This week, the Christian Science Monitor reported that illegal immigration in the United States has hit a net zero for the first time in 50 years. The population of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has fallen from 12 million to around 11 million and new immigrants haven't been entering the U.S. at a high enough number to replace those who left.
In spite of these facts, the issue of illegal immigration has played a dominant role in the Republican primaries thus far and is poised to become a pivotal issue as both Obama and Romney vie for the all-important Latino vote in the general election.
During this primary season, Romney has praised Arizona's anti-immigration law as a model for the nation, opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants and vowed that he would veto the DREAM Act, which would grant aid to college students whose parents brought them to this country illegally. A Fox News poll conducted last month found that Latinos weren't too fond of these policies: Latinos favor Obama over Romney by 70 percent to 14 percent.
To this end, Romney would do well to abandon his rhetoric against illegal immigration, not only because continuing to attack the Latino community is bad politics but also because undocumented workers are not the problem he and his compatriots have made them out to be. The deep animosity toward undocumented workers that Romney has been drawing on in the Republican Party stems from two points, both of which have little basis in truth: undocumented workers feed off our tax dollars and are a burden on the economy.
According to U.S. Government Info, though, "The belief that illegal immigrants ... in the United States pay little or no taxes is far from correct." The Immigration Policy Center estimates that "households headed by illegal immigrants paid a combined $11.2 billion in state and local taxes during 2010."
Why is this? In the U.S., there are things called sales taxes, property taxes and income taxes. And, contrary to popular belief, immigrants pay them. When they enter a store to buy food, for instance, they don't run out and refuse to pay the sales tax on their purchase. When it comes time to pay their property taxes, similarly, they don't tell their landlord or their local government they are not going to pay.
According to Randy Capps, a senior research fellow at the Urban Institute, "Undocumented immigrants pay the same real estate taxes-whether they own homes or taxes are passed through to rents-and the same sales and other consumption taxes as everyone else. The majority of state and local costs of schooling and other services are funded by these taxes." The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a nonpartisan think tank, has corroborated this point by declaring that, "Property taxes are hard to avoid, and unauthorized immigrants are assumed to pay the same property taxes as others with the same income level."
But what about income taxes, which many claim undocumented workers just cannfot pay? Well, the Social Security Administration estimates that about 75 percent of undocumented workers pay income taxes that pump money into our welfare programs like Social Security and Medicare. Federal and state law, though, prohibit undocumented workers from even benefitting from these essential programs. They are, in effect, handing us $8 billion a year in Social Security and Medicare - and we are complaining!
Some on the political right concede that undocumented workers do pay some taxes, but not anywhere near enough. The answer for this is that most undocumented workers are paid below minimum wage and thus have less disposable income. This leads them to purchase fewer goods. The sales tax collected is then obviously lower than that collected on an average citizen's purchases. In addition, 36 states in America have a progressive income tax. Poor people, quite simply, pay less, and rich people pay more. This explains why undocumented workers who pay income taxes (75 percent, as I already mentioned) pay less than someone like you or I.
And finally, there are those who say they are all for immigration, but just want it done the way their ancestors did it: "the legal way." But 100 years ago, when our great grandparents and grandparents flooded the gates of Ellis Island to escape a ravished and war-torn Europe, they faced an America wholly discordant with the one we know today. America was a place that welcomed immigrants into New York Harbor beneath the open arms of a Statue of Liberty. It was a place where one could essentially step off a boat, undergo medical tests and enter the land of opportunity in a matter of hours.
Today, though, America is a place of barbed wire fences, National Guardsmen, infrared cameras, border patrol agents, machine guns and gun-toting vigilantes. Today, naturalization is not what our ancestors encountered on Ellis Island. There are fees and waiting lines and documents and more documents and lawyers and bureaucratic red tape. Those who are lucky enough to even be selected wait years to have their papers stamped.
But I have yet to mention what ought to be the true issue of this debate. Romney, who chooses to attack undocumented workers, an utterly destitute portion of the American population, is turning his back on the true problem in America. The problem isn't the man in Arizona working three jobs a day in the grime and sweat of America's working poor. It's not the teenage immigrant trying to save up enough money to feed his parents and siblings. It's not the father trying to save his family from the drug violence in Mexico, created by America's insatiable addiction. And it surely is not the family trying to taste the fruits of the American Dream - trying to walk the streets paved in gold and the stairs built from marble.
The true tax problem in America does not stem from undocumented workers, who pay upwards of $11.2 billion every year to a country which abhors them. It stems, rather, from America's largest corporations and billionaires who pay this country nothing in taxes. Exxon Mobil, which made 19 billion dollars in profits in 2009, paid zero and even received a $156 million rebate from the IRS. Last year, Citigroup made more than $4 billion in profits but paid no federal income taxes. In 2008, Goldman Sachs paid 1.1 percent of its income in taxes, even though it earned a profit of $2.3 billion and received $800 billion from the Federal Reserve and U.S. Treasury Department.
Romney must stop drawing a divide across this nation by attacking undocumented workers. Together, we can solve the real problems in America. Illegal immigration, though, is simply not one of them.