A Meme that Needs to Die

The nice thing about moving back toward the Chicago area is that I can listen to liberal talk radio again. I don’t do it often–there are really only two shows that I actually enjoy–but it’s nice to have something early in the morning and when I’m driving without podcasts. And generally it’s entertaining or informative or thought-provoking.

But occasionally the subject will turn to immigration. And then the callers will start coming in. And inevitably–inevitably–someone will make a comment that betrays the assumption (or states explicitly) that illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes. And in most cases, no one–hosts, co-hosts, other callers–corrects this notion. I’ve called in to two different shows to do just that, though I’ve never gotten to the air. This is a pernicious and generally-accepted meme, but any sense in it falls apart with even the most cursory thought.

What exactly do people mean when they say “illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes”? There are three big taxes that Americans pay: sales tax, property tax, and income tax. Illegal immigrants buy just as many things as natural-born citizens, so sales tax is right out. Illegal immigrants also tend to live in buildings, which they either own or rent. Either way, there’s no way for them not to pay property tax, either because they own a residence or pay a rent that covers the owner’s property tax payments.

So that leaves income tax. I think people have this notion that most or all illegal immigrants are day-laborers who work temporary jobs and get paid cash under the table. Sure, those workers probably aren’t paying income tax. I don’t think I paid income tax on the cash money I got paid for the temporary painting and lawn mowing jobs I did in and shortly after high school, either. But just as most high school jobs aren’t cash-for-manual-labor gigs, most illegal immigrants aren’t standing outside your local Home Depot. This enlightening Reason Magazine article from 2006 gives a figure of 2/3 for the number of illegal immigrants who pay income taxes (among other things), and even that sound like a low estimate–especially when it later shows that 3/4 of the illegal immigrants file personal income taxes with the IRS.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. See, the majority–and I suspect the vast majority–of illegal immigrants are employed legally. They may be using fake or stolen Social Security Numbers, but the cooks and busboys at your local Mexican or Chinese restaurant, the maids at your local hotel, the guys who work maintenance with my dad, those people are all getting regular paychecks from their employers. And those employers, as they are wont to do, are deducting state and federal income tax, Social Security, Medicare, and various other things from those paychecks automatically–just as they do with yours and mine. It’s not like many (if any) of us has to write a check every payday to the IRS.

And yeah, as of 2006, a quarter of them didn’t file taxes with the IRS. I’ve never actually filed my taxes either–that’s what accountants are for–so I’m not particularly clear on the details. I know that some people, when all is said and done, have to pay more to the government, and it’s likely that some of those non-filing illegal immigrants would have to pay extra, which means they’d be delinquent, which is certainly a problem.

But then, some of those non-filing illegal immigrants would probably also be like me, where at the end of the process the government would send them a nice refund check. I don’t know enough about the logistics and statistics involved to know whether or not these two amounts would balance out, but once we’re talking about maybe four million people, some of whom may owe money and some of whom may be owed money, the problem doesn’t look quite as…problematic.

I’ve heard there’s more to this issue, involving deductions and ultimately suggesting that illegal immigrants may pay more than most legal families, but I can’t find a source for that. I think it’s worth noting that, at least as of 2006, illegal immigrants paid significantly more in than they took out of the system. Which pokes a big nasty hole in the concerns of the person typically making this “they’re a drain on the system” argument.

Which is where it’s worthwhile to mention Social Security, too. Just like taxes, Social Security is automatically deducted from your steady paycheck in most jobs. This holds true for illegal immigrants working with fake Social Security Numbers. Unfortunately for them, having no genuine Social Security Number means they can’t collect Social Security when they retire. They’re paying into the system but getting nothing back from it. Which is the complete opposite of their typical freeloader image.

Illegal immigration is a boogeyman, drummed up because it taps into easy fears about outsiders and interlopers, and because it provides an easy scapegoat for the crappy job market and shit economy. The narrative today with Mexicans is the same one that worked against the Irish and Italians and Japanese and Germans and Jews in the past. The United States has always been an attractive place for people to come and make a new, successful life, and those who are determined to do so will make their way here by any means available. I don’t think that’s an attitude to discourage; that’s the old American pioneer by-your-own-bootstraps spirit, isn’t it? Don’t we want America to be a place that people dream of emigrating to?

If you want to curtail illegal immigration, fine: make legal immigration easier. The current system is long, expensive, draconian, and uncertain. Paying a coyote to ferry you across the border looks quick, cheap, safe, and straightforward by comparison. If you want people to pay all the taxes they owe, then you’re not going to get much by squeezing a few pennies out of every illegal Tomás, Ricardo, y Geraldo who owes back taxes. I guarantee you’d make better bank by going after the perfectly legal residents who exploit tax loopholes and the corporations who use tax havens and other workarounds to avoid paying their share. Want to improve the job market? Go after the corporations who have decided to outsource their operations to countries with cheaper workforces and fewer regulations. Increase tariffs on imported goods, place sanctions and extra taxes on businesses who outsource, and make it more attractive to hire American workers. Focusing on illegal immigrants obscures these actual problems in favor of something that has almost no effect on anyone.

Oh, and if you’re just tired of seeing brown people who speak a different primary language, start packing for Sweden, asshole. America’s a melting pot: E pluribus unum. Love it or leave it.

3 Responses to A Meme that Needs to Die

  1. Akusai says:

    Apart from just being true, this is a fantastic example of how the skeptical toolset can be applied to claims other than those of basic paranormalism: you heard a factual claim, you doubted it, and you found data to justify and alternate conclusion.

  2. The other problem with this issue is that it basically shifts the problem. If there were no jobs for illegals, they wouldn't come. So employer enforcement would be the best way to solve the problem.Targetting the illegals, just means that they'll be replaced with other illegals and does nothing to solve the problem.

  3. Pingback: Meme Debunking #2: Publicity « Dubito Ergo Sum

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