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

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

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


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