Border Patrol Agents Monitor US-Mexico Border
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images file
A U.S. Border Patrol agent walks a road lined with new vehicle barriers along the US-Mexico border on June 26, near Santa Teresa, N.M. 
Special to msnbc.com
updated 7/10/2007 8:21:50 PM ET 2007-07-11T00:21:50
Second of three parts

We invited readers to submit their questions about illegal immigration, and picked some of the best ones to pass on to our panel of experts -- an immigration attorney, an economist specializing in immigration issues and a border security expert (click on their names to see their credentials). Their answers follow:

Q: What is wrong with the current immigration law(s) that needs to be fixed by new legislation?

-- Nathan, Houston, Texas

Border security expert Neville Cramer responds:

A: Our U.S. immigration system is chaotic and broken. Congress is currently working on “comprehensive immigration reform” legislation, and the bill is now over 800 pages long. This fact alone should give some indication as to the enormity of the problems.

Almost my entire career was spent in immigration enforcement. I am therefore going to limit my response to the issue of illegal immigration. In simple terms, the “magnet” that draws most illegal immigrants here is jobs. And the easiest way to curtail illegal immigration is to stop employers from hiring aliens who are not authorized to work here.

First, Congress must legislate a mandatorySocial Security Number verification system (or similar employment eligibility verification program). The responsibility of verifying work authorization documents and Social Security numbers must be placed on the federal government. (A person cannot buy a tube of toothpaste with a credit card without the card number being verified, yet people can use their Social Security number to work in this country without automated verification.)

Employers must be required to use this verification system, and should be absolved from further responsibility once the employee has been approved for work.

Congress must also authorize Homeland Security to establish a large immigration enforcement compliance division. This division must work with the business community and the media to implement the new verification system. Once it is in place, and employers are aware of their responsibilities, Homeland Security must actively pursue employer sanctions against non-compliant employers, and this punitive process must be simple and severe. If this initiative succeeds, it will eliminate the vacuum of immigration enforcement that currently exists in the interior of the United States.

This is not a new concept. In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. One of the major parts of the bill required employers to verify work authorization documents and complete the Form I-9, (employment eligibility form.) If an employer then knowingly employed an illegal alien, it would be subject to sanctions (fines, criminal prosecution, etc.) As incredible as it may seem, shortly after the legislation was passed and signed into law by President Reagan, politicians, lobbyists, religious leaders and senior executives at the Immigration and Naturalization Service began a deliberate process to sabotage the employer sanctions portion of the bill. The entire process shortly turned into a “paper tiger.”

With regard to illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border, an effective employer sanctions program will eliminate a significant part of the illegal entries. However, Congress must also legislate a mandatory detention period for persons caught illegally entering the country. Initially this might require a large investment in temporary detention space along our border, but the payoff would be enormous. Under current procedures, the Border Patrol catches Mexican nationals crossing the border, processes them as illegal aliens and then allows them to return to Mexico voluntarily -- only to try again a few hours later. Detention will accomplish three things:

  • Illegal aliens will not be returned immediately to can try again and again until they finally get past the Border Patrol.
  • The aliens will not enter the U.S. and get a job.
  • The aliens will not earn money and send it back home (which was their original purpose).

Lastly, with regard to the physical border, Congress must authorize Homeland Security to build a “virtual fence” along both our northern and southern borders. Using physical and technological equipment, the U.S. government must be able to monitor the movement of people and conveyances along both borders, and react immediately when an incursion takes place. Simply adding more Border Patrol agents has done nothing more than make the Border Patrol a bigger agency.

How does U.S. experience compare with Europe's?
Q: How does our experience with illegal immigrants and immigration compare with other countries such as Germany and Australia?

-- Travis Jacobs, Laurel, Md.

Border security expert Neville Cramer responds:

A: The United Kingdom and most of Western Europe (including Germany), are also having a very difficult time controlling illegal immigration. Poor countries in and around Europe are sending their workers all over Western Europe and the Middle East because they are willing to do menial labor at lower wages, and the developed nations just cannot find enough home-grown labor to keep their economies moving.

Le Bourget: 23rd annual convention of French muslims
David Friedman  /  msnbc.com file
French Muslims attend an annual convention for the faithful at Le Bourget in Paris on May 6, 2006.
Western Europe is seeing a massive influx of Muslims from Turkey and Africa. Accusations of racism and xenophobia are growing throughout Europe and in some cases violence has erupted.

While the U.S. does have viable programmatic solutions that could be implemented, I do not think Europe is in the same situation. There are so many countries involved, the solutions will be much more difficult to implement, if not impossible.

When it comes to immigration, Australians are not tolerant of immigrants who refuse to assimilate and illegal immigration is considered socially unacceptable. I think every immigration officer in the world dreams about working in Australia.

Impact on Social Security, Medicare?
Q: What will be the estimated increase in cost to Social Security and Medicare if the 20 million or so immigrants are granted citizenship? How will that affect the timeline on when Social Security and Medicare are expected to go bankrupt? How does the current legislation deal with this issue? What generation will have to shoulder the majority of the cost through higher taxes?

-- Loyd, Greenville, S.C.

Economist Madeline Zavodny answers:

A: The best estimates put the size of the current illegal immigrant population at about 12 million, not 20 million. And not all of these illegal immigrants would be eligible for legal status and eventual U.S. citizenship under the current immigration reform proposals.

Many illegal immigrants working under false Social Security numbers have Social Security and Medicare taxes withheld from their paychecks right now. The Social Security Administration reportedly believes that about three-quarters of “other-than-legal immigrants” are paying these taxes. Under current laws, most of these illegal immigrants will never receive benefits unless they can legalize their status and obtain a valid SSN.  This actually bolsters our Social Security and Medicaid systems; the New York Times reported in 2005 that payments from illegal immigrants accounted for 10 percent of the Social Security surplus (the difference between receipts and payments) in 2004 and are fully factored into projections of future solvency. 

Put simply, illegal immigrants are helping prop up our entitlement programs right now.

Legalization would cause some people working “under the table” who do not have Social Security and Medicaid taxes (called “FICA” taxes on most paycheck stubs), to come out from the shadows and have taxes withheld.  But it would also increase the number of people eventually eligible for Social Security benefits.

Before 2004, the general practice was that immigrants who legalized their status and obtained a valid SSN or who left the U.S. and could demonstrate that they paid into the system under a false SSN could receive credit for those payments. The rules were tightened somewhat beginning in January 2004, but immigrants granted a valid SSN can still get credit for previous earnings if they have appropriate documentation.

The main immigration reform bill currently before the Senate appears to deny people who legalize their status a claim on previous FICA contributions while they were working without authorization. The bill states, “No quarter of coverage shall be credited for any calendar year beginning on or after January 1, 2004, with respect to an individual who is not a natural-born United States citizen, unless the Commissioner of Social Security determines, on the basis of information provided to the Commissioner … that the individual was authorized to be employed in the United States during such quarter.”

If the bill is passed, immigrants who receive legal status would someday be eligible to receive benefits based on the FICA taxes they pay after they have legal status. If no immigration reform occurs, immigrants who are able to legalize their status will be able to get credit for previous earnings if they have adequate documentation. 

The bigger issue here is that Social Security and Medicare are redistributive plans.  They transfer funds from the wealthy to the poor (and from the young to the elderly).  People with high earnings receive less in benefits than they contribute, and people with low earnings receive more than they pay in. Since illegal immigrants tend to have relatively low skill levels and low incomes, if they legalize they would probably receive more in benefits than they would contribute (just like low-skilled, low-income natives get more in benefits than they contribute).  Immigration reform alone can’t solve this problem because it’s part of the design of the Social Security and Medicare systems.

The main bipartisan immigration reform bill that is again being considered by the Senate does not include any other provisions that change the current setup of Social Security and Medicare.  Certainly these are issues looming on the horizon that we should all be thinking about. The financial troubles that these entitlement programs will face in the long run are so large that immigration reform does not really affect them much one way or another.

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