Illegal Immigration in the U.S.

20 November 2007

In my volunteer work (teaching English to adult immigrants and Spanish-English interpreting), I come in contact with a lot of immigrants -- some are here legally, and some are not. Illegal immigration has also been in the news a lot lately, so I find myself thinking about the subject frequently. When I hear what our so-called leaders are saying about illegal immigration, I get frustrated, because I don't think they're thinking constructively. So, I decided I'd better get my own thoughts together.

Facts and Statistics

  • According to the Pew Hispanic Center, there were about 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S., as of March 2005, which is about 3.8% of the total U.S. population.
  • Of the 11 million estimated illegal immigrants living in the U.S., again according to the Pew Hispanic Center, about 7.2 million of them are working illegally, amounting to 5% of the U.S. workforce.
  • The most common industries for illegal immigrants in the U.S. are construction (1.4 million illegal workers, or 12% of the workforce) and "leisure and hospitality" (1.2 million illegal workers, or 10% of the workforce).
  • The median earnings of illegal workers are around $400 per week for men, and less (I am not sure how much less) for women.


  • Basic economics (and logic) tells us that people make decisions based on benefits to themselves. So, who is benefiting from illegal immigrant labor?
    • The businesses that hire illegal workers are benefiting. Clearly, if businesses could hire legal residents at the same total cost (considering salary, benefits, hours, and productivity) as illegal workers, they would hire the workers with papers, to avoid legal problems. So, the illegal workers must be working for lower wages than legal residents would, doing work that legal residents would not do, or working under conditions that legal residents would not tolerate.
    • The illegal workers are benefiting. Typical workers I have met say they came here because they had very little chance of finding work of any type in Mexico, and literally no way to live without work (i.e. not many social services, food banks, soup kitchens, etc.). Here, they can find some work, and they say that even if they are living on the streets of Seattle (many do), their life here is better than what they had available at home: at least they will not starve if they have to go a week or two without working. The people I've met who have families here, especially the women, are an inspiration for their dedication to improving their lives and the lives of their children.
    • There are some costs offsetting the benefits. For the illegal workers, these include the cost to get here (hiring someone to convey them across the border, risking life in desert crossings, etc.) and the risk of deportation. For businesses, they include the risk of fines and bad publicity if they are discovered hiring illegal workers. But the fact that we currently have 7 million illegal workers means that these costs must be much lower than the benefits for these two groups.
  • This situation is not new. Illegal immigrants have been coming here for decades, mostly from Mexico, and there has been ample work for them for decades. The risk of being discovered and deported has seldom or never been high enough to discourage people from coming here to work; the risk of fines has seldom or never been high enough for businesses to stop using illegal immigrant labor.
  • The public in the U.S. is asking for solutions to the "problem" of illegal immigration. But the politicians (funded by business interests) are not offering effective solutions on a scale that would make any difference, any more than they have for the last few decades. Here are the options that I think could actually reduce the number of illegal immigrant workers:
    • The most reliable and humane way to do so would be to improve conditions in Mexico and Central America. If all Mexicans had real options for a good life at home, they wouldn't come so far from their families and familiar settings to work illegally here -- the net benefit would no longer outweigh the cost.
    • We could also erase the advantage businesses gain by hiring illegal workers: make sure that illegal workers have the same salary, benefits, and workplace protections that legal workers do, or give them legal status.
    • The other option is to increase enforcement by a lot (deportations of workers or fines to businesses) to increase the economic costs to businesses or workers.
  • The other question is whether illegal immigrant labor is a problem at all. I do not think it is a problem that the workers are working here to improve their lives. But they experience problems due to the fact that they are living and working here illegally, such as constant fear, lowered social status, and loss of employment rights. It's not a particularly easy life, and it doesn't seem right that people who are merely trying to improve their lives, and who are also contributing to our economy, should have to live that way.