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Businessweek Archives

The Real Immigration Problem



Demonizing immigrants is quite the fashion among politicians these days. Last year, the "trouble" with immigrants was that they just weren't learning English fast enough. Now, it is said, they've become welfare deadbeats, costing taxpayers billions.

The truth is, the 700,000 to 800,000 legal immigrants who are admitted through the regular immigration system every year rarely go on welfare. They tend to be more educated than native-born Americans and pay more in taxes than they receive in public benefits. On the whole, U.S. immigration policy works well, and the nation should be proud of living up to its heritage.

But there is a problem that stems from two groups--political refugees and illegals. It is the 120,000 political refugees fleeing communism or dictatorship every year, and, to a lesser extent, the 200,000 or so illegal immigrants, mostly from Latin America, who are a drain on the public purse.

Political refugees have a striking welfare rate. In particular, some 49% of Cambodian, 46% of Laotian, 25.8% of Vietnamese, and 16.3% of immigrants from the former Soviet Union were on welfare in 1990. Not only do refugees have a higher rate of welfare use, they get more welfare benefits--more than twice what native-born Americans receive (page 74).

Any immigration reform must focus on those immigrants who are on welfare. Clearly, the solution to the illegal-immigration problem is more effective federal enforcement of the law. The solution to the refugee problem is more complex. Government efforts to aid refugees have encouraged many of them to become mendicants. Bringing refugee welfare payments in line with standard benefits would encourage refugees to take jobs in the private sector while saving the U.S. several billion dollars a year. A second step would be to focus special educational programs on refugee groups. Refugees tend to be much less educated than other legal immigrants or native-born Americans.

The issue of whom to let into a land of immigrants is fraught with great emotion. The U.S. has an obligation to help those, such as the Hmong of Laos, who were allies in its foreign wars. But even America cannot take in all of the world's political casualties. It already accepts more immigrants than all other nations of the world combined. The stirrings of the heart must be tempered with the practicalities of assimilation.

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