtown
on May 29, 2009 at 12:58 pm

"Yet the numbers show that every time the minimum wage is raised unemployment goes down and the economy gets stronger."

Bru, it is a pity you wrote this as a way of "proving" your point, because it is so wrong, and turns off people from reading the rest of what you wrote.

Please find ONE quote about unemployment going down after a national minimum wage is enacted THAT ISN'T IN NAME ONLY. For example, the last time there was a minimum wage enacted, after Dems took over Congress, it "raised" minimum wage to a point that only 1/2% of ALL employees were affected..and 1/2 of THOSE were kids working parttime after school from middle class families. In other words, it was an "after the fact" raise in minimum wage, since 99.5% of ALL employees in the USA were already earning above minimum wage.

As you have correctly noted, our employment rate and GDP improved throughout 2007, but it had nothing whatsoever to do with minimum wage.

Back to immigration...(legal or not)

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.