Your Livelihood Is Subsidized — by Immigrants

Another midterm election season has begun, and with it another wave of scapegoating immigrants for the ills that burden us. It’s practically a staple of American politics every fourth spring and summer, a perfect setup for the fall. This year the focus is an Arizona immigration law that soon will allow police in that state to accost, and demand proof of citizenship from, people they suspect are in the U.S. illegally. Because, surely, those confrontations will unburden Arizona of its problems and make it a much more pleasant place to be.

Last time around, in 2006, the big issue was an amnesty provision of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Had the bill become law, it would have permitted immigrants who were in the U.S. illegally for more than five years to apply for citizenship after paying fines and back taxes. Critics of the legislation won that debate in part by, once again, painting immigrants as a “burden on the system.” At the time, National Public Radio broadcast a 3-minute essay by journalist Richard Rodriguez in which he, unassumingly and poetically, undercut that specious argument by simply thanking immigrants for the long list of things they do for us as a nation every day, at an extremely low cost. Rodriguez’s naming of these deeds, one by one, was chilling — and worth a listen even these four years later.

My immigrant students work in jobs similar to those Rodriguez listed in his 2006 radio piece. They lift hospital patients out of their beds and clean their bodies; load and unload chicken legs, beef tenderloin, and Kashi GoLean from the backs of trucks; scrub down homes and offices and hotel rooms and the cages of lab rats; and click their heels and smile at the people they serve on hand and foot, day and night. And they do it, quickly and efficiently, for pay that most people reading this blog would never consider accepting for such self-effacing work, perhaps for any work at all. In short, their labor subsidizes our lifestyles. While we work for ourselves, they in effect work for us, all the while demanding little for what they do. The economy in general — and your livelihood in particular — rests on their backs, literally. Yet their labor goes largely unseen — and when it is noticed, unappreciated.

In the little free time that these immigrants have, many attend school to learn the English language; the archaic English system of measurement that we refuse to discard in favor of more-sensible meters and liters, which they already know; and the contradictions of our culture and politics, which insult them in more ways than you can imagine. It’s an enormous amount for anyone to absorb, and especially hard for students like one I’ll call Teresa, who works the overnight shift in a hospital, then comes to my math class at 9 AM, and finally returns home to care for her children and an aging father. When I asked Teresa when she sleeps, she said, “On the bus sometimes.”

The schools that serve students like Teresa tend to operate on shoestring budgets. Most are staffed by highly skilled but undercompensated teachers who have made this work a vocation as they try to earn a real living on the side — and who often don’t get any pay for up to half the hours they spend at school. All this unrecognized labor is a continuous stimulus for the national economy, as it makes the grossly underpaid immigrant workforce even more productive. The effect is to dramatically reduce, not increase, the country’s economic burdens.

Critics, of course, point to the small percentage of immigrants who commit crimes or who game the system. After all, naysayers can always find isolated counterexamples. But I can tell them, from the front lines, that on balance they are getting much more for their dollars — no, their pennies — than they ever would suspect. The number of immigrants, most of them here legally (but, yes, some illegally), who diligently do our dirty work, in the literal sense of that phrase, is staggering. And, no, many of them will not be counted by the U.S. Census; they exist — and they work — nonetheless.

Go ahead, Arizona, apprehend that “burden” you see on the public street. Maybe you’ll actually lock up and deport one of the dregs who drag us down. But it’s much more likely that you’ll burden yourself and the rest of us by handcuffing the single biggest subsidy of our precarious economy. For every physical arrest that you make, you effectively demoralize and disable thousands of hardworking immigrants who look on and imagine themselves in your shackles. Keep arresting productivity in its tracks like that and you will burden our entire nation so that it falls, quickly and efficiently, to its knees.

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About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

35 Responses to Your Livelihood Is Subsidized — by Immigrants

  1. dajed says:

    Insightful. Analyzes the issue of immigration from an economic perspective. But immigrants do menial work at low cost specifically because of law preventing their residence in USA. If they are made legal – they may start demanding greater wages. However, immigration law should also be analyzed from a human rights perspective. Does the US, which claims to be a beacon of liberty really value human rights, especially of those born outside it?

  2. I was moved by your perspective and the refreshing look you put on the human drama behind the sometimes incendiary rhetoric we hear about this issue.

    There are no easy solution to the illegal immigration conundrum, but reminding the U.S. population and its leaders that taking into account the contribution “de facto” that this shadow group already makes is a step forward. The paradox is that in this case, compassion could lead to implementing the most pragmatic and realpolitik inspired policy.

  3. Gaby says:

    This is the single best argument against the anti-immigrant contingent that I’ve seen in years. People don’t realize their how much their wallets are affected by the work that immigrants do. I hope what you say has an impact.

  4. Dan says:

    Nicely written, and I usually enjoy your posts, but this is um…”misguided”.

    Arizona is simply taking steps to do what the federal government has failed to do, and I hope the rest of the states hurry up and follow suit. Illegal aliens should be treated like criminals because, well, they ARE. Never mind that every civilized country in the world has laws against anybody just wandering in. In politically correct America, merely asking someone for proof of citizenship is grounds for Klan induction. And by the way, Mexico’s immigration laws make Arizona look like San Francisco. You can get two years in jail just for entering the country illegally.

    You say that the law will soon allow police to accost & demand proof of citizenship from suspected illegal immigrants. You are misinformed. Have you even read the 16 pages that grant police broader powers to identify and arrest illegal aliens? Police must have “reasonable suspicion” to determine a person’s immigration status. The law specifically states that race cannot be a factor in determining reasonable suspicion. Before anyone can be even be suspected, they have to be part of a “lawful stop, detention or arrest.” In other words, a cop can’t just stop a car full of law-abiding Mexicans walking down the street.

    In addition to that, this law isn’t doing much more than the 1940 Alien Registration Act. Non-citizens have been required to carry a visa or green card or some form of identification for the past 60 years. Why is this now controversial?

    You paint these people as if they are saints – only here to better our country and “subsidize” our lives, and you downplay their weight on our failing schools, hospitals, welfare systems and yes, prisons.

    Most illegal aliens don’t come to America to deal drugs and join gangs. But according to the Department of Justice, Phoenix is the country’s kidnapping capital, with 566 abductions the past two years. Attacks on Border Patrol agents increased 46 percent to 1,097 in 2008. Federal officials reported the victims usually have connections to either immigrant smuggling groups or drug traffickers.

    A recent University of Arizona study found illegal immigration cost the state $1.4 billion a year. The state treasurer said the true cost is closer to $2 billion. Your criminal immigrants have a lot of chicken legs to unload, lab rat cages to scrub down, and heal clicking to do to make up what they cost this country.

    • Angie says:

      The first point that I would like to bring up is that this issue is not about the immigration systems of other countries it is about our immigration system. You automatically assume that the only ones who will benefit is the Mexican population please have in mind that there are other Latin American, Asian, African etc. populations that have come here undocumented.

      “reasonable suspicion” leaves the door open to interpretation and this part of the law is vulnerable to misuse.

      What is the controversy you ask? Well what I just mentioned and the fact that the state is taking up responsibilities that belong to the federal government without having the appropriate training to do so. The federal government has more experience in dealing with special or unusual cases than the minimal training the law enforcement agents will receive. Besides the fact that you are asking already overburdened officers to perform an extra job.

      You bring up several good points but on the prison issue most federal prisons are charging the undocumented immigrant or his/her family member for their stay. Welfare system – undocumented people don’t even qualify. School you have me there I don’t know much about the school system but I would not blame the undocumented or even immigrant population since most pay their fair share of taxes.
      Crime – well the U.S. has an open border when it comes to weapons sales. This is a border that should definitely be closed don’t you think.

      A study done about three years ago found that safe communities, this bill is a part of that effort, is actually costing the states and counties that implement these measures more than what the U.S.C.I.S. promises them they will get in return.

  5. Dan, conservative estimates from studies conducted at UCLA show that legal immigrants stimulate the U.S. economy by a net of about $350 billion a year (that’s after subtracting costs, largely from lack of health insurance for a subset of that group). Amnesty for those here illegally who meet the strict requirements in the proposed 2006 legislation (which ultimately did not pass) would add another $150 billion a year for the next 10 years, again according to research conducted at UCLA.

    There are costs of immigration indeed, but they are far smaller than the benefits. When you narrow the discussion only to illegal immigrants, the cost:benefit ratio is not as high but still significant–and it increases if these folks have a path to achieving legal status.

    One of the points of my post is that laws like Arizona’s new one have a chilling effect on the economic productivity of a substantial percentage of the immigrants who are here *legally*, even though only those here illegally are the explicit targets. Both groups have a large net stimulus effect on the economy, the former more than the latter.

  6. Alison says:

    Steve, do you have any proof that cracking down on illegal immigrants has a chilling effect on the productivity of legal immigrants? In the past 25 years I’ve worked with and for many legal immigrants who also worked their butts off at jobs many born Americans wouldn’t take. Some of them had professional credentials in their countries of origin (Russia, Haiti, eastern Europe) that weren’t recognized in the US, so former physicians were working as lab techs while going to night school, and former business owners were scrubbing floors and swabbing out toilets. Without exception (at least as far as I know), they were here legally. Some complained about the costs associated with immigration and naturalization and the oceans of paperwork, but they paid the fees and filled out the forms so that they could be here legally. That was their path to citizenship (and my grandmother’s, and my aunt’s). I don’t believe we should make an exception for one group of immigrants.

  7. Alison, this post is about the economic value of the work that all immigrants do, most of them legal. It’s not about advocating for an exception for one group of immigrants.

    Opposition to the Arizona law is not equivalent to supporting people who attempt to the enter the country illegally. It’s about opposition to a particular method of enforcement — one that, by its nature, makes those who are here legally feel as if they’re being eyed with the same level of suspicion as those who are here illegally.

    The potential chilling effect I’m describing is one that we have yet to see fully realized. But legal immigrants I know (hardworking folks like those you describe) perceive the Arizona law to be so blunt an instrument that it poisons the general climate for all immigrants. One legal immigrant said to me, “I’m glad I don’t live in Arizona.”

  8. Christopher S. says:

    Steven, thank you for taking the time to write about this. Your writing is clear and very effective in communicating your point. I very much so enjoy reading your posts, but when it came to this one, well, it affected me differently than the others. This time around you painted a picture that I had already seen. You, however, wrote so clearly and sincerely that it broke my heart even more. I really hope some people in the higher-ups catch wind of this article. I mostly just wanted to thank you for your writings and insights on everything you do. So, thank you, Steven.

  9. ANTHONY says:

    Nice try, Steven, but your arguments are entirely based on emotion and not at all on fact. Worse, you are purposefully blurring the lines between LEGAL and ILLEGAL immigration in order to tug on our heart strings. I think everyone can agree that the U.S. needs immigrants, WHICH IS WHY WE ALLOW 1 MILLION IMMIGRANTS TO BECOME CITIZENS EACH AND EVERY YEAR. The 12 million or so other people who have done it ILLEGALLY are an entirely different matter, and you know it. Those people are most certainly a “drain on our system,” and ironically they are actually making it even tougher for the legal immigrants of which you speak to prosper and achieve the “American dream.” Wise up, my friend, and stop using emotion to cloud the cold hard facts of life.

  10. Gary says:

    There may be a few productive immigrants where you live but most of them that I see slouch and complain and dont even like this country. And they send their money back across the boarder. Youre just a bleeding heart with a pussy like the rest of them but you just make it sound good. Wait until an illegal rapes your mother while shes not looking then what will you be crying about.

  11. Josette says:

    Whether it’s an economic or an emotional issue, the point is, cracking down on immigration is not in the best interests of this country. We are a nation of immigrants, but it’s always hardest for those who have come most recently. We need to get past our knee-jerk reactions and realize that tolerance and peace with our neighbors comes at a price: you have to give up that chip on your shoulder and stop being a jerk.

  12. Anthony says:

    Uh, sorry Josette, but the AZ law–and the backlash against illegal immigration in general–is not about “those who have come here most recently,” nor is it about racism or nativism or jingoism. It is simply about the adherence to the system of rules and laws of which we all are bound, and when we have many millions of people subverting that system then it erodes the quality of life for us all.

    Keep fooling yourself into thinking that illegal immigration has no negative effects on our schools, our hospitals, and our government in general–you must not live in an area where these issues are concrete, but are rather topics of ideological musings, just like our humble blogger Steven, who clearly likes the view from his ivory tower.

  13. Anthony, I appreciate your comments. But you should know that I work with immigrants up close nearly every day. The small, spare rooms where I teach hardworking immigrants who want to learn English and contribute to the common good while they eke out a living feels nothing like an ivory tower. I recommend paying a visit to your local adult education center that serves immigrants. Such centers are often in need of volunteers.

  14. ANTHONY says:

    Steven — Kudos to you, sincerely, for the work you do with (what I presume to be) LEGAL immigrants. Again, too many people refuse to make that legal/illegal distinction–intentionally or not–when discussing these issues. Next time you are in southern California (or Arizona, for that matter), you should stop by some of the schools and hospitals that are inundated with indigent non-citizens. It’s quite a mess, I assure you, and there’s nothing close to it in your neck of the woods, so I guess I can see why it’s so easy for you to cast dispersions. The people of Arizona are simply trying to address a very real and out of control social problem, which affects them directly and of which you are not at all qualified to denounce, despite the fact that you tutor a handful of immigrants in the shadow of your ivory tower. Your stance couldn’t be more pie-in-the-sky, yet who act like you are on the front lines of the issue and blur the truth about legal vs. illegal ramifications. Again, sorry my friend, but I ain’t buying.

  15. ANTHONY says:

    CORRECTION — “cast aspersions” and “yet you act like.” Sorry, was in a rush earlier, but just read it back and saw my mistakes.

  16. IThink Thedrfore says:

    Stven,

    Thanks for your post. It puzzles me how xenophobes reveal themselves by saying things like “wait ’till they rape your …”. I don’t buy the ” AZ is doing what the Feds are not”. What does having an accent have to do with effective Teaching?.

    I am from Southen California and always ask an inmigrant basher how much he/she is willing to pay for a pound of grapes. They still don’t get it. They never will.

  17. ANTHONY says:

    ITHINK — So let me get this straight. You are advocating the exploitation of illegal workers so that you enjoy inexpensive grapes. Yeah, and I don’t get it…

  18. IThink Thedrfore says:

    Anthony,

    You can read all you want into my comments. The point is; undocumented workers (do not dehumanize them with the term “alien”) contribute more than what they “cost”. The problem with them is that most of them are brown. Bigots will be surprised to learn that not all Mexicans and for that mattar Hispanics, which accept it or not are the targets of this law, are brown. So how can this law be inforced without racial
    profiling? Wake up. Wake up, and smell the stench.

  19. IThink Thedrfore says:

    Gary,

    I assume you have talked with 12 million undocumented workers and they all say “me no likey the U.S.”. I’ve only spoken to 5 million and they say “Da,Si,Oui,Sim, we likey the U.S.”

  20. Anthony says:

    IThink — wow, I don’t think I should even dignify your ridiculousness with a response. I think Steven likes to promote intelligent debate, so perhaps you (and Gary) are in the wrong place. Good luck to you, though.

  21. IThink Thedrfore says:

    Anthony,
    On that we agree. Not an inteligent exchange. Apologies to all. Thank you for calling me on it.

  22. The hidden truth says:

    Steven got the situation very right. Just imagine a day without immigrants (legal or not). You wake up in the morning and you find out that you nanny who takes care of your kids is gone… next thing is getting your coffee from the closest Dunkin Donuts ups its closed, employees are gone… you want to put a gas in your car going to the near gas station and ups no one to serve you… arriving at your workplace – everything is dirty because the people who usually clean the office during the night hours are gone… going for lunch break to any restaurant and ups the manager comes with an excuse that today they don’t have a single cook in the kitchen and there is no one who can prepare the food… going back home – your house is dirty, nobody took care of you lawn… etc. These are some small examples of how the immigrants affect our dally lifestyle and contribute to this country. It will be a total chaos without them! The immigrant’s cheap labor is unseen by most people. The truth is that the immigrants do the dirty jobs and please don’t tell me that they take your job because I don’t see you 7 days a week on a 12 hours shift in a restaurant kitchen washing dishes or chopping onion for 7-8 bucks an hour, having no personal life and going home only to sleep because you are working 12 hours shift again tomorrow!

  23. Cant wait for June says:

    In response to Dan.

    Police can’t just stop a group of law abiding Mexicans? How do I know they are law abiding!!!!Show me your papers and I’ll be the judge of that 🙂

  24. David says:

    Gg, Welcome to NAZI America….

  25. Legal Immigrant says:

    By far the most civil (relatively) discussion on this topic. Usually the debate is inundated with angry folks chery-picking their favorite talking points.

    Keeping it civil, I believe in the rule of law and also the democratic principles of our country. All of us are to blame for ensuring that this problem has snow-balled into it’s current size. Imagine if Arizonians realized in 1992 that the 1986 immigration law has not achieved the results that were promised and issued an ultimatum to their elected officials on handling illegal immigration in 1992 (or 94 or 96, 98, etc. until now). Ours is a dormant democracy at best!

    We understand the need for low-skilled workers but create a legal channel for them instead of exploiting cheap labor at the expense of American Taxpayers. I understand that it is easier said than done.

    As a legal immigrant who strongly believes in the rule of law (at the same time understanding the human side of illegals and the economic implications), I think we just need to create a legal channel for temporary, low-skilled, seasonal workers without a path to citizenship.

    I never understood the argument of our politicians that there is a need for creating a path to citizenship (citizenship only provides voting rights in our country – if you travel outside US then it is of more help) to bring 12 million illegals out of shadows.

    Democrats – stop promoting path to citizenship – this problem can be solved by simply bringing everyone out of shadows and providing them with a legal avenue to work in US.

    Republicans – stop pushing on border security first approach – Americans realize that there is no such thing as 100% security on borders (Israelis know it the best, if we create borders then they’ll dig tunnels underneath). Work for the American Taxpayers in finding a real solution to this problem instead of delaying it for another decade and see the number grow to 20 million.

    Americans – Wake up for the sake of your country and hold your elected officials accountable – Immigration Inaction is unacceptable, Dormant Democracy is unacceptable.

    Disclaimer: I have no benefit as a result of Immigration Action (or lack of) this year or in the future years. I am Legal Immigrant and I pay close to 24000 USD per annum towards Federal, State, SS and Medicare (after my tax returns)

    • SaneMan says:

      I agree with what you say here. I am a legal immigrant living in Texas. But I am happy that I am not living in Arizona right now. I would have been qualified to do a blue collar job in my country but since the US system is different, I have to stick to what I am doing now, that is work the 7/11 and one other job while also trying to upgrade myself taking classes related to what I studied earlier, that is Microbiology. I have no problem with expressing myself in English since I have spoken the language from the 7th grade onwards. But I know I have an accent. I don’t have the American “accent”, if there is anything like that. Even though I am a legal immigrant I wouldn’t want some prejudiced police to stop me and then ask me for my papers when he/she realizes that I have an accent. What does “resonable suspicion” mean? Those words are relative. What is resonable to me may not be resonable to another person. I realize that I have nothing to fear to prove that I am legal, but I don’t want to be subjected to the additional emotional burden. Coming from a country where police brutality is very well known, I don’t want to be subject to the same treatment. I am very aware that a Naturalized citizen is a second class citizen. We can always get sent back to our countries of origin if the government wishes so. I love America and all that she stands for but I can see things are getting dirty since 9/11. If we Americans do not stand up for the rights of ourselves and others, I am sure we will invite dictators over ourselves, dictators which we have run away from in our own countries. The Arizona law reminds me of a part of the dirty history of America during WWII when Americans put Japanese immigrants in concentration camps apparently for their safety. Not many Americans are aware of this dark side of our history. Moreover since Texas is planing to install a similar kind of law, maybe it is time for me to move to a different state where I won’t feel so threatened and I will have peace.

  26. Flint Tran says:

    This article is so bias, it is falsely presented. The majority of American are appreciative of all of the hard work that is being done by immigrants everyday. The issue here is not immigrants, but illegal immigrants.

    Point #1: They broke the law by coming here illegally. If this is not an issue by the libs, why not open up our borders and let everyone in? would you support that? if not then why make an exception with the 12 or more millions of illegal people that are already here?

    Point #2: cheap labor? they are only cheap because they are illegal, if you make them all legal, they will no longer be willing to work for cheap.

  27. Flint Tran says:

    I don’t understand why we have to go down this road, just spend the money to enforce the existing federal law and fine businesses heavily or shut them down if they hire illegals and the illegals will go back to Mexico on their own, no need to see anyone’s papers

  28. Flint Tran says:

    Wow, the more i read the article and comments here the more I realized that we Americans have lost our ways. We buy stuff from Walmart to save us a buck and let our fellow American loose their jobs to the people over seas. We are thinking of changing our principals here as suggested in this article and by many others simply because we can save ourselves some money….

    This is not the same country I saw 35 years ago when I first came…yes I am a first generation immigrant. I didn’t asked America to make this country bilingual, I PUT MYSELF through college, what do I do? Lets just say that I work for the highest agency in the land that try its best to protect American from Foreign and Domestic elements, that’s all i can tell you.

    I am so appreciative of the opportunities that have been given to me and my family for letting us live here, I am so happy to know that I am giving back to this country every day by just going to work. God Bless America, we sure need it.

  29. Flint Tran says:

    I know this is my forth post, and it is getting old, but I feel so strongly about this issue that we as a nation is facing so I will say one last thing.

    My fellow American, I urge you to think carefully about this issue. Lets not change our principals and values simply because our politicians do. PLEASE dont sell our country short for a few bucks… Please think about it.

  30. Mark says:

    Wow ! Steve, your first paragraph, “Arizona law allows police to accost” Thats not exactly what the law “allows”. You are obviously so bias regarding this issue you’ve sold yourself short on the facts. I’ll assume you also think buying cheap crap from China is good for our economy as well. You suppose the one sided trade treaties we’ve signed are also positive for the U.S.?

  31. Mark says:

    In response to my e-mail to Steve. Sorry! In my neck of the woods the term “accost” was always meant in a negative way…dealing with soilicitation or aggression. I just looked it up in the dictionary and find that its not always negative sooooo I guess the Arizona law may actually use the term. My apologies. Mark

  32. Carol says:

    Thank you for this article. I wonder how many have seen the movie “A Day Without Mexicans”. I have known, and know, many Mexicans who were/are in the United States without papers. They come to provide for their families. Yes, there will be some who will commit crimes. Not a large percentage are here for that (crime). I have found these people to be very hard working and honest. I realize that crossing the border is against our laws…….. . I know we have a problem with this but I also think we would create other problems should all Mexicans, and other illegals, be deported. I find it difficult to read comments, and absorb, how many Americans are prejudiced against so many things. Enough from me…… . Again THANK YOU.

  33. Jason says:

    I suggest that you open up your home to Mexicans. Leave the doors wide open and let them freely come into your home and take residence, eat your food, wear your clothes and generally consume everything you own. You may not kick anyone out, as that would be racist. Not enough room? Tough. Not enough food for you and your family? Sorry. Just work harder and by buy more.

    Instead of writing ivory tower nonsense from your safe haven in Cambridge, MA (not exactly the demographic with firsthand knowledge of Mexican immigration woes), put yourself in the middle of the real world. Want a taste of the real world? How about this? US families who have paid into our tax system for generations are losing everything while many (not a few isolated as you propose) Mexican illegals are scamming the system…dropping several kids on US soil just to get them citizenship, then having those kids go to US schools on free lunch vouchers (wife is a teacher, I know this for a fact), getting WIC coupons and welfare, getting free medical care from cash strapped emergency rooms and not paying a dime back (sister works at a local hospital, know this for a fact as well), while the husbands make cash under the table in construction jobs and pay zero income tax…many driving around in $20K trucks (my neighbor is one of the morons that pays them, another fact). You make it sound like this is a rare thing, but where I live it’s standard fare. It’s ironic that people who take your position are usually ones in safe, upper-middle class white communities who work in positions that are in no way threatened by illegal immigration.

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