Monday, May 10, 2010
I remember the day, many years ago, when I stumbled across a passage in Leviticus. I was rooting around in chapter 19, looking for the verse that said, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” the Part B section of The Great Commandment that Christians embrace as taught by Jesus (Mk 10:29-31; Mt 22:37-39; Lk 10:27). It turns out to be in verse 18, but before I found it that day, my eyes stopped when they scanned across the “you shall love…” in verse 34, thinking that was it. But much to my surprise, it was not the verse I was looking for, and I was taken aback when I began reading from the beginning of the paragraph. The Leviticus 19:33-34 passage I read that day from the Revised Standard Version said: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
What caught my attention was the fact that here was a commandment that not only paralleled the love-your-neighbor commandment, but somehow seemed to put the “stranger” in the same category as a fellow citizen. Try as I may, I just couldn’t see that playing out all that well in biblical or modern history. On the other hand, perhaps it was because the Law-Giver had some experience with humanity’s basic ethnocentrism and inclinations toward nativism that the commandment was given in the first place. Apparently the Hebrews, as they stood on the threshold of conquering a land belonging to someone else, needed orientation and training in the need to love their fellow citizens with whom they would be living in their new homeland, and the strangers who might come someday to live with them or who remained in the land after its conquest by the Hebrews. Either way, those that would become the occupants of the land of Israel had to love each other and regard and treat each other and the strangers as fellow citizens.
I grew up at the headwaters of the Rio Grande River that flows southward and now stands as the border between Texas and Mexico. When I was growing up, one out of every four residents in my part of the country was a descendent of Mexican ancestors. The ground beneath my feet had been Mexico until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848 when the Mexican government ceded the entire southwestern region to the United States, from Texas to California, in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Looking back on my youth, I can’t say that Leviticus 19:33-34 played much of a role in shaping my consciousness, probably because it was never mentioned, and also because it would not have been all that clear who was the stranger and who was the native. Was I an Israelite whose ancestors forcefully conquered the Land of Canaan, and now lived with a tolerably small minority of Canaanite foreigners? Or was I a Canaanite whose land was at risk of being overrun by a small but growing number of Israelites who had thoughts of taking over? One thing is for certain: whether I was the native or the interloper, there was supposed to be a relationship of mutuality and love if one took Leviticus 19:33-34 seriously. But as I say, I don’t remember anyone interpreting this passage to me as I was growing up.
Like many, I have been paying attention to what has been happening in Arizona with the adoption of its new immigration law. I’ve read the initial law and the revised law that was enacted to calm fears about racial profiling in the enforcement of the law. This legislation is deeply disturbing to many, and to some it is seen as way to take control of a wave of undocumented immigrants pouring into the United States through the border between Arizona and Mexico. Gallup, Zogby, Angus Reid, Fox News, and the New York Times/CBS News all report that most Americans favor the Arizona law, but given the ways in which both the mainstream and fringe media have portrayed the issue, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that most Americans do not have any more than a cursory knowledge of the law and the situation in Arizona. There certainly is no evidence that those who responded to the pollsters’ questions had any actual knowledge of the law and its provisions—other than self-reporting.
In January 2010, the Office of Immigration Statistics in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security published a report indicating that, as of January 2009, approximately 10.8 million “unauthorized immigrants” were residing in the United States. This number is actually 800,000 less than in January of 2008. The number had grown every year since 2000, but beginning in 2007, the number declined from one year to the next. Of the unauthorized immigrant population currently in place, 63% had entered the U.S. before 2000, and roughly six out of ten of these came from Mexico.
According to this same report, there are five states that have an undocumented immigrant population of 500,000 or more, and Arizona is not among them. In fact, while there are roughly 460,000 undocumented immigrants in Arizona as of January 2009, the states where the number of such persons is higher are California (2,600,000), Texas (1,680,000), Florida (720,000), New York (550,000), Illinois (540,000), and Georgia (480,000).
Those who support the Arizona law, like opponents to immigration generally, argue that illegal immigrants take jobs from native workers, depress wages, and drive up public costs in education, public assistance, health care, and incarceration. The argument is simplistic, but it is made with great passion: Illegal immigrants are costing tax payers billions of dollars every year and destroying our quality of life as a nation. This is the basic message of such anti-immigration groups as Federation for American Immigration Reform (or FAIR) and the organizations it has spawned to do its policy and political work, the Center for Immigration Studies and the Immigration Reform Law Institute who were instrumental in drafting the legislation recently signed into law in Arizona.
But there is another perspective on undocumented immigrants, one that gives a somewhat different picture of the significance of their presence in our economy. Indeed, there is a growing body of research to suggest that what undocumented immigrants take out of the economy is offset by what they put into it. In terms of “cost,” it’s pretty much a wash.
In a study published in December 2009 by the Migration Policy Institute, Gordon H. Hanson of the University of California-San Diego notes that “the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants work in low-skilled occupations, owing both to their immigration status and their low levels of schooling” (5). Undocumented immigrants are in these jobs because these jobs are low-skilled, plentiful, and do not require a level of education beyond high school. The workers who hold these jobs are “unauthorized” because there isn’t a legal way for them to be here; current immigration policy has very few slots for low-skilled labor (approximately 100,000 per year), giving preference for visas to skilled workers.
If one considers the persons who characterize this niche in the labor supply, then clearly the only competition for jobs comes from U.S. citizens who are themselves low-skilled and low-educated. Most citizens in this country are not competing for these jobs. Even though undocumented immigrants have for decades constituted a vital source of low-skilled labor to the U.S. economy, “were the United States to restrict or eliminate illegal immigration through greater enforcement, the clear losers would be business owners in labor-intensive industries, including agriculture, construction, lodging, restaurants, food processing, and building maintenance and cleaning services.” Hanson notes: “Not surprisingly, these are the industries that fight hardest against restrictions on low-skilled immigration” (6).
So far as politicians and law enforcement are concerned, unauthorized immigrants live in the shadows, isolated from the larger communities, aggregating among themselves in neighborhoods that can conceal their presence. But the fact is that, economically, they are major players. They earn an income and spend it, pay mortgages or rent, contribute to charitable causes and support religious organizations. They have payroll and social security tax deductions taken from their checks and they even pay federal income tax. Granted, not every worker pays these taxes, but because payment of taxes is prerequisite for residency or naturalization, and employers do withhold payroll and social security taxes, immigrants are inclined to pay like native workers. Indeed, as noted in the 2005 Economic Report of the President, “millions of Mexicans have worked in the United States and returned home, but only 37,000 non-U.S. citizens residing in Mexico received Social Security benefits in 2004. Undocumented immigrants without a valid Social Security number cannot receive Social Security benefits, but as long as the employer reports their earnings to the Social Security Administration (SSA), their earnings are subject to withholding of Social Security taxes” (108).
Most of the media attention directed toward the passage of the Arizona law has focused on the politics and whether or not the new law is racist and discriminatory. I think it is, but that is not what this blog post is about. Furthermore, the issue at the moment is not whether Arizona has arrogated to itself the enforcement of federal law (it has) or whether the United States needs to reform its immigration policy (we do). Rather the point is that we are, and have been, a nation of immigrants—documented and undocumented—who have built a powerful country using natural resources that did not belong to us and human resources that are not indigenous to this land. Arizona is not the only state with undocumented immigrants, not even the state with the most undocumented immigrants, but it is the first state to pass a law that cuts off its nose to spite its face.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arizona had a population of 6.6 million in 2009. Approximately 30% (1.9 million) of this population is of Hispanic or Latino origin. As noted above, roughly 460,000 undocumented immigrants live in Arizona, representing 9.8% of the state’s workforce. In summarizing a report on the impact of undocumented immigrants on U.S. business activity prepared by The Perryman Group for Americans for Immigration Reform, the Immigration Policy Center at the American Immigration Council notes that if all undocumented immigrants in Arizona were removed, the Arizona economy would lose $26.4 billion in economic activity, $11.7 billion in gross state product, $7.3 billion in personal income, and approximately 140,324 jobs. The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) at the U.S. Department of Commerce put the total economic output for Arizona in 2008 at $248 billion.
By comparison, Illinois in 2009 had a population of 12.9 million, of whom 15.2% (1.9 million) were of Hispanic or Latino origin. The Department of Homeland Security reckons that 540,000 undocumented immigrants were living at that time in the state. The summary of the Perryman Group research by the Immigration Policy Center indicates that Illinois would lose $25.6 billion in expenditures, $11.4 billion in economic output, $7.1 billion in personal income, and approximately 119,214 jobs if all unauthorized immigrants were removed. The BEA reports that the total economic output of Illinois in 2008 was $633 billion.
There are millions of people in the United States without legal status, but it is completely false to suppose that they are only a drain on our nation’s economy. Yes, undocumented immigrants commit crimes, but they do so at a rate lower than the native population. Even in Arizona, where the crime rate has been falling, less crime is committed by immigrants—lawful and unlawful—than by citizens.
The United States is a nation of immigrants. My ancestors were immigrants, and so were yours (that is, unless your ancestors lived here before the continent was “discovered” by European explorers). Immigrants—both voluntary and forced—literally built the social, economic, political and religious worlds we now inhabit, and the truth is that without the continuing migrations historically of peoples to the U.S. from outside its borders, we could neither sustain nor advance our way of life.
I think there was extraordinary wisdom expressed in the edict God gave to Moses as recorded in Leviticus 19:33-34. To my ears, it’s as though God was saying, “You know, you ought to love the foreigner in your midst, because—if you remember—you were once a foreigner too.” I also think it’s propitious that the translators of the New Revised Standard Version chose new words to render the Hebrew in these verses: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Emphasis mine—Aliens and neighbors and citizens.