Illegal aliens: should US put out welcome mat?
El Paso, Texas
Are aliens who work illegally inside US borders a net plus or minus for the United States?Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The question lies at the heart of the national political debate over the issue of US immigration policy.
The debate is taking place against the background of an 8.5 percent January unemployment rate in the US, meaning more than 9 million American citizens are out of work.
Involved in the debate are President Reagan, who has proposed legislation, including a plan to let some foreign workers enter legally; Congress, which is considering legislation, and millions of Americans, whose concern about the issue has been registered in national polls.
Also directly involved are the illegal (sometimes referred to as ''undocumented'') workers from various nations, primarily Mexico. Do such workers take jobs away from Americans and legal residents? Are undocumented workers a drain on government services, or do they pay more taxes than the cost of the benefits they receive?
The flow of illegal immigrants to the US actually has been tolerated for years by lack of an effective border-control policy. Many times in the past century the US has welcomed -- even recruited -- Mexican workers. The welcome usually has ended during tough economic times.
Today, with high unemployment, it is one of those tough times. So the President and members of Congress are calling for action to regain ''control'' of US borders.
But what kind of action is in the best interests of the nation? Even experts calling for closed borders generally say illegal aliens are only one part of the nation's unemployment problem. Other experts insist undocumented workers actually help provide more jobs for American citizens. They argue that some industries are kept afloat only by the use of illegals, who do work that Americans won't do. Were these industries to close, they say, Americans would lose jobs, too.
Sharp disagreement over the direction of US policy threatens to thwart efforts to take action in this election year. The challenge for US policymakers is to seek out scare ''facts'' and make informed decisions. A wide range of solutions have been offered. Among them: a tightly guarded, closed border, a wide-open border, a stepped-up worker plan, ''amnesty'' for illegals within US borders, and a national identification card system.
That reform is needed is clear. Border enforcement policies today are so ineffective that large numbers of workers enter the US illegally each year. Many do so here in El Paso, coming and going on a regular, round-trip basis.
Yet it is not illegal in the US to hire an illegal alien. Many employers are glad to hire them because they usually work hard -- often for very low pay. President Reagan wants a law that would allow the levying of fines against employers who ''knowingly'' hire more than four persons who cannot show proof they have entered the country legally.
Doris M. Meissner, until recently the acting commissioner of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), voices another concern: ''The existence of a large illegal migrant population within our border violates the basic concept that we are a nation under law, and this cannot be tolerated.''
''Until the US debate is based on facts -- not only on the numbers (of illegal workers) but on their impact on communities, the debate will be solved strictly in terms of politics,'' adds Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, coordinator of the US-Mexican relations program at the Center for Economic and Social Studies of the Third World in Mexico City.
There is no consensus in the US on what the ''facts'' are or what to do about them. What follows is a summary of leading views, based on interviews with dozens of US and Mexican experts: Jobs
''I don't know of any job that would not be filled by Americans if not filled by illegals,'' contends Rudolph Oswald, research director for the AFL-CIO.
Most analysts say that if undocumented workers were expelled from the US -- a step the Reagan administration is not proposing -- businesses using illegal labor would either fold, move to Mexico or another nation with cheaper labor, or be forced to raise wages.