Illegal Immigrants as Victims

June 13, 1993

The dramatic beaching of a tramp steamer carrying nearl 300 Chinese on New York City's oceanfront again forces this nation to contemplate the sordid side of immigration. Lured by the promise of a better life, the illegal migrants paid supersonic jet fares for a sea voyage crammed in a freighter's hold reminiscent of an 18th century slave ship. They were victimized by their own dreams, predatory smugglers and, to some extent, the erratic enforcement of U.S. immigration laws.

Predictably, the incident has stimulated calls for a crackdown on illegal immigration, just three years after U.S. laws were relaxed in favor of a more rational policy. Clearly this country needs to guard against a flood of easily exploitable human cargo like that aboard the Golden Venture. But the administration needs to take another look at the law and its administration to determine whether U.S. policy is part of the problem.

Conventional wisdom holds that illegal immigrants are a drain on this country's resources, by undercutting U.S. citizens and legal immigrants, by working for substandard wages and by siphoning off social services. Hard statistics about illegal immigrants are naturally hard to come by, but available evidence points the other way. Unemployment is not significantly higher and average wages not much lower in cities with large immigrant populations (and therefore probably lots of illegals) than in cities without many immigrants. And illegal immigrants often pay taxes, usually employing false Social Security numbers, without collecting much in the way of public services out of fear of discovery. Many leading economists believe that they put more into the economy than they take out.

In some parts of the country -- and in some industries around the nation -- illegal immigrants are a crucial labor force. It's not just nannies in the posh suburbs of cities like New York and Washington, who often make it possible for talented mothers to take productive jobs they could not otherwise afford to fill. Restaurants, car washes, truck farms, hotels and the garment trade depend heavily on immigrants, legal and otherwise. Many of those places are horrible sweatshops, and others shamelessly exploit their workers. But it is the tenuous nature of the workers' residency here that makes them vulnerable to the exploiters.

None of this argues for abandoning laws regulating immigration. It does point to the need for a clear-headed evaluation of the impact of these laws and the way they are enforced by a lumbering (and sometimes blundering) bureaucracy. That review needs to be shorn of the emotionalism, occasional bigotry and frequent misinformation that has polluted past debates.

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