By Aaron Robles
On Sunday July 24, 2017, a semi-truck driver stopped in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio, Texas, to inspect the contents of his trailer. As he lifted the latch to the rear door and opened the container, he found a dreadful scene- scores of immigrants dying of heat exhaustion.
Earlier that day, smugglers had tightly packed about 200 immigrants into the trailer, assuring them that the air-conditioning system would keep them cool.
The system failed, however, leaving at least eight of the immigrants dead, 30 hospitalized and others with irreversible brain damage from heat stroke. Immediately following his discovery, the driver was arrested and charged with transporting people who are in the country illegally.
For many Americans, the immediate visceral reaction to this tragedy was profound sadness for the victims and their families.
For lawmakers, their response should be sensible immigration reform that is fiscally sound and supplies low-skilled immigrants with safe and legal avenues for working in America.
Unfortunately, current US immigration law achieves none of these objectives. The Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA), the body of law governing immigration policy, is a complex statutory scheme that caps annual immigration at around 700,000, gives preference to the reunification of families, admits immigrants with valuable vocational skills and protects refugees.
But INA does not provide a legitimate avenue for low-skilled immigrants to work in the US, making the San Antonio incident another example of how the statute places undue fiscal burden on the government, and fails low-skilled workers who come to the US for valid employment opportunities.
While there is debate regarding the extent, illegal immigration has a direct impact on government income and expenditure. Using data collected by the US government, the Heritage Foundation found that federal and state governments spend $24,721 per year on benefits and services to illegal immigrant households, but collects only $10,344 in taxes from those same homes. This produces a deficit of $14,387, mostly attributed to the untaxed income of illegal immigrants.
The balance sheets of border states are especially impacted by illegal immigration. According to Arizona’s state treasurer, the state loses up to $2.5 billion per year to illegal border crossings, mostly related to direct costs like incarceration and education, and peripheral expenses like higher car insurance due to stolen vehicles and hit-and-runs.
Other analysts, however, arrive at a different conclusion, stating that contributions by low-skilled immigrants benefit the US economy, mostly in ways that go unnoticed. According to the Immigration Policy Center, illegal immigrants expand the economy and perform jobs that otherwise would not be filled by Americans. This not only contributes to economic growth, but fills important jobs in industries like agriculture and construction.
While both arguments are valid, reform that allows low-skilled immigrants to legally enter American society is fiscally prudent. For example, the Heritage Foundation includes data showing tax revenue deficits for all US households with less than a college education, but surpluses for college graduates. This shows that citizenship status is not indicative of how much a person contributes to government coffers, rather lack of training and education produces a greater threat to government solvency.
That said, a pathway to citizenship for low-skilled immigrants can alleviate spending deficits by affording them access to educational and job-training opportunities that improve their lifetime earning potential. In turn, they have a chance to move into higher income brackets, and contribute more to the government than they receive. This creates budget surpluses and expands the economy at the same time.
But the real lesson from San Antonio is the need to protect vulnerable immigrants from the malicious actors that comprise the human-smuggling world. This means creating a system that recruits and documents low-skilled laborers, offering them temporary work visas that guarantee the same rights and privileges held by US citizens.
This type of immigration reform would accomplish two objectives. First, it would eliminate the market for smugglers and abusive human-trafficking chains, as low-skilled workers could simply apply for visas and legal passage to the US. Secondly, as documented visa holders, the workers would pay all taxes required of regular citizens, helping reduce deficits related to illegal immigration.
Every so often, an incident with the magnitude of the San Antonio tragedy raises awareness for immigration reform. But it is beyond doubt that on daily basis illegal immigrants are smuggled into the US, sometimes in reprehensible conditions, to perform low-skilled labor that Americans rely upon.
So, while it makes fiscal sense to reform our immigration laws, it is also morally imperative that we create a safe avenue of passage for foreign workers who contribute more to our country than they take away.
Aaron Robles is a teacher and graduate student living in Oakland, California. He holds a BA in Political Science from San Francisco State University, a law degree from Golden Gate University School of Law, and is currently pursing a Masters of Arts in Teaching from the University of Southern California. Aaron’s professional experience includes legal clerkships in environmental and employment law, as well as a congressional internship with a sitting United States Senator. This piece was originally published on Aaron’s own blog which assumes a centrist viewpoint on politics, policy and culture.
Cover image by Matthew Peoples under CC license.