Underground on American Soil: Undocumented Workers and US Immigration Policy

Article excerpt

"The stereotypical image of the illegal immigrant, as an unskilled, logy income worker surreptitiously crossing the Rio Grande is not an accurate one...."

Concerns over illegal immigration have dominated some major American policy debates in recent years. Fears of an uncontrollable number of immigrants crossing through American borders have spawned a number of immigration policy initiatives. Both the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act have an array of provisions intended to control illegal immigration. Perceived as a rapidly growing mass of unskilled, low-income migrants, undocumented workers are accused of coming to the United States to take advantage of welfare and public assistance programs. It is this view that led to the 1994 enactment of Proposition 187, in which Californians sought to deny public sector benefits to illegal immigrants.

This paper demonstrates that there is no massive "alien invasion" facing the United States and that, if anything, the influx of immigrants through American borders slowed down in the 1990s. Furthermore, the ,stereotypical image of the illegal immigrant, as an unskilled, low-income worker surreptitiously crossing the Rio Grande is not an accurate one. The image presented in the popular media often ignores the great diversity present among immigrants in the US. In reality, a large portion of the illegal immigrant population consists of individuals with higher educational attainment than the average American. Furthermore, low-income immigrants are generally not seeking welfare or other public assistance benefits and, on the contrary, are intensely participating in the labor market.

Why is the public perception of illegal immigrants so far from the truth? The fact is that undocumented workers in American society go largely undetected, living in an underground world that protects their illegal immigration status. It is for this reason that there is comparatively little information about them. Popular views emerge mostly from journalistic accounts, or from case studies carried out by social scientists. These accounts and studies, which are

not representative of the overall illegal immigrant population, have produced a set of stereotypes that are challenged in this article.

The analysis provided here is in part based on data recently released by the US Department of Labor. This data provides an extensive, nationally representative profile of undocumented immigrants residing in the US. We find these data contradict many of the traditional views toward undocumented workers.


The bashing of undocumented workers often starts with alarmist concerns that the US border is out of control. For instance, in a popular, recent book on immigration, George J. Borjas notes that "any serious reform of immigration policy ... is doomed to failure unless the problem of illegal immigration is also resolved."(2) California Governor Pete Wilson fueled this perception in the mid-1990s, when he declared that the nation was "under siege" from illegal aliens. Many in the press and the government have vociferously complained about the "rising tide of illegals." The figures quoted about the number of undocumented workers flooding the country each year are indeed impressive. For instance, Peter Brimelow, author of Alien Nation, states that in 1993 alone "two to three million illegal immigrants may have succeeded in entering the country."(3) He concludes that "by allowing its borders to vanish under this vast whirling mass of illegal immigrants, the US is running on the edge of a demographic buzz saw. One day, it could suddenly look down to find California or Texas cut off."(4)

Where do these numbers come from? Since the entry of illegal immigrants into the US is undocumented, we cannot count it precisely and it must be based on statistical estimates. …