As Federal immigration reform continues its very slow journey through Congress I’m often amused by the number of politicians and political commentators expressing their opinions about this important issue when it’s obvious they have no firsthand knowledge of the situation on the ground, and are just working from the talking points they’ve been given.
I was a welfare case worker in south Phoenix for many years and I’ve spent a good amount of time outdoors in Arizona’s National Forests along the Mexican border so I have some real world knowledge that is applicable to this issue.
Let’s start with my experiences at the welfare office. I haven’t worked there for more than 20 years, but I think many of the things I saw are still relevant. South Phoenix, in case you don’t know, is the poorest part of the city. When I worked there we did five welfare applicant interviews per day. Many of the applicants were Mexican undocumented alien parents applying for benefits for their U.S. citizen children. These types of applicant households averaged about two out of our five daily interviews, or about 40%. Since this was a mostly Latino neighborhood, this ratio would have been much lower in most other areas. Now, keep in mind that this was back in the days when the business community and their Republican allies were turning a blind eye toward illegal immigration because it was providing them with cheap and easily exploitable labor. In effect, they were using the welfare system to subsidize their unskilled labor force.
Of course, not all undocumented alien parents applied for welfare for their U.S. citizen children. But most of them had to in order to survive because they typically had low paying or seasonal jobs. In regards to undocumented immigrants being able to apply for U.S. welfare benefits, you need to understand that their U.S citizen children are still eligible for benefits. If the household, for example, has two undocumented alien parents and three U.S. citizen children, the benefit is prorated and issued for three people – if the household is determined to be otherwise eligible. (We weren’t allowed to notify the INS, now called the USCIS, about undocumented alien adult applicants because that might prevent their U.S. citizen children from getting benefits.)
As you might imagine, it was very difficult for us to verify the income of the undocumented alien parents. They usually didn’t have any paycheck stubs to show us because they were being paid under the table in cash, and their employers were reluctant to provide documentation about this unlawful practice. Subsequently, we often had to take their signed declarations of income.
It wasn’t unknown, however, for undocumented alien applicants to provide some pay stubs to verify their income. It was understood by everybody that the Social Security cards they’d used to get their jobs were counterfeit. In those days, all you had to do to verify citizenship to get a regular job was to provide a Social Security card. I was told you could easily purchase an authentic looking SSN card on the street for about $200. Counterfeiting SSN cards was big business in south Phoenix. The Social Security numbers on those cards were usually made up, so they often didn’t match any living or dead person. This meant the FICA and Medicare taxes being deducted from their paychecks became anonymous contributions to the U.S. government.
There was one clever technique, however, that undocumented immigrants used with real Social Security cards. If they had a boy child who was a U.S. citizen, and he had the same name as his father, the dad used the kid’s real Social Security card to get a job. I presumed some boys were given their father’s name just for this purpose. In these cases, the employee’s FICA and Medicare contributions would accrue to the child’s federal account.
It’s much more difficult these days for undocumented immigrants to use fake Social Security Cards, so the anonymous contributions to FICA and Medicare probably aren’t as big as they used to be. But don’t believe that right-wing nonsense that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes. In addition to payroll taxes, they pay sales tax and property tax – if they own a home.
Female welfare applicants, whether they were undocumented immigrants or U.S. citizens, often claimed the fathers of their children were absent and they were totally destitute and having to stay with family or friends to survive. But sometimes we observed men picking them up in nice vehicles after their interviews. They typically claimed he wasn’t the father of their children. We often tried to verify a household’s true composition, but it wasn’t easy to do, especially since we did home visits during the workday, when the men were typically at work.
But some undocumented alien women used a more sophisticated and patently dishonest anchor baby scheme to hide their spouse’s income. They would travel across the U.S. border just before they were due to have a baby. Then they’d have the baby in a U.S hospital for free, because the law prevents the denial of emergency medical services to anyone, and the baby would automatically become a U.S. citizen because it was born here. Then the woman would go into the local welfare office and apply for benefits for the child, and lie about the fact that she only came to the U.S long enough to have the baby and get a welfare case approved. As soon as her case was approved, she’d go back home to Mexico and share the check she got with the friend or family member who was letting her use their mailing address back in the U.S. We typically reviewed household eligibility every six months, so they’d plan to return for that interview to keep the check coming. But if the case got closed because they didn’t show up for their review, they’d just reapply and get it reopened the next time they were in the U.S.
There’s No Need to Tamper With the 14th Amendment
Some people suggest that we should revise the 14th Amendment to the Constitution because it automatically bestows citizenship to all children born in the U.S. Some of these people are racists who don’t like minorities, and there are conservative politicians who don’t want more minority voters. But the proposal resonates with many Americans because they think it’s unfair they should have to pay taxes for the costs of raising the children of undocumented immigrants.
But the children of immigrant parents are entitled to fair treatment too, as is the generation of Americans to which they will belong. It would be stupid, for example, if we didn’t try to educate all children – no matter their origins. And Medicaid must still be available to all children in the interest of public health.
I suggest that, instead, we should reform our federal welfare laws because public assistance is a privilege, not a right. The Food Stamp and welfare benefits of children whose parents aren’t legally in the U.S. could be limited somehow until the children reach adulthood. It would send a message to immigrants entering the U.S. illegally that they are going to have to be financially responsible for any children they have in the U.S.
What Kind of Nation Builds a Wall to Keep People Out?
Now, let’s switch gears to what I’ve seen along the Mexican border. I agree that building short stretches of wall in urban areas or other high traffic areas can help secure our border. But Arizona’s border with Mexico is 389 miles long, so it would be ridiculously expensive to build a wall along that entire length, or across the entire Mexican border with California, New Mexico and Texas. Besides that, long walls along the border would create some serious environmental problems. Furthermore, what kind of nation would build a wall like that to keep people out?
The vast majority of people who sneak across the border are doing it to make a better life for their families. The things they are willing to endure to have a chance to live in the U.S. are amazing. A couple of years ago I went hunting for Coues white-tailed deer with some buddies in the Huachuca Mountains in the Coronado National Forest along the Mexican border. Much of these mountains are virtual wilderness and every day we had to climb several miles up into them to look for deer. We came across well-used trails winding through the hills far from any roads and we realized from the accompanying debris that they were created by undocumented immigrants making their way north. We later spoke with one of the many border patrol agents we encountered in the area and he explained that they usually use the trails at night, with paid coyotes (smugglers) leading groups to distant rendezvous spots where they are picked up by vehicles and transported into Tucson or Phoenix. He said that some of the people using the trails were drug smugglers, but the majority of them weren’t. You’ve probably heard other stories about what these people go through to enter the U.S. More than 200 of them die every year trying to cross Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, and it’s not unusual for females to be raped along the way.
Why Are We Demonizing People That Want To Be Americans?
Why are these people being demonized when all they want to do is live in America? Most of the Mexican undocumented immigrants I’ve met are very hard working and honest people that believe in the American Dream. Remember, they are people, just like you and me. It’s been reported there about 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. – most of them from Mexico. We couldn’t deport them all, even if we tried. And any mass deportation program would result in families being broken up, with parents separated from their children. That would be inhumane.
So, what do we do about them? I believe we should offer them a rigorous path to citizenship. I know that some people would decry this as amnesty. But I think that we could structure a process that legally integrates them into our society without creating new incentives for more of them to come here. A similar tactic was implemented in 1986 when President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which legalized close to 3 million undocumented immigrants. That law also required new citizenship verification requirements for employers and increased border security – but these measures weren’t effectively implemented. This time, however, we could use modern technology to fully implement an efficient nationwide employer verification program, and our current border security, while far from perfect, is better than it’s ever been.
Our border security, of course, can be improved. But the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter how much effort we put into securing the border if things are so bad in Mexico that its citizens are willing to risk everything to come here. They’ll always find a way to sneak across. The long term solution is to refocus our nation’s foreign policy on helping to facilitate Mexico’s economic development. We could also help build and staff new maternity hospitals in Mexico, making it more attractive for women to have their babies there. And we could legalize and regulate marijuana across the U.S., thereby destroying a major market for the Mexican drug cartels and weakening their destructive influence on both sides of the border.