Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Illegal Immigration (But Didn’t Know Who to Ask)

November 2010By Comments

Q: How many undocumented immigrants are there in Texas, officially?

Easy. In 2009 the Department of Homeland Security estimated that there were 1.68 million undocumented immigrants living in Texas. (The nation as a whole is said to have 10.8 million, according to the DHS; Texas has the second-highest number of all the states, after California.) The DHS reached this figure by taking the U.S. Census Bureau’s numbers for all foreign-born Texans and then subtracting the DHS’s own estimate of the ones who are here legally. Doesn’t get any more official than that.

U.S. TOTAL: 10.8 million
TEXAS: 1.68 million

Q: How many are there, actually?

Not so easy. Plenty of people question the DHS figures, largely because many undocumented immigrants are reluctant to fill out census forms. But most researchers arrive at totals that are in the ballpark of the Census Bureau’s. Even groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which argues for strong controls on immigration, come up with figures that are only 10 percent higher than the official numbers. Which, by the way, have dropped in recent years. That 10.8 million figure is down from 11.8 million in 2007. Why the drop? Well, there is that bad economy, plus the stepped-up enforcement of border security and workplace immigration laws.

Q: Where are they all from?

Most are from Mexico—62 percent, according to the DHS. That’s more than six million undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S. No other country even comes close. The runner-up, El Salvador, accounts for only half a million or so.

Q: Where else?

In descending order, the rest of the top ten (as of 2009) are Guatemala (480,000), Honduras (320,000), the Philippines (270,000), India (200,000), Korea (200,000), Ecuador (170,000), Brazil (150,000), and China (120,000).


Q: I would think that undocumented immigrants would be more likely to commit crimes than American citizens. But I read a story the other day that said they actually commit fewer crimes than most Americans. Could that really be true?

No one really knows for sure. Various reports have demonstrated that many of the country’s lowest crime rates can be found in places with the highest immigration rates; that America’s crime rate dropped radically between the mid-nineties and the early twenty-first century, just as immigration was booming; and that the incarceration rate of native-born men is higher than that of immigrants. But there are problems with these reports. Few of them differentiate between legal and illegal immigrants; the former are often well-educated people who have been vetted by immigration officials and their prospective employers. Lumping them in with illegal immigrants might sharply skew the statistics. Also, using incarceration rates is tricky: It is surprisingly difficult to determine what portion of the prison population is made up of people who are here illegally. As a result, the crime rate among undocumented immigrants could be underreported.

Q: How big a draw is illegal immigration on the state budget?

A 2006 report by then comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn found that undocumented immigrants paid $424.7 million more to the state in taxes and fees than the state spent on them in education (by far the biggest expense), health care, and incarceration. That’s a net gain for Texas. But on the local level, the report found a very different story: Local governments and hospitals were nearly $1 billion in the hole.

Strayhorn’s report has some serious critics, though. Perhaps the comptroller’s most problematic decision was to exclude the expense of educating the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants, on the grounds that these children are American citizens. That’s a dodge, and a pretty significant one. According to a 2009 report by the Pew Hispanic Center, there are nearly three times as many U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants as undocumented children. If we include all of them in the calculations, the state budgetary impact of undocumented immigration could go from less than half a billion in the black to well north of a billion in the red.

Q: So it could be pretty high?

Some people think so. But nothing’s simple in this debate. Texans can take heart from a recent report by Jack Martin, the director of special projects for FAIR. Though Martin’s view is that immigrants are disproportionately criminal, he concedes that “the pattern is not uniform” and that Texas is one of a handful of states where undocumented immigrants have a lower rate of incarceration than native-born Americans. El Paso, a city with a very large immigrant population, much of it undocumented, has one of the lowest crime rates in the country, despite the violence just over the border.

Wow. that’s huge.

Yes, but keep in mind that at the federal level, undocumented immigrants pay taxes they may never recover. Most work for large employers that withhold Social Security and Medicare taxes. That money helps keep the system solvent.

Q: Does the influx of so many people willing to work for low pay bring down wages and make it tougher for me to find a job?

Well, that depends on who you are. If you’re a member of the upper class or the middle class, undocumented immigrants should have little or no effect on your wages. But if you’re a lower-class high school dropout, then, yes, immigrants (legal and illegal) may bring your wages down a bit—by less than 10 percent, most likely.

As for whether immigrants throw American citizens out of work, the evidence seems to suggest that though they no doubt displace some people from jobs, their presence here also creates jobs, as immigrants buy clothing, eat out at restaurants, and sign cell phone contracts. And if their cheap labor wasn’t available, some employers would probably invest in automation rather than pay people higher wages.


Q: What’s the deal with this border fence?

First off, it’s not really a fence. Not like you’re thinking. The word “fence” conjures up an image of a single, continuous barrier, like the one that keeps your dog from biting the postman. But the border fence is actually a series of different types of barriers (“post-on-rail steel set in concrete with a mesh option”; “vehicle bollards”; “concrete jersey walls with steel mesh”; and many other variations). In some places, no fence is planned at all, partly under the assumption that geographical features like rivers and mountain ranges function as perfectly good impediments.

The border between the U.S. and Mexico is 1,954 miles long; the border fence is designed to cover approximately 670 miles of it. Most of those gaps can be found in Texas: A mere 110 miles of fence will be spread across our 1,254-mile border. The lion’s share of the Texas fence can be found in the Rio Grande Valley, where it is expected to cover 70 miles of a 100-mile or so stretch, broken up into 21 segments that resemble a conga line of tiny worms who can’t get their act together. Since Texas already has a natural barrier—the Rio Grande—much of the fence is being built not along the border but well inland, angering many landowners.

Q: What about the “virtual fence”? That will take care of the gaps in the real fence, won’t it?

Sure, sure, and I’ve got some oceanfront property in Loving County that might interest you. In 2005 the DHS’ Secure Border Initiative allowed for the construction of a “virtual fence” to accompany the physical fence—essentially a network of surveillance towers outfitted with cameras, radar, and communication technology. But this turned out to be little more than a $7.6 billion boondoggle. After spending more than a billion dollars, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano put the virtual fence on hold this past March, just before the Government Accountability Office released a report that said it was severely defective.

TOTAL U.S. BORDER (1,954 miles): 670 miles of fence
TEXAS BORDER (1,254 miles): 110 miles of fence


Q: How about those drones? Are they the same as the ones we’re using in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Yes, you’ve read about the Predator B drone in military dispatches: an unmanned plane with powerful video cameras that can track action miles below on the ground. Because they can fly for up to twenty hours without having to refuel, ten times as long as a manned helicopter, drones allow the Border Patrol to surveil hard-to-reach and high-risk areas. But cloudy weather can interfere with the cameras’ image quality, and the accident rate of unmanned aerial vehicles appears to be many times that of manned aircraft. And they ain’t cheap: Drones cost $4.5 million a pop, not counting the millions needed for the equipment to operate them and the salaries of the pilots who steer the craft remotely. (That’s right: These Predators aren’t really drones—they’re remotely piloted in real time, not preprogrammed to fly autonomously.) Still, in September a Predator began operating out of Corpus Christi, the first time such a system has been based in Texas. We’ll see how it goes.


Q: This is embarrassing, but what exactly is a green card? Is it actually green?

A United States permanent resident card allows an immigrant to stay here indefinitely. It can be obtained through a family member or by meeting stringent employment requirements or through an annual lottery. And though an early version of the card was green and the current version is as well, not every version has been.

Q: What are the other legal ways you can get into the country?

There are a lot. A wide variety of visas allow people to come here and travel for a short time or work or study for a period of years or join family who are living here.

Q: So why the heck does anyone need to come here illegally?

Among other things, it’s a math problem. The government offers many kinds of visas, but there aren’t that many of each. For instance, only 66,000 H-2B visas, for nonagricultural workers, are issued annually, and they’re good for three years, tops. It should be noted, however, that as many as half of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. came here legally on visas; they just stayed longer than they were supposed to.

Q: I always hear about how undocumented immigrants are “living in the shadows.” How do they do basic things—set up bank accounts and phone accounts, get driver’s licenses, enroll their kids in school?

In 1996 the Internal Revenue Service established the Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) to track wages and taxes for employees who are ineligible for a Social Security number—including undocumented immigrants. Some banks, happy for the business, accept the ITIN as a substitute for a Social Security number. Phone companies, likewise, have little interest in turning away paying customers. Driver’s licenses are a bit trickier. Some states, controversially, have chosen to issue them to undocumented immigrants. (The theory is that having a valid license is required for getting car insurance, and if every driver has insurance, our roads are safer.) In Texas, however, you must have a valid ID to get a license, though some people no doubt get around this with fake papers. As for enrolling their children in school, parents simply have to show proof of residence—a gas bill, say. It’s a violation of federal law to deny a child an education, regardless of his or her immigration status.

Q: All right, confession time. I employ a housekeeper who I think might be an undocumented immigrant. How bad is this?

U.S. law states that you can hire only citizens or aliens who are permitted to work. But when it comes to housework and child care, many people get away with doing otherwise. “The Obama administration has ramped up the pursuit of penalties against employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, but generally the focus is on businesses with multiple employees, not individuals,” says Kathleen Webb, the proprietor of HomeWork Solutions, a tax compliance service. “The risk of being caught is low, and the penalty for a single employee is a civil fine.”

Q: Okay, but I pay her under the table. Am I in trouble with the IRS?

Maybe. Whether she’s legal or not, you’re supposed to abide by the tax code. If you pay her less than $1,700 a year, you’re off the hook in terms of taxes. If you pay her $1,700 or more, though, you’re supposed to collect Social Security and Medicare taxes, match her contributions, and send the total to the IRS. (This is where that ITIN thing comes in handy.) “There is no statute of limitations for payroll taxes,” says Webb. “In addition to back taxes, you may be subject to penalties and interest charges.” And if you have more than one employee and pay them, in total, $1,000 or more in a calendar quarter, you’re also supposed to pay federal and Texas unemployment taxes.

Q: But if I pay her taxes, couldn’t she get in trouble, because I’ve put her on the government’s radar?

The government doesn’t use the ITIN to track down undocumented immigrants; the IRS is generally forbidden by law from sharing information with other agencies. “Her only risk is if she fails to file an income tax return with the W-2 you provide her,” Webb says.

Q: But who gets hurt when I don’t pay her Social Security taxes?

By failing to do your part you’re making it more difficult for the government to meet its obligations to current and future recipients. And she may become one of them if she gains citizenship. “Many people who performed menial jobs for low wages off the books eventually do file for Social Security,” Webb says. “If she identifies you as an employer, the IRS will pursue you for the back taxes.”

Q: So, as I said, I’ve never actually asked her about her immigration status. Would it be rude to do so?

Yes. If she’s worked for you for a while, you have effectively embraced a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. “The best way to avoid potentially awkward or uncomfortable situations is to be very matter-of-fact and follow the procedures laid out for checking work authorization when you hire someone,” says Travis Packer, a policy researcher at the Immigration Policy Center. A new hire—immigrant or native—is supposed to fill out the first section of an I-9 form and show you documents that demonstrate her identity and employment authorization.

If she’s in the country illegally, it’ll be apparent pretty quickly. If, though, you’ve let all this slide for a while, you may want to belatedly ask her to fill out the forms and show you her documents—but be prepared for an awkward conversation.

Q: What is the government doing about all this? Are any reform plans being taken seriously right now?

Not really. In December of last year, Texas congressman Solomon Ortiz introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Protection Act of 2009, which is somewhat similar to Ted Kennedy and John McCain’s failed Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. The bill recommends that undocumented immigrants who were here by late 2009 receive six-year visas and later become permanent residents if they have jobs, undergo criminal background checks, learn English, and pay a $500 fine. The bill has been in committee since March and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Q: That’s it?

Well, in April, half a dozen Democratic senators put forward an informal proposal they call Real Enforcement with Practical Answers for Immigration Reform (get it? REPAIR?), which emphasizes increasing border security and cracking down on the employment of illegal aliens. Only after that is done would the government create a new type of visa, the H-2C, which would allow nonseasonal, nonagricultural workers to stay here for three to six years and eventually earn lawful permanent residence. The proposal is an intentional blend of liberal and conservative ideas, but its sole Republican consultant, Lindsey Graham, jumped ship earlier this year, a likely sign that it will go nowhere in a fiercely divided Senate.

Q: What about that Arizona law? Any chance we’ll get something like that in Texas?

Given the legal challenges the law has drawn, don’t count on anything similar passing here anytime soon. Which isn’t to say many Texans wouldn’t like to see that happen. According to one recent poll, 53 percent of Texas registered voters want the Legislature to pass an Arizona-style law that would allow police officers to ask people they have stopped to prove that they are here legally.


Q: Where do Rick Perry and Bill White stand on the issue of immigration?

As far away from it as they can. Perry and White have largely stuck to saying that the border needs to be secured and that local police officers shouldn’t bear the burden of what is, ultimately, a federal responsibility. Both of them are also against creating an Arizona-style law here. Perry says it wouldn’t be “the right direction” for Texas; White says it’s not “the right solution” for Texas. There are a few differences: Perry is for voter ID; White is skeptical about the idea. Perry says White ran Houston as a “sanctuary city”; White says he did not. Perry has played up the threat of spillover violence on our side of the border; White says Perry’s exaggerating the dangers. But by and large, these guys would rather talk about almost anything else. Politicians like easy answers, and as you can see, there are no easy answers in this debate.

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  • mobilebay

    When will we get away from that approx. 11 million illegal aliens in our country? That has been the static figure for many years. Some put it at closer to 30-40 million. I think I concur with the latter.

  • alCosecant Maths

    Some consequences / impacts in brief would have been better