Debate, Week 1: Is Immigration Really a Problem in the United States?

Students in the summer offering of my Introduction to American Politics course were assigned to write their final paper on one of three contemporary political debates in the United States – immigration reform, college affordability, and transgender bathroom policy. For the next three weeks, I will post a few especially good responses from my students on each issue.

This week, my students discuss whether and not immigration is a problem in the United States. When students in the class were asked in a survey about their opinion on government policy towards unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States, 9% agreed that they should be sent back to their home countries, 14% approved of a guest worker program that would allow them to remain, 60% agreed that they should be allowed to remain if they met certain requirements, 14% agreed that they should be allowed to remain without penalty, and 3% reported not knowing.  As you’ll see from the commentary below, there is much more nuance than these numbers suggest.

Immigrants Commit Less Crime and Boost the Economy

Response 1, Alex C.*

Immigration is something that our country has dealt with since its inception.   Ever since the United States came to be, it has been seen as a land of opportunity for those less fortunate. Potential immigrants saw a chance to start a new and better life in the United States. However, many immigrants met resistance when they tried to make the journey to the states because of some misconceptions. Immigration is in fact a good thing for our country because immigrants are not actually more likely to commit crime and they provide the economy a boost through innovation and hard work.

There are many different opinions on immigration and immigration reform in the United States. Jan Ting (2015) that immigration may be one cause of unemployment., and that the solution to unemployment is reduced immigration (Ting, 2015). Marco Saavedra (2015), on the other hand, was college educated and his parents owned a small business that created jobs and were active in their community. However, they were still viewed as the problem to most Americans because of their immigrant status. Anne-Marie Nuñez (2015) argues that immigrants perform better in educational outcomes than their native-born classmates – “it is immigrants who significantly sustain the population of the U.S. work force” (Nuñez, 2015, p. 5). Sassen (1989) argues that immigration reform has largely failed and that the immigrants are filling valuable rolls in the United States job market. Finally, Donato (2008) emphasizes that more research needed to be done. There is a lot of information out there concerning immigration, but not every scenario and outcome has been explored.

The stereotype that immigrants are coming to the United States and committing crime is largely untrue. Ewing, Martinez, and Rumbaut (2015) argued that immigrants actually commit less crime and are incarcerated at a lesser rate than native-born Americans. Even though the percentage of immigrants grew substantially from 1990 to 2013, the violent crime rate and the property crime rate both fell by over forty percent (Ewing, Martinez & Rumbaut, 2015). They posited that this was due to the fact that immigrants were coming to the United States for a better life (Ewing, Martinez & Rumbaut, 2015). Immigrants must risk a lot when they come to a new country and leave their old lives behind. It would be foolish of them to throw it all away and commit crimes especially since they run the risk of being deported. 

Immigrants improve the country by working and helping to boost the economy. Nuñez (2015) stated that “in recent years, foreign-born immigrants have established a disproportionately large share of small businesses, start-ups in Silicon Valley, and international patents” which goes to show that immigrants can help the American economy in many ways (p. 5). These immigrants want to work hard and create a better life for themselves, but they may need a little extra support along the way. James Meza Jr. (2015) talked about the challenges that both children and adult immigrants face – including education and language barriers. As a country, we need to support these immigrants so that they can become full contributing members to society. If we give them a route to legalization and naturalization, they can help make the country a better place.

Even though politicians and public opinion would lead a person to believe that immigrants are hurting this great nation, this could not be further from the truth. Immigrants help provide labor and skills to our country. They do not contribute significantly to the crime rate and they work hard to give themselves a better life. As Americans, we can do a better job of opening our doors and giving them the support they need to continue making the country a better place to live.

Immigration Reform Needed at the Federal Level

Response 2, Chris D.*

Immigration reform has been a politically divisive issue since 1986. The division lies between those in favor of legalization and those in favor of laws that punish the unauthorized immigrant. Since 2001, the federal government has taken little responsibility for immigration reform leaving the issue instead in the hands of the states (Siegel, 2008). The federal government needs to take immigration reform away from the states and re-implement Section 245(i) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). By doing this Congress would establish a pathway towards legalization while creating consistent law throughout the United States.

The legalization argument suggests that a pathway to citizenship is necessary. Dr. Karthick Ramakishnan states that “nearly two-thirds of Americans favor a path to legalizing the status of undocumented immigrants” (Ramakishnan, 2015). The law created by Congress for legalization was Section 245(i) of the INA (Siegel, 2008). This pathway to citizenship was recommended for continuation by both President Clinton and President Bush. However, Section 245(i) was discontinued by Congress in 2001 and never replaced with a viable means towards citizenship. Due to the federal government’s inactivity, states have tried to come up with their own reform laws. California passed a number of immigration reforms referred to as the “California Package” that allowed for undocumented immigrants to keep in-state benefits (Ramakishnan, 2015). Even though many states have tried to implement their own standards, Congress and the federal government need to step up to create immigration reform for reciprocity’s sake.

An alternative perspective argues that the federal government should take a stern stance towards undocumented immigrants. These individuals believe that the bars of three to ten years established by the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996 are a responsible attempt on reform (Siegel, 2008). Those that wish the current laws were enforced better, focus on the struggles of native born Americans in a depressed economy. Dr. Jan C. Ting says that the United States needs to, “start by enforcing existing immigration laws, which the Supreme Court has recognized exists for a ‘primary purpose’ to ‘preserve jobs for American workers’” (Ting, 2015). This argument suggests that with an ever growing immigrant population and an already struggling job market, it will become difficult to employ the working population. However, based upon Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny’s research, “immigration likely has had small adverse effects on low-skilled natives’ wages, but no significant negative effects on medium and high skilled natives’ wages” (Orrenius, 2012).

Immigration reform matters to those that are already American citizens and to undocumented immigrants that wish for a better life. Since 2001, the federal government has not managed to develop an immigration reform bill that would allow for citizenship but has kept the bars alone in place. By current standards, these illegal immigrants are neither able to obtain citizenship nor able to re-enter the United States without punishment. Reform needs to be created by the federal government and not left to the inconsistencies of the states. “From a broader perspective, state immigration laws not only do not achieve their intended goals but also are likely to result in a number of harmful unintended consequences, none of which alleviate native’s concerns about immigration’s labor market and fiscal impacts” (Orrenius, 2012). The federal government can take the lead by implementing Section 245(i) so that undocumented immigrants have a pathway to citizenship, along with a reduction of the bars already in place. “Comprehensive immigration reform measures attempt to balance these competing objectives by incorporating punishment mechanisms alongside the benefit of adjusting status” (Siegel, 2008). However, the current bars are severe punishment for illegal immigrants that have been left in the “shadows” of American society (Siegel, 2008).

Can Immigration Reform Help the Economy?

Response 3, Ahmed G.*

One ongoing issue of debate in the United States has been immigration and immigration reform. It remains a major issue of the 2016 presidential election and has gained a lot of coverage from the mainstream media. On one side, Republican presidential candidates battled to show who had a stronger position on putting an end to immigration, whether it was building a wall along the border to stop illegals from entering the United States, deporting 11 million illegal immigrants, or denying legal Muslim immigrants from entering altogether. Some American citizens believe that immigrants take away jobs from natural born Americans, lower their wages, and impose a burden on the economy because many immigrants don’t pay taxes and rely on government assistance. Another argument is that immigration reform, which would grant illegal immigrants permanent residency, would be unfair to all other individuals that are legally waiting in line (Ting 2015). On the other hand, Democratic presidential candidates believe that immigration reform with a path to legal citizenship is compulsory. They argue that immigrants contribute positively to the workforce and help the economy. They also believe that passing immigration reform will lead to safer and healthier communities (Ramakrishnan 2015) as well as reduce the exploitation of illegals by employers (Costa 2015). In this paper I argue that immigrants bring economic benefits to the United States and that immigration reform is necessary.

One major issue that illegal immigrants face in the United States is that they are not legally allowed to work. Because they can’t survive without income, many are exploited by employers and payed less than the minimum wage. A fourth of low skilled workers in the United States are paid less than the minimum wage. Twenty-six percent of the low skilled workers are immigrants, and 38 percent of that immigrant population are illegal immigrants (Shapiro & Vellucci 2010). Because of the lack of legal status, illegal immigrants are not protected by the federal rules. This helps explain why low skilled jobs are mostly given to illegal immigrants, and why wages for these jobs are low. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act granted 1.7 million long-term undocumented immigrants legal status. The result of this was the increase of wages by 21 percent for undocumented female immigrants and 6-15 percent for male immigrants. Research also demonstrates that this reform led the wages of native-born Americans to modestly increase as well (Shapiro & Vellucci 2010). It is clear that immigration reform that gives legal status to undocumented immigrants will remove restrictions on these individuals and enable them to move freely in the market and empower different sectors. Additionally, low skilled native-born Americans will no longer be victims of low wages and exploitation by some employers.

Immigrants also contribute immensely to the higher skilled jobs in the United States. In fact, immigrants make up 16 percent of the labor force – with 25 percent of all doctorates and 35 percent of doctorates in science and engineering (Furchtgott-Roth 2013). Not only that, but between 2006 and 2012, two fifths of startup companies in Silicon Valley, had a founder who was an immigrant (Hesson 2015). And according to Giovanni Perri, an economist at UC Davis, immigrants hold a third of international valid patents that were issued to U.S. residents (Hesson 2015). This demonstrates that immigrants have a huge impact on job growth. Any because a large proportion of them hold doctorate degrees, they contribute hugely to research and development, especially in the technology industry.

The United States was founded by immigrants – whether they came over because of oppression in their homeland or to seek better living conditions for their family – they have contributed hugely in building America. In this paper, I demonstrated how immigrants help improve the economy and why immigration reform is crucial for further success. To conclude, immigrants not only benefit the economy, but they also bring diversity to the United States by bringing different skills, religions, and cultures, which makes America unique from other parts of the world.


What about you? What are your thoughts on immigration reform in the United States? Leave your comments below.

*Responses shared with written permission from the authors. Replication in any form, without permission from the author, is prohibited.

"I Am An American" by Lorie Shaull (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“I Am An American” by Lorie Shaull (CC BY-SA 2.0)



  1. Response 1
    1. Donato, K. M. (2008). Understanding the Economic Consequences of Mexican Immigration to the United States: Much Done but More to Do. Work and Occupations, 35(2), 189-195. doi:10.1177/0730888408315885
    2. Ewing, W. A., Martinez, D. E., & Rumbaut, R. G. (2015, July 8). The Criminalization of Immigration in the United States. Retrieved August 01, 2016, from
    3. Saavedra, M., Ting, J. C., Ramakrishnan, K., Meza, J., Jr., Nunez, A., & Costa, D. (2015). Is Immigration Really a Problem? Retrieved August 01, 2016, from
    4. Sassen, S. (1989, Fall). America’s Immigration“Problem”. World Policy Journal, 6(4), 811-832. Retrieved July 11, 2016, from
  2. Response 2
    1. Orrenius, P. M. (2012). The Economics of U.S. Immigration Policy. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 948-956.

    2. Ramakishnan, D. K. (2015, 09 03). Look to California’s Model. The New York Times.

    3. Siegel, B. (2008). The Political Discourse of Amnesty in Immigration Policy. Akron Law Review, 41, 1, 291-335.

    4. Ting, D. J. (2015, 09 03). A Burden That Does Not Affect All Americans Equally. The New York Times.

  3. Response 3
    1. Costa, D. (2015). Employers Exploit Unauthorized Immigrants to Keep Wages Low. Retrieved July 25, 2016, from
    2. Furchtgott-Roth, D. (2013, February). THE ECONOMIC BENEFITS OF IMMIGRATION. MANHATTAN INSTITUTE FOR POLICY RESEARCH, 18, 1-25. Retrieved July 25, 2016, from
    3. Hesson, T. (2015). Why American Cities Are Fighting to Attract Immigrants. Retrieved July 25, 2016, from
    4. Ramakrishnan, K. (2015). Look to California’s Model. Retrieved July 25, 2016, from
    5. Shapiro, R. J., & Vellucci, J. (2010, May). The Impact of Immigration and Immigration Reform on the Wages of American Workers. New Policy Institute, 1-22. Retrieved July 25, 2016, from
    6. Ting, J. (2015). A Burden That Does Not Affect All Americans Equally. Retrieved July 25, 2016, from

2 thoughts on “Debate, Week 1: Is Immigration Really a Problem in the United States?

  1. I have a paper I have to write for a high school AP language assignment, same exact topic actually, and I was wondering if I could use your responses as sources?
    Thank you
    Cleo Tolman

    • Cleo, I would advise you to refer to the linked sources at the bottom of the article for your sources and not the student’s responses themselves. Each student wrote a personal response to a prompt and supported their response with scholarly sources. Again, please use and cite the linked sources (at the bottom of the article) for your assignment and not the personal responses themselves. Be vigilant and do not plagiarize their responses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *