While the United States wrestles with immigration reform, undocumented immigration is often placed front and center of the murky picture painted by the media and the public. The storyline is typically drawn as one where hoards of illegal immigrants continue to jump fences and cross borders to take advantage of America’s economic superiority. And, as a result, they become an economic strain on our nation.
Though I am not advocating for illegal immigration, I do believe it’s worthy to note that the reality is actually quite different. Despite that illegal workers pay lower taxes because they work off the books, their purchasing power allots for the sustainment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs. One study, “The Multicultural Economy 2008,” estimated that Latino buying power totaled $951 billion in 2008 and would increase to $1.4 trillion by 2013, while Asian buying power totaled $509.1 billion in 2008 and was expected to increase to $752.3 billion by 2013.
Additionally, undocumented immigrants (including both adults and children) only account for about 4 percent of the total U.S. population. And while some may think they continue to migrate in mass, their rate of entry has steadily decreased since the 2000s. Currently, the undocumented population hovers around 10.8 million. Approximately 19 percent came prior to the 1990s; 44 percent entered during the 1990s; and another 37 percent entered after 2000. Between 2007 and 2009, however, the undocumented population decreased by 1 million, possibly because of the U.S. recession.
According to reports in the media, the decline in 2008 and 2009 “coincides with the national economic downturn” and “marked the first back-to-back drops in the number of illegal immigrants since the federal government allowed many to obtain legal status after a 1986 amnesty.”
The recent U.S. recession is another important point to consider when discussing illegal immigration. Many assume the U.S. economy performs significantly better than many countries from which these undocumented workers come. But this is not necessarily the case.
Take, for example, Mexico: our southern neighbor that contributed the greatest number of immigrants in 2011, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Although Mexico is definitely poorer than the United States, its economy has consistently outperformed the U.S. economy for most of the past 40 years. In 2012, the Mexican economy grew at 4 percent. That same year, the U.S. economy only reported 2.2 percent growth. More specifically, in the state of Puebla, the economy grew at a 6.6 percent rate in the fourth quarter of 2012. The unemployment rate was just above 4 percent in April 2013; the U.S., on the other hand, experienced a 7.6 percent unemployment rate.
Given these conditions, why, then, do people continue to emigrate from Mexico? It’s a simple answer: they buy into the idea of the American dream. But as the economy of Mexico continues to grow faster than the United States’ and the birthrate of Mexico continues to decline, this dream may fade, resulting in fewer immigrants. In turn, the U.S. would inherently suffer because it would lose immigrants’ buying power, and there would be fewer immigrants to fill job openings that have been largely created by our aging population.
Fariborz Ghadar, the William A. Schreyer professor of global management, policies and planning and the director of the Center for Global Business Studies at Penn State, is the author of the recently released “Becoming American: Why Immigration is Good for Our Nation’s Future.”