02 April 2012

Loving the Strangers Among Us - Part 3: The Economic Argument

Two Somali immigrants I used to tutor
This is part 3 of a 5 part series that theologically critiques the perceptions that underlie the U.S. immigration issue. This third part analyzes the economic argument prevalent in the United States and critiques it Biblically/theologically.
Read part one here
Read part two here

Argument Two – Undocumented Immigrants are Harming the Economy

“Take 12 million illegal immigrants out of the [U.S. poverty] statistics and it changes the percentage in poverty significantly! As in if they were not in the U.S. they would not be counted as in poverty!” [1]

In a recent episode of the popular sitcom The Office, the main characters fantasized about how they would spend the money if they ever won the lottery. While the majority of the office workers responded in typical fashion, one of the characters made a profound statement. “I already won the lottery. I was born in the U.S. of A.”[2] This characterizes what a lot of people, both within the U.S. and outside the U.S., think about US citizenship. Those who were natural born citizens somehow managed to “win the lottery,” while those who were born in other countries “lucked out.” As such, natural born citizens seem to have an entitlement to the prosperity that their country offers. Outsiders, however, do not have this entitlement.

Talk about undocumented immigrants “stealing” our jobs and lowering our wages has heightened all over the country. There is an unprecedented fear and resentment against those who “do not belong” here. They are taking what we U.S. citizens are entitled to. In an ad aired in March 2011, Republican Representatives Lamar Smith of Texas, Sue Myrick of North Carolina, and Gary Miller of California riled American interest in immigration’s impact on the economy. Myrick made the economic issue sound easy. She stated, “Right now, with unemployment hovering around 10 percent, we thought it was time to talk about the direct link between unemployment and illegal immigration.”[3]

It logically seems like the 15 million people unemployed in the U.S. are the result of the 8 million undocumented immigrants working in the U.S. "The numbers are simple," Miller said.[4] It is really not as simple as it seems, though. The majority of economists, even those who are otherwise critical of the issue, agree that undocumented immigrants provide a small net growth to the U.S.’ economy.[5] The idea that undocumented immigrants are taking U.S. citizens’ jobs has also been proven to be a myth. The majority of undocumented immigrants are what has been termed “low-skilled.” Since most Americans fall into jobs that are moderately-skilled, their jobs remained untouched by undocumented immigrants. Economist Ben Powell of Suffolk University concludes that “immigrants largely complement our talents, they don’t substitute them.”[6] This could not be illustrated more effectively than the vacancy of "low-skilled" jobs that have emerged following Alabama's strict immigration laws. Natural born citizens are not assuming the positions that immigrants left behind.

Another common complaint against undocumented immigrants is that they are taking advantage of our public services, thereby costing taxpayers more money. This, too, has not been proven to be true. Undocumented immigrants are not capable of receiving government aid, such as food stamps and welfare, without proof of citizenship. The only two kinds of assistance that undocumented immigrants can receive are emergency care (hospital, natural disaster aid, etc) and education up through high school. Both of these services are also available to all American citizens. Further, undocumented immigrants in the very least pay taxes on sale transactions and social security. In order for an immigrant to be hired, he needs a (false) social security number. Payroll taxes are deducted from their paycheck and the Social Security Administration acknowledges that there are approximately $6 to $7 billion that do not match a valid Social Security number. It has been theorized that this is a main reason why Social Security cards are easy to forge. Unlike a driver's license or passport, a Social Security card's make has very little technology involved and resembles a blue piece of construction paper.[7]

This does not prevent politicians from using these economic myths to their advantage. On his website, New York Senator James L. Seward has an article detailing just what kinds of governmental assistance undocumented immigrants can receive. The senator places these two types of aid just mentioned (emergency and education) under the heading “Welfare.” This is very misleading. He concludes at the end of his article that “a fair interpretation of the federal statute and state regulation must result in the conclusion that illegal aliens should not receive any form of state public assistance. However, illegal aliens do, in fact, receive state public benefits.”[8] This statement is very manipulative of the term “welfare” and seems to deceive the reader into believing that undocumented immigrants receive more aid than they are legally capable of receiving. Ironically, if there is one government service that undocumented immigrants are receiving “illegally” it is foster care for the children left behind when immigrants are deported.[9]

We could sift through countless statistics on undocumented immigration and consult the plethora of studies that are available. Economics, however, is not the real issue at hand. The real issue is that we as Americans are feeling threatened by the presence of foreigners in the work force. Interestingly, Hispanics lived and worked in the U.S. without documentation for decades without too much attention. It was only when people felt threatened by the economic downfall in 1929 that Americans became hostile toward undocumented immigrants.[10] We feel that we are being threatened, but the threat has not proven to be real. When crises occur, we need answers to help us cope. Hispanics have in many ways become this economic scapegoat.

Even if statistics showed that immigrants really were causing negative effects on our economy, the root of our anger is that we feel that people should not have access to good wages, health care, and other economic benefits because of status. We think that as citizens we should have access to these benefits, even though we did not choose to be born here. Those who do not have citizenship should not have access to our economy, even though they had no control over which country’s economy they were born into.

Our reaction toward immigration may be to only accept them into our country as long as they are financially benefitting us (or at least not taking from us). This attitude, however, cannot be reconciled with Scripture. There should be no other commitments, including economics, that hinder us from fulfilling the command deeply rooted in Scripture that we are to love and care for the stranger.[11] The Greek word from which we derive our word for “economy” connotes the idea of full flourishing for everyone who is in God’s household. God’s household is open to everyone and he invites everyone to sit at his table. Because of this, “the human person should not serve the economy, but the economy should serve the human person.”[12]

We must remember that we are first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom and everything that we own is currently “on loan.” We as Christians are called to be good stewards of what God has given us, and sometimes that means sacrificing our monetary possessions for the betterment of others. Christians who live in the U.S. talk on a regular basis about how “good” God is to us or how much God has “blessed” us. We know that everything that we have is a gift from God and is not something that we have obtained for ourselves. Our God is a gracious God.

If we say that all these good things in our lives are a product of God's goodness, what does that mean in other people's contexts? What about people, including undocumented immigrants, who do not have access to clean water and food? Would we say that God is not as good to them as he is to us? That God has not blessed them nearly as much as he has blessed us living in this country? We have this idea in the U.S. that "God will always provide.” This is a very interesting theological worldview that is very inconsistent with how the rest of the world operates. Why should God provide the jobs we need here in the U.S., or the new washing machine to replace the one that just broke down, or the money to "live comfortably" when he does not always provide for people who are desperately just trying to survive in other countries? We Americans have often assumed an attitude of entitlement and intermingled it with religion. What results in nothing more than a widely accepted "prosperity gospel."

Why were we born in the U.S., where God has given us so many graces? For reason that we do not know, we have so much in our lives that have come to us by no merit of our own. Has God blessed us? Tremendously. Does that mean that God has chosen not to bless others? Perhaps it better means that God has chosen to bless others through our well being. Those he blesses are the instruments by which he uses to bless others.

God does not desire us to be tight-fisted people who hold on to all of our good things (Deut. 15:11). May we extend our hands to others so that God can be known as a good God not just to those who are citizens of the United States, but to those who are living here on the fringes of society as undocumented immigrants. 

Continue to Part 4 - The Identity Argument

[1] A reader’s response to “Poverty Rate Hits 18-Year High as Median Income Falls.” http://bottomline.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/09/13/7742437-poverty-rate-hits-18-year-high-as-median-income-falls?GT1=43001 
[2] “Lotto.” The Office.
[3] “Does Immigration Cost Jobs?” 
[4] Ibid.
[5] Soerens, Matthew and Jenny Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger, pg. 136.
[6] “Top Three Myths About Immigration.” 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtRmS7q9DlM. This video is part of Learn Liberty’s video series on economics. I highly recommend the videos in this series, as they enlist leading economists to dispel many myths about American economics, including myths about the immigration issue. 
[7] Porter, Eduardo. “Illegal Immigrants are Bolstering Social Security with Billions.” The New York Times. April 5, 2006. Business/Financial section, pg. 1.
[8] http://www.nysenate.gov/report/what-benefits-can-illegal-aliens-receive
[10] Carroll R., Daniel M., Christians at the Border, pg. 33.
[11] Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:18, 14:19-21, 24:14-15, 19-21; Mal. 3:5; Mt. 22:35-40, to name a few. Because of the scope set forth in this paper, I am unable to exegete these particular Scripture passages thoroughly. For extensive looks at the meanings of these Scripture passages, I highly recommend Daniel Carroll R.’s Christians on the Border and Jean-Pierre Ruiz’s Readings from the Edges: The Bible and People on the Move.
[12] Soerens, Matthew and Jenny Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger, pg. 137.


Kris said...

I have to admit, I'm a bit wary of the statistics since undocumented workers aren't exactly in the census to poll for data. I like most of it, but there are two big points I'd disagree with.

If you ask a general contractor in the southern states who refuses to use illegal labor I think he'd disagree with the statement that the economic threat has not proven to be real. The reason that the vacated jobs aren't being filled is most likely because government aid is about the same amount as these low paying jobs, so there is no incentive to work. Undocumented immigrants will work the jobs because they do not qualify for state/federal aid. If these forms of welfare weren't in place the jobs would fill with American citizens who no longer have income via entitlement programs, lightening the tax burden, allowing for increased spending in the private sector, leading to more job growth. Admittedly, this means tackling a lot more than just the immigration issue, but I think we can't reform part of the issues without addressing them all systematically.

While I'm glad you raised the moral/theological issues we are missing the argument over the morality of taxation. As passionately as I agree we need to take the command to care for the stranger to heart I am unwilling to steal to do it. I'm not sure what else I can call forcibly reassigning money from one individual to another without there being some form of trade in goods or services. True, many pay into social security because they have duped their employer, but many employers willingly hire undocumented workers so they don't have to pay taxes. Perhaps there is withholding, but falsifying a w-4 would all but eliminate FIT. While they don't qualify for many US welfare programs the burden is still felt in the school systems, public services, etc. This is in addition to those who illegally obtain aid.

I think the argument would have to be "Even though there is harm it is minimal" and that it's more moral to tax than to refuse entry/deport those who are here illegally.

Christina said...

Kris, both of these are excellent points. Couldn't have said them better myself. The issue of taxation did occur to me, but, although related, I felt that it was a huge issue in itself and would ultimately be more distracting from the topic of immigration than it would help. Welfare is a temporary solution than millions have used permanently. There is a lot of abuse, and there needs to be reform. Yet, I am nevertheless glad that my tax money is going to help some people pay their medical bills that they cannot pay. I do not think that is "stealing" when an immigrant cannot, in fact, pay it. I think that that is a human right owed to them (I'll get more into this in the last segment of the series -- human rights vs. civic rights). Of course, there are lots of immigrants/citizens alike who do take government handouts when they are in fact are capable of paying/finding a job...

I'm glad that you shared your views, as I like having more perspectives readily available to others who will read this. One of my greatest strengths and also my greatest weaknesses is that I tend to be an idealistic person, and I grateful for another [viable] voice that tends to be more realistic/practical. :)

Kris said...

You have a unique gift in being both idealistic and open to other viewpoints - I've found those two are rarely in the same person! I think my weakness is that I'm too far in the other realm.

You're right though, the whole tax issue is too big for one blog post. One of the big differences in our philosophies is that I'd totally disagree that anything is "owed" to them, but I also disagree that it is owed to me. No private business or organization should be forced to service me if I cannot pay their fee. Our responsibility to care for others is not because they have earned it, but because we are called to compassion. I think when that compassion truly gets a hold of us we don't see the difference. When it comes to emergency health care I suppose I can live with that, but when I was under the poverty level I had hospital staff telling me to schedule follow-ups etc. because they would be covered by HCAP, and doctors telling me I need to undergo procedures and not to worry since the burden of payment wouldn't fall on me. One of the reasons for the changes in immigration policy (well illustrated, by the way!) is that when our ancestors stepped off the boat they were on their own. They had to make their own way, without any burden on the citizen.

Also, I would gladly join you in helping an undocumented worker pay for their medical bills. You and I willfully surrendering our property or wealth to better another's lot in life is charity (agape even?) but for you and I to force others to join us under threat of penalties seems to be an "Ends justifies the means" argument. Being charitable with someone else's money isn't charity - it's theft, made legal (but not moral) by laws enacted by those whose job depends on a favorable outcome of the mob. In the same way I willingly give to my church, and sincerely hope others do the same, but will not enact policy even though dozens of families are blessed every year through our ministries.

Regardless, I'm glad that people are engaging this issue from all different viewpoints. Maybe there is a via media that will actually help all parties involved!