Illegal Immigrants:
Why do they come?
What should the U.S. do about them?

by Alan Shapiro


To the Teacher:

The history of the United States is the history of immigrants and immigration. And yet, since the earliest colonial days, immigration has been a controversial issue in this country. Benjamin Franklin worried about German immigrants "swarming" into Pennsylvania in the 1750s. In the two-and-a-half centuries since, Americans have rioted against "undesirable" immigrants, produced a political party-the "Know Nothings-- that aimed to exclude all but the native-born from political office, excluded the Chinese, and closed the "golden door" with a quota system. Recently, "undocumented workers," especially those who enter the country illegally from Mexico, have been the center of attention.

Why immigrants come to the U.S. and competing views about their place in America are the major subjects of the following three readings and classroom activities for high school students.



Reading 1:
Coyotes, jobs, family, and cheap corn

Do you start your morning with a glass of Florida orange juice? If so, there's a chance that Manuel Osorio may have helped to provide it.

"Manuel Osorio is a coyote," Florida's Palm Beach Post reported (12/03). That's someone who smuggles migrants from Mexico into the United States. "Three hundred crossings. A few jail terms. Plus the bumps on his head. 'La migra,' he says, leaning his skinny frame back in his tiny house in Tecoman, Mexico. 'They caught me 20 times. The next day I always cross back.'" (By la migra, he means U.S. immigration police.)

Manuel Osorio became a coyote at 13 because his father, a farm laborer, could not make enough money to support his nine children. Unable to read or write, he took a bus to the border and "'studied like a graduate student.' Now the Florida fields are filled with the fruits of his laborófriends, relations, and strangers he helped cross. 'God bless Manuel,'" says his sister-in-law in Florida. 'He is a very good man.'"

The United States Border Patrol says it arrested one million people trying to sneak across the Mexican border last year. Most are eventually returned to Mexico and try again. Manuel Osorio is illiterate, but he has studied the border and the best routes into the U.S. "like a graduate student." He has made himself a good, if dangerous, living guiding poor, job-hungry Mexicans into Texas. Some of these immigrants later make their way to Florida to pick the oranges whose juice ends up in your glass.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that there are 8 to 9 million "undocumented workers," as they are often called, in the U.S., and each year the number goes up by about 500,000. Other estimates are much higher.

"Migration from Mexico to the United States will remain, for the foreseeable future, one of the largest mass movements of workers and families in the modern age," reported the U.S.-Mexico BiNational Council (April 2004). About 15 percent of Mexico's workers reside in the United States. Mexican nationals represent 20 percent of annual legal immigration to the United States and 30 percent of the U.S. foreign-born population. Yet unauthorized Mexican migrants represent 83 percent of all migrants from Mexico." (Quotes are from; statistics are from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

Why do so many Mexicans come? The Cruz family is typical. Beginning in 1984, Antonio Cruz, the father, crossed the border back and forth illegally many times to work at construction jobs. The jobs paid him triple what he could make in Chihuahua, Mexico, and he was able to send money back home to his family. In the late 1980s a U.S. amnesty paved the way for 3 million illegals, among them Antonio Cruz, to begin the road to citizenship. But bringing his family to the U.S. legally was so difficult that in 1995 he paid coyotes to smuggle his wife and daughters across the border.

"I needed to be with them. I didn't want to be going back and forth," Cruz says. "I would suffer a lot being there without them and I decided to bring them, I don't know, because I had to be with them."

His daughter Jessica, then a small child, remembers the day she came. "You had to jump above the wallÖ.I remember like seeing, like, big, big trees and likeófar away, you could see like houses. And above those, were like helicopters. Which was like, I was scared. Because I would think that they would come back. That they would come down. And they would send us back." More than 300 people died on such attempts last year. Jessica wasn't even in kindergarten, but she had already broken the law. Today she lives with her family in North Carolina, where her father Antonio is a successful welder in building construction. (

Jobs and family are what drive most immigrants to enter the U.S. illegally. A typical Mexican worker earns one-tenth what a typical American worker makes. A better-paying job was the reason behind Antonio Cruz's first border crossing. And his desire to be with his family was the reason he paid smugglers to bring his wife and daughters into the U.S.

But behind these immediate reasons for immigrating is often a more complicated reality. Lorenzo Rebollo farms corn in Manzanillo, Mexico, which archaeologists say was the first place on earth where people grew corn as a food crop. But Rebollo says he may be the last man to farm corn there. He cannot compete with the mechanized, subsidized giants of American agriculture. Because of billions in subsidies from Congress, these U.S.-based companies can sell their corn in Mexico for less than it costs to growóand still make a profit. They now supply Mexico with a quarter of its corn. This is good for Mexican shoppers but not for Mexican farmers like Rebollo. He now gets such low prices for his corn that he loses money on every ear he grows. His two sons have left to make a living in the United States. (New York Times, 2/26/02)

Such undocumented workers keep coming, even though most suffer many problems once they are in the U.S.: less than minimum wage pay; no unemployment insurance; no union protection; housing in shacks without bathrooms ; exposure to pesticides if they work in fields.

"American businesses are willing to hire cheap, compliant labor from abroad," states a report from the Center for Immigration Studies ( "Such businesses are seldom punished because our country lacks a viable system to verify new hires' work eligibility. In addition, communities of recently arrived legal immigrants help create immigrants' networks used by illegal aliens and serve as incubators for illegal immigration, providing jobs, housing, and entrée to America for illegal-alien relatives and fellow countrymen."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have? How might they be answered?

2. Imagine that you are Manuel Osorio or Antonio Cruz. Would you have behaved differently from either of them? Why?

3. What are the major reasons for illegal immigration?

4. Why is illegal immigration from Mexico so difficult to stop?



Reading 2:
Unenforced laws and the benefits and costs
of illegal immigration

North Carolina Sheriff Terry Johnson says he's "fed up that immigration laws aren't being enforced by the federal government." When he's asked, "You can't arrest them just for being illegal?" he answers, "NoÖnot being illegal. The federal government has to deal with that." The sheriff says he can't understand why it doesn't enforce the law.

Bill Hamlin heads a family roofing firm in North Carolina whose workers, he says, are 80 percent Hispanic. When he hires a worker, he says, "All we're allowed to ask for is proper documentation, and it has to bear a reasonable facsimile to what we perceive as a Social Security card or other forms of legal identification." He then assumes the worker is legal. (, 1/28/05)

According to Florida's Palm Beach Post (12/7/03), "Tap a man on a shoulder in a field or a camp and ask him who he is, and you are likely to wind up confused. He might say, 'Jose, but that is just my work name.' Or, 'Which name do you want?' Or even: 'I cannot tell you my name, I have gone by so many.' In a way it does not matter. A worker is a worker, at least in the eyes of the contractor who hires him, and in the eyes of the grower who hires the contractor. The system, precarious, entrenched, blessed by indifference and incompetence, is based on need. The farmers need their fields picked clean at harvest time. The contractors need workers to fill their vans so they can deliver on promises made to farmers. The workers, from impoverished regions in Mexico and Guatemala, need to send money home to their families."

Efforts to stop illegal immigration are nothing new. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 provided two major measures: 1) "employer sanctions" to penalize employers for hiring undocumented workers and 2) more guards, more weapons, and high-tech devices to control the Mexican-U.S. border.

But the 1986 law has had little effect on the flow of illegal Mexican migrants or on employers because, as Sheriff Johnson complains, the "sanctions" are rarely enforced. But it has made life more difficult for migrants because they risk criminal penalties if they are caught presenting false documents. This greatly discourages immigrants from protesting mistreatmentógiving employers more of a free hand to abuse workers.

Many people propose reforming U.S. immigration policy. Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado, a Republican, expressed concern that "terrorists take advantage of porous borders," and complained that the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security has not sought additional border guards. In response to this concern, the House of Representatives passed a bill on February 10, 2005, that gives more power to the Homeland Security to strengthen border stations and prohibits states from issuing drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants. The bill also makes it easier for judges to expel people who claim they are refugees. U.S. law says a "refugee" is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of "persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." Opponents say the bill threatens legitimate victims of persecution.

A number of organizations work to limit immigration. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR; "seeks to improve border security, to stop illegal immigration, and to promote immigration levels consistent with the national interestÖ."

The Center for Immigration Studies ( also is concerned about the "broad national interest" and "seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted."

In its series, "Modern-Day Slavery," the Palm Beach Post of Florida reports (12/9/03) that "the rising, invisible costs of cheap labor to harvest our crops are being shouldered by welfare programs, schools and hospitals required by law to treat anyone with a serious illness." The reason: undocumented workers sometimes get help from public programs that are financed by taxpayers: food stamps, infant and maternal nutrition programs, special school programs like English As a Second Language.

The National Academy of Sciences estimates that "immigrants' use of social services and schools costs every California household $1,200 a year in additional taxes." An advisor to the panel "wonders whether Florida's cost per household for immigrant services may now be approaching California's."

However, much of this cost is for legal immigrants and the figures do not take into consideration the tremendous economic value of work performed by illegal immigrants.

Migrant workers, many of them in the U.S. illegally, make up 20 percent of America's landscapers and gardeners; 14 percent of its food preparation workers; 11 percent of its janitors; 10 percent of its heavy truck drivers, 8 percent of its waitresses and waiter assistants; 5 percent of its general repairers; 4 percent of its teacher aides. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2002)

An ABC News-Washington Post poll of January 12-16, 2005, asked: "Do you think illegal immigrants who are living and working in the United States should be offered a chance to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status or do you think they should be deported back to their native country?" 61 percent of those who responded said they should be allowed to keep their jobs and to apply for legal status; 36 percent said they should be deported; 3 percent were uncertain.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have? How might they be answered?

2. Why is Sheriff Johnson so frustrated? Why do you suppose the federal government does not enforce laws against illegal immigration?

3. How often do you suppose Bill Hamlin employs undocumented workers? Why?

4. Why do you suppose roofers, farmers, and others don't hire American workers?

5. What do you think of the bill passed by the House of Representatives? Why?

6. How do illegal immigrants raise taxpayers' bills? What might balance these costs?

7. How would you vote in the ABC News-Washington Post poll? Why?



Reading 3:
The president's proposal on illegal immigrants

On January 7, 2004, President Bush proposed "a new temporary worker program to match willing foreign workers with willing U.S. employers when no American can be found to fill the jobs." The program would not provide amnesty "because individuals who violate America's laws should not be rewarded for illegal behavior and because amnesty perpetuates illegal immigration." But "the program would be open to new foreign workers, and to the undocumented men and women currently employed in the U.S. This new program would allow workers who currently hold jobs to come out of hiding and participate legally in America's economy while not encouraging further illegal behavior."

The president's proposal would

  • "provide a labor supply for American employers when no American worker is available to take a job."
  • allow participants "to travel back and forth between their home and the U.S. without fear of being denied re-entry into America."
  • "require the return of temporary workers to their home country after their period of work has concluded."
  • grant such workers a legal status that "would last three years, be renewable, and would have an end."
  • "not connect participation to a green card or citizenship. However, it should not preclude a participant from obtaining green card status through the existing process." Note: A "green card" provides Legal Permanent Residence status to immigrants who qualify in a process described by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

In his State of the Union address nearly 13 months later, the president said, "America's immigration system isÖoutdatedóunsuited to the needs of our economy and to the values of our country. We should not be content with laws that punish hardworking people who want only to provide for their families, and deny businesses willing workers, and invite chaos at our border. It is time for an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take, that rejects amnesty, that tells us who is entering and leaving our country, and that closes the border to drug dealers and terrorists. (2/2/05)

The president's proposal is controversial. Supporters include Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who said, "Immigration reform must be comprehensiveóit must address future workers who want to enter the country as well as the current undocumented populationÖ.If jobs go unfilled in the U.S., and no American worker chooses to fill them, those jobs should be opened to legal foreign workersÖ.At the same time, in order to ensure we do not create a permanent underclass, new temporary workers must have complete portability to transfer from one job to another, a clear path to citizenship if they choose, and the ability to self-initiate that." (Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 3/23/04)

Another supporter is Tamar Jacoby. In a lecture to the American Enterprise Institute, she declared: "The president proposes to connect willing workers with willing employersónot to create a new flow or add to the total number that enter the country each year, but merely to give most of the people who would otherwise come illegally a safe, orderly, legal option with a guest worker program. The president proposes to get rid of the existing black market by creating a path to legalizationóby asking illegal workers who can otherwise prove their bona fides to come forward, pay a penalty, and get on the right side of the law." (2/1/05)

Congressman Tom Tancredo argued against the Bush proposal in a speech to the House of Representatives: "Mexican illegal immigrants have monopolized jobs that don't require skilled laboróthrough acceptance of low wages and ethnic camaraderieópreventing unemployed Americans from pursuing and acquiring those jobsÖ.Also, communities of legal immigrants create immigration networks for illegal immigrants so they can conveniently enter the United States, and find jobs and housing easily. These combined factors result in a situation where job competition prevents Americans from obtaining jobs that don't require skilled labor. However, this monopoly could be intensified if the Bush administration follow through with the implementation of guest-worker programs." (11/17/04)

Janice Fine of the Economic Policy Institute found "three fundamental problems with the president's plan. First, the proposal gives too much power to employersÖ.The president's proposal, because it requires employers to sponsor workers' temporary work visas and maintain their employment, will make these guest workers even more powerless against employer abuses than they already areÖ.Second, by requiring workers to access the program through employers, the proposal fails to take current labor market realities into account. About half of current undocumented workers are in the 'informal sector."Ö.Since these types of employers are unlikely to participate in the program, large numbers of workers will have no way of accessing itÖ.Third, because the proposal provides legal status for a temporary time period and is completely separated from the green card process, it doesn't provide enough of an incentive for undocumented workers to want to participate." (Boston Globe, 1/11/04)

Some organizations say the U.S. should simply allow all immigrants to become legal permanent residents. The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which sponsors an advocacy program for immigrants called "Project Voice," says: "AFSC advocates for the full recognition and protection of the human rights of all people, including immigrants to the United States, documented and undocumented. Regardless of which term is used, AFSC affirms that, under U.S. laws and on a policy level, protecting the human rights of all requires, at the very least, providing Legal Permanent Residence status to undocumented immigrants." (


For critical thinking

1. Divide the class into groups of four to six students to play "the believing game" and then "the doubting game" on the president's proposal. See "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website for a detailed discussion of ways to proceed. See for additional details of the president's proposal.

2. Organize a debate: "Resolved, that the president's proposal on illegal immigrants should be adopted by the Congress and become law."

For inquiry

1. Should American policies on illegal immigration be changed? If so, how?

Students might examine websites offering a variety of views. Among them:

American Friends Service Committee:
Center for Immigration Studies:
National Immigration Forum:
Federation for American Immigration Reform:
PBS's Now program of 1/28/05 on immigration, which provides links to many sites:
Palm Beach Post's website offers a collection of articles, "Modern-Day Slavery," about immigrants, legal and illegal, working in Florida:

2. A detailed study of one's family origins.

Click on "Ancestors on PBS" at for a multitude of suggestions on how to gather information about a family's immigration history.

Also see excellent sources for creating oral histories at the Library of Congress' website:

For citizenship

Following their studies of illegal immigration, students should be encouraged to voice their views on the issue to their congressperson, senators, and the president. If the class can reach consensus in their views, students might prepare and send a
collective statement to public officials.



This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to:


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