The Myth of the Free-Loading Immigrant

By Nick Wilson

Photo Credit: WikiCommons

When a sitting president in 2019 is using the same domestic policy playbook as the president in 1843, we should be concerned.

Back in 1843, James K. Polk’s “Manifest Destiny”, ideology dictated that the American government was free to appropriate land if it belonged to “inferior non-white” people. It was an attempt to gloss over racism and imperialism (among other ‘ism’s). In 2019, a new slogan was coined that essentially delivers the same message about people of color. The “Make America Great Again” presidency intentionally exacerbates the fraught relationship between America and those seeking asylum from Latin American countries.

It’s hard to miss the irony. One would think a nation which has historically depended on non-native labor for its growth and progress would learn to value immigrant labor, or perhaps, immigrants themselves. Instead the United States has promoted a systematic closed-door policy and ostracized foreigners who seek an opportunity for a better life.

Migrant Workers in California. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

Deport or Reform?

Yet over the last two decades, polls have largely shown that the majority of people favor immigration reform, as opposed to enforcement methods only - that was, until 2008 (

It was during the 2008 economic recession that public perception related to undocumented immigration changed. Substantial job loss from the economic fallout caused anger and frustration. It was during this time that immigrants both documented and undocumented in the United States were targeted. Gallup polls revealed that 66% of people believed undocumented Immigrants cost the taxpayer too much, and did not pay their fair share in taxes, a noticeable shift from years prior.

By 2010, deportation increased by 25% according to Brian Bennett of the Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau. Changes in public perception and the drastic increase of deportations helped justify the creation of new laws which targeted immigrants. In 2010, a controversial piece of legislation was passed in Arizona. State Senate bill 1070 was enacted, which allowed the federal and state governments to work together to detain and question Arizona residents over the age of 14 without a warrant. Those who were suspected of being undocumented and could not produce proof of citizenship could be legally detained. One can imagine the state of disarray a family might be under when at any given moment one’s children could be snatched away, and the action would be perfectly legal.

In the same year, a national bill with an opposite goal known as the Dream Act passed in the House but failed to reach the 60 vote threshold necessary to end debate in the Senate. The Dream Act would have allowed children with undocumented status to gain a path to citizenship with the completion of college or enrollment in the US military. It has been introduced several times in the House and Senate but has never passed.

Major media and news outlets continued the shift in public perception that undocumented immigrants were problematic. However economic data paints a different picture. The Social Security Administration (SSA) estimates that over 75% of undocumented workers actually do work on the books, and an estimated 3 million undocumented Immigrants filed their taxes.

Wait.. so they do pay taxes after all... Well I'll be damned. Photo Credit: WikiCommons

Guess what guys, they do pay taxes

This may seem like a less than adequate statistic when you consider there are roughly 10.7 million undocumented workers in the United States as of 2016. (Pew research center) but

beneath the surface of political rhetoric and cited statistics there lies a lesser known factor as to why undocumented immigrants contribute more than we might realize. According to Eduardo Porter of the New York Times, most undocumented workers obtain fake social security numbers which they can’t collect benefits from. This money gets added to the government’s revenues. In the late 1980’s a substantial amount of incorrectly filed and/or falsified W-2 forms and social security numbers were reported by the SSA. In hopes of tracing these, the Social Security Administration attributed these earnings to an “earning suspense file” in order to one day account for them. In 2005 alone, the government received over 5 billion dollars in taxes from these accounts, a number which doubled in 2010. These unclaimed revenues have continued to climb relative to the number undocumented people living in the US.

From the time in which the file was created through the 1990’s, over 189 billion dollars worth of wages have been recorded (New York Times). Stephen C. Gross, former Social Securities Chief Actuary has estimated that over 75% of this data can be directly linked to the income of undocumented immigrants. Due to the fact that these earnings have been taxed, and the respective earners can not collect Social Security benefits, a tremendous amount of money has been given to the government. Also considering the fact that virtually everything immigrants buy is taxed, and owning a home (which immigrants find ways to do) contributes to taxes which fund education, it becomes increasingly clear that undocumented persons are not some sort of parasite on our economy.

While it is true that undocumented immigrants could use public resources, the fact is that many states have far too many laws that would have to be broken in order for them to do so.

“The Personal Responsibility And Work Opportunities Act”, passed in 1996, prohibits undocumented immigrants from receiving food stamps, welfare benefits, and medical coverage. Those who fear deportation and are living in non-sanctuary cities are not likely to visit a hospital where personal information is required to receive treatment. While certain hospitals do provide healthcare for undocumented people without collecting data, undocumented people are excluded from obtaining health coverage in over half of all US states. Therefore, not only are undocumented immigrants not a major burden to the healthcare system, but they may die because they are barred from it.

Deporting Immigrants is not a financially sound investment either. According to the Immigration Enforcement Agency 393,000 people were deported in 2010. This was a historic effort, which only targeted about 4% of the total 10.8 million undocumented immigrant population in the United States. Data from Customs also reveal it was an effort that cost $5 billion dollars. When you consider that deporting the rest of the undocumented immigrants in this country would cost a whopping $137.5 billion dollars (not including the fees of operating the 200,000 busses along the 1,700 miles of land necessary to accomplish this goal).

The late Arizona Senator John McCain estimated that removing the remaining number of undocumented persons would take 70 years. Over the last decade the US has poured over 90 billion dollars in border security efforts (ICE).

No person would argue against border security measures, or that spending money on border security is a necessity. Yet the notion that all immigrants leave their homelands solely due to a yearning for the American dream completely ignores historical context. Beyond economics, it is crucial to understand why so many Hispanic immigrants specifically appear at the American doorstep. Since the start of the 20th century, the US has received the largest number of immigrants from nations whose governments have been overthrown or interfered with by the United States themselves.

"One way of carrying bananas : At the docks of the United Fruit Co., mechanical carriers, so perfected as not to bruise the fruit, have replaced the leisurely negro." (United Fruit,1913). Photo Credit: WikiCommons

Fleeing Towards the Dream

Juan Gonzalez, author of the book Harvest of Empire believes it is important for us to acknowledge the reasons why there are so many Hispanics in the United States. He believes that hate has been used as a tool by the US government and policy makers to gain the support of the youth in past decades, and hopes the cycle will stop. Gonzalez points out that the number of Hispanics in the US is going to rise.

According to Gonzalez, the U.S’s exploits in several Latin American countries in particular have contributed to the emigration of their citizens. For instance, the Mexican-American war, which led to the expansion of the United States into Mexico during the 1840’s played a major role in creating the conditions behind future migrations. Originally Utah, Colorado, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas belonged to Mexico, before President James K. Polk led the “Manifest Destiny” campaign (westward expansion of the United States) and claimed these territories. It is arguable, that this time period was crucial for Mexico’s development, because they spent the next 50 or so years playing catch-up with the world’s economy after the fact. The ideas of expansion, industrialization, and capitalism have reached Mexico, but because they have never had the means to compete the same way the United States and other major European nations did in a global economy, the power of the government has never been able to outweigh the power of criminals and those who gain from corruption. Many people flee the country and as as a result the US census of 2010 revealed there are currently 33 million Mexicans living in the United States.

After World War II, Guatemala was one of the only countries in Latin America on its way to becoming a progressive nation. In 1951 Jacobo Arbenz became the first President of Guatemala, and began to put forth land reform policies to distribute the wealth throughout the developing nation. A treaty signed with the US gave Guatemala complete autonomy and the freedom to act independently. Unfortunately for Arbenz, his planned reforms were a threat and an obstacle to the largest American fruit distribution company in Guatemala: “United Fruit Company” (now known as Chiquita Brands International).

US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother CIA Director Allen Dulles planned a series of covert operations and propaganda campaigns to protect the profitable American investment. Within the next few years the Dulles brothers initiated ‘Operation Mockingbird’ to portray Arbenz as a radical communist to justify his assassination to the public in 1954. The US government funded and armed opposition groups and were able to overthrow the government. From the late 1950’s to 1980’s civil war spread throughout the nation, and as a result of the warfare, the 2010 census revealed over 1 million Guatemalans live the United States (Gonzalez).

Our interactions with such nations as Cuba, Honduras, Salvador, Dominican Republic, Argentina, and many other Latin American nations have all lead to huge numbers of immigrants fleeing hostile conditions to avoid the chaos we have caused. For those who seek to preserve our traditional American values, one must take into account that it is actually these values that have been used to displace the large number of individuals we see in our country today. It was the actions of our government that has resulted in wars, mass numbers of casualties, civil unrest for decades, destruction of up and coming democracies, and contribution to oppressive rulers, which account for the displacement of individuals. It is our duty now to undo the policies of the previous century. Instead of lambasting foreigners and deporting people, let us focus our efforts on improving countries we have helped disrupt.

The elusive, coveted "American Dream" (Photo Credit: WikiCommons)

Works Cited


2. Duleep, Harriet O. "Research, Statistics, and Policy Analysis." N.p., Aug. 2008.Web. 20 Nov. 2012. <>.

3. Porter, Eduardo. "Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security With Billions." The New York Times 5 Apr. 2005, Business sec.: 1-2. Print.

4. Semple, Kirk. "Undocumented Life Is a Hurdle as Immigrants Seek Reprieve." The New York Times 3 Oct. 2012, N.Y./ Region sec.: n. pag. Print.

5. "Immigration." N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.


6. "Immigration." N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2012. <>.

7. Social Security research statistics & policy analysis: Research and Analysis by Harriet Orcutt Dupeel. N.P..n.d. Web. 15. Jan. 2013 United States Social Security Statistics & policy analysis


8. Eduardo López & Peter Getzels

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2012, 90 min., Color, US

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9. "Immigration (2)." Immigration (2). N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2013.(

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