Life of Illegal Immigrants in the United States

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Within the American Studies project module our subgroup consisting of Carolin Radke, Sandra Poerschke, Elisabeth Böhme, and Paul Lück dealt with the situation of illegal Hispanic immigrants in the United States. But because this is still a very broad topic we decided to focus on public services only. Thus, although they are an important component, we will not cover topics such as the economy, the second generation of illegal immigrants, or the public opinion toward unauthorized immigration. The reason for this decision was first to create an in-depth analysis of one element of the situation of illegal immigrants in the U.S. Furthermore, we picked public services because they have an immense impact on the lives of illegal immigrants and their concepts of the American Dream. Accordingly, it ties neatly to the previous subgroup that focused on the reasons for illegally emigrating Latinos while the pursuit of the American Dream was an important motivation for them. By looking at public services in the United States, the reality of this American dream will be revealed.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center there were an estimated 11.1 million unauthorized

immigrants living in the United States in March 2009, most of them from the third-world countries in Latin America and Asia (Passel 2009). Regardless of how these immigrants got to their new home country (as will be elaborated by another subgroup), they all decided to take a risk and move to a foreign country in search of a better life; they came to the U.S. in pursuit of the American Dream. We are aware that public opinion diverges on illegal immigration - a lot of stereotypes, many of them opposing illegal immigration, have been shaped by U.S. legal citizens. Nevertheless, we argue that although most illegal immigrants become productive members of the American society, they have to face many obstacles keeping them from profiting from public services like health care, Social Security, public housing and education. We will analyze how illegal immigrants get access to public services in the United States, under which circumstances they receive health care, why Social Security benefits are out of reach for them, and how they can profit from public housing and education.

Identification/ Documentation

Under current law, illegal immigrants are not allowed to live or work in the U.S. (Kenney 10). But reality reveals a different picture. Lawful permanent residence (Green Card) for foreign-born persons can be gained either through a family member who is a U.S. citizen or


through employment; beside that other conditions must be fulfilled (cf. U.S. Citizens and Immigration Services Website). Additionally to the Green Card, the H-2A and H-2B visa programs are the main temporary avenues through which low-skilled workers from Central-and Latin America enter the country (Hanson 4). But the total supply of H-2A and H-2B visas is scarcely one percent of the current unauthorized population (Hanson 4). These Visa programs are simply not designed to accommodate the demands of US industry (Hanson 8). If businesses want to hire additional low-skilled workers, their primary option is to employ unauthorized immigrants (Hanson 8). For many this legal path seems impossible (Kenney 10-12).

If the conditions for legal residency are not given, immigrants often use false identification (short: Fake ID's) (cf. Kenney 7). In the past, Californian Proposition 187 - also called the SOS (Save Our State) initiative - had made it a felony (state crime) to manufacture, sell or use false citizenship or residence documents (Martin 256) False ID's are available for $100-$200 in every major American City and many smaller ones (White 2). New York Times reporter Eduardo Porter wrote in a 2005 article:

"Currently available for about $150 on street corners in just about any immigrant neighborhood in California, a typical fake ID package includes a green card and a Social Security card. It provides cover for employers, who, if asked, can plausibly assert that they believe all their workers are legal." (Porter 2005)

Officials believe that illegal immigrants had obtained the Social Security Number of U.S. citizens through criminal organizations in order to gain employment, which is defined as identity theft by law (Kenney 7). In 2006, former President George W. Bush advised tools for employers to inquire if workers life legally in America (called Basic Pilot-program) (Kenney 7; cf. The White House Archives). A Story: At a plantation, officials had to arrest 65 of 1,282 illegal immigrants because of criminal violations, some of which involved identity theft (Kenney 7). According to Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, "violation of (…) immigration laws and privacy rights often go hand in hand" (Kenney 7). Indeed, it is hard for employers to detect whether documents are valid or not, for they have to accept a diverse variety of work and identification authorization documents. This includes school ID cards, Canadian Driver's licenses, school report cards, and day care or nursery school records; also no requirement that employers keep a copy of identification documents (Miller 4).


Furthermore, the Social Security Administration cannot share information about violators of the immigration law with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Miller 5).

Finally, there is no government entity in charge of inspections of I-9 employment eligibility documents (cf. Miller 5). Employers simply hire illegal immigrants because there is little or even no penalty for that. It seems as unspoken agreement: the employee provides acceptable ID that appears authentic, the employer asks no questions, and the US government looks the other way (White2). Another suitable explanation why no penalty from the government is passed is that they garner votes from businessmen (cf. White 4).

Health Care

The problem of health care for illegal immigrants is not only a recent issue, but it has already been a topic in the past. For instance in 1994, California passed the famous Proposition 187 which "proposed ending education, nonemergency health care, and other public services for undocumented immigrants" (Martinez). However, only five years later it was found unconstitutional "because it conflicted with federal immigration authority" (Martinez). Today, illegal immigrants in the United States only receive emergency medical care, but are denied "broad Medicaid coverage"(AP). This implies that only if they need emergency medical treatment, illegal immigrants can visit a doctor or the hospital. The reality however looks different. Although illegal Hispanic immigrants "are less likely than other groups to have a regular health care provider"(Pew 113, p.2), still 51% have a "usual health care provider" (Pew 113, p.1). For about four-in-ten unauthorized Latinos this "provider is a community clinic or health center" (Pew 113, p.2). In this case the expenses are covered by federal or state funds, private foundations, and reimbursements from patients (Pew 113, p.2). A comparably low number of only about 15% of illegal Latino adults uses "private doctors,

hospital outpatient facilities, or health maintenance organizations," probably because here the costs have to be defrayed privately by the patients or their insurance (Pew 113, p.2).

Although hospitals only make up a small percentage as health care provider for illegal

Hispanics, they will be analyzed in more detail in the following part. For instance, there are some hospitals in the United States that do not inquire about the immigration status of their patients (Preston 1). It should also be added that "most emergency rooms are required by law to provide care to all patients" - including illegal immigrants (Pew 113, p. 2). In general, the patients themselves are "responsible for payment for emergency room services, but in some


instances the federal government partially reimburses hospitals for expenses the patients cannot afford" (Pew 113, p. 2). The problem here is that illegal Hispanic immigrants tend to have a lower income than the average American citizen and at the same time hospital treatments are often very expansive. As a consequence gaps in financing emerge that can neither be completely covered by the patients nor by the government. For instance "in California, hospitals spent at least $1.02 billion (…) [in 2005] on health care for illegal immigrants that was not reimbursed by federal or state programs" (Preston 1). In this regard, unauthorized immigrants turn out to be a problem for hospitals pushing some at the

border to Mexico to their limits. As a result, several hospitals may even be tipped into bankruptcy (Preston 1). But at the same time it is argued that illegal immigrants "do not overburden hospital emergency rooms" (Dorschner). This was proved by a large study from Peter Cunningham who for example found out that "noncitizens had 17 fewer visits [of the emergency room] per 100 than citizens" (Dorschner). Similarly, the Pew Hispanic Center discovered that only 6% of illegal Latinos "consider the emergency room their usual health care provider" (Pew 113, p.1). As can be seen, the numbers and facts on this issue are quite contradicting - on the one hand this many illegal immigrants visit the emergency room that some hospitals in the United States are even threatened with bankruptcy. On the other hand, unauthorized immigrants do not seem to overburden emergency rooms and make up a decisively smaller amount in hospitals than citizens.

When analyzing the issue of health care for illegal immigrants, it also needs to be covered who exactly receives it. Interestingly, "hospital figures show [that] the largest group of illegal immigrant patients is pregnant women" who give birth to their children in the United States (Preston 2). In 2009 it was estimated that about four million children in the U.S. were born to at least one illegal immigrant parent - this number nearly doubled from 2000 to 2009 (Pew 126, p. iv & 7). Because these "children automatically become American citizens" (basis for this is the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution), such births are paid by "federal taxes through Medicaid" (Preston 2). Sometimes children born to illegal immigrants on U.S. soil are also referred to as "anchor babies." Reason for this is that they possibly enable their parents to apply for citizenship and thus "can eventually anchor an entire family in the United States" (Gary Miller).

Altogether, it is important to note that about 37% of illegal Hispanic immigrants do not have a usual health care provider (Pew 113, p.1). While the majority of them argues that they do not need one, about a fourth have financial reasons and another 17% claim to lack insurance (Pew 113, p.2-3). A possible reason why they do not need health care as much as


other Americans is the "relative healthiness" of Latinos because they are on average very young: 43% of illegal immigrant Latinos are under the age of 30 (Pew 113, p. 3). Another number to prove this healthiness is that 64% of illegal immigrant Latinos did not miss a single day of "work due to illness or injury" in the year of 2007 (Pew 113, p.3-4). This shows again that illegal Hispanics only go to the hospital or a doctor if it is indispensable. Due to their young average age and healthiness they are less likely than other American citizens to need medical care. This might also explain the low rate of hospital visits of illegal Hispanic immigrants. However, if these people do consult a doctor, it is very likely that the quality of their medical care will nevertheless be excellent or good (cf. Pew 113, p. 4).

Social Security

In order "to work, collect Social Security benefits and receive some other government

services" it is necessary to have a Social Security number ( Currently in the United States 4.2% of an employee's income is subtracted as Social Security tax, and another 1.45% as Medicare tax (, understanding the benefits). The employer pays another 6.2% for Social Security and 1.45% for Medicare (, understanding the benefits). The revenue from these payroll taxes are used for Social Security benefits such as retirement, disability, and survivor benefits ( In 2007 it was estimated that "two-thirds of unauthorized immigrant workers, or 5.6 million people, were paying into the system" (Schumacher-Matos). These illegal workers provide the Social Security Administration with a subsidy of up to $7 billion a year (White 3). As a consequence, "by 2007, the Social Security trust fund had received a net benefit of somewhere between $120 billion and $240 billion from unauthorized immigrants" (Schumacher-Matos). Every year, the Social Security Administration receives "W-2 earnings reports with incorrect - sometimes simply fictitious - Social Security numbers" and stashes them in a growing "earnings suspense file"

(Porter 1, illegal immigrants). Certain factors indicate that significant portions of this suspense file are from illegal immigrants. For instance, these earnings came largely from California, Texas, and Illinois that have a high illegal immigrant population, and from typical illegal immigrant employment such as restaurants, construction companies and farm operations (Porter 2, illegal immigrants). It can just not be denied that there are millions of illegal Latinos in the labor force paying tax money and with that also paying into the Social Security. The big problem is that since illegal immigrants often present false identification to


their employer or do not "have a Social Security number in their own name" (Pew 43, p. 5), they will not collect Social Security benefits (White 4). Additionally, it seems to be increasingly popular among illegal Hispanics to rent Social Security numbers (Porter 1, social security). As a result, many illegal immigrants pay into the system with their jobs, but cannot profit from benefits. Without a legal status, they are "not eligible

to receive" Social Security benefits such as a retirement (Pew 43, p. 5). For many "illegal

immigrants, Social Security numbers are simply a tool needed to work on this side of the border. Retirement does not enter the picture" (White 4). A large number of unauthorized Latinos seems to be more concerned about current jobs to earn money than about their retirement. They are often aware that they will most likely not see their tax money ever again. A naturalized Nicaraguan immigrant even "observes that many older workers return home to Mexico" (Porter 2, illegal immigrants), because many of them will not have a future as retirees in the United States. However, the support of Americans and the financing of their retirements and other social services go hand in hand with this. It certainly is good for the economy and for legal citizens to have illegal workers pay into system without collecting benefits. Therefore, "the impact on Social Security is significant," because for instance they help "cover retirement checks to legal workers" (Loller). In the end, illegal workers pay in and with that finance American retirees, but they will never receive anything back - unless they become legal (Schumacher-Matos).

5. Housing

Where do illegal immigrants live upon entering the country? According to an Associated Press article, many unauthorized immigrants find accommodation in public housing where thousands of U.S. citizens wait years for a spot (cf. Associated Press 2009) - and that although state and local governments try to restrict access to federally funded housing for illegal immigrants through various strict policies. For instance, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires undocumented immigrants to share home with at least one person who is in the country legally (Department of Housing and Urban Development 2010). Furthermore, some local governments passed anti-illegal immigrant ("AII") ordinances in addition to the restrictions of the HUD. These ordinances penalize land lords for renting to unauthorized immigrants (cf. Associated Press). This, however, has caused new problems in the past. As a result of problems with ascertaining the legal status of immigrants - many illegal immigrants use false identification -, land lords often tend to


discriminate the "foreign-seeming" based on accent, surname, appearance or other ethnic markers, although this violates the federal fair housing law which prohibits discrimination on basis of national origin" (cf. Oliveri 2008; Passel 2009).

Nevertheless, many illegal immigrants live in public housing. According to government statistics, undocumented residents make up only a small portion of the 7.1 million people in federal housing (cf. Associated Press). A HUD tally reports that 29,570 people - 0.4% of all those in federally funded housing - are "ineligible noncitizens". The New York City Housing Authority reports only 2,471 families with at least one ineligible noncitizen, or 0.9% of the 289,000 households on vouchers or in housing developments. The San Diego Housing Commission reports 658 of the 37,120 people on federal housing vouchers to be ineligible noncitizens, or 1.8%. The Boston Housing Authority reports 288 of its 45,100 families on federal housing assistance are ineligible noncitizens, or 0.6%. The San Francisco Housing Authority has 148 ineligible noncitizens among its 28,611 people in federal housing, or 0.5%. And housing agencies in Miami-Dade County and Chicago each reported serving less than 50 ineligible noncitizens (Associated Press). Some undocumented residents may be on temporary visas, such as highly educated workers or college students, but nearly half of all unauthorized-immigrant households are parents of U.S. born children, making them automatically eligible for federal housing (cf. Associated Press; Passel 2009). Secondly, some illegal immigrants do not present themselves to the HUD at all (cf. Associated Press). Tanya Broder, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center observed that many illegal immigrants are reluctant to seek government benefits, because they keep low profiles. Even some legal immigrants shun public housing fearing reprisals against them or their families, she said (Associated Press). Finally, some states have special regulations for public services according to which, immigrants do not have to provide a proof of their legal status. For instance in Massachusetts, a 1977 federal consent decree prohibits the state from denying the benefit of public housing to illegal immigrants.

All these factors led authorities to think that the number of unauthorized non-citizens in public housing cannot only comprise small portions of less than 1 %. They think it is thousands more (cf. Associated Press). It is very likely that these numbers do not reflect reality entirely, for New York, Miami, Chicago, San Diego and San Francisco are among the cities with the largest immigrant populations. The example of public housing shows how much illegal immigrants are still "hiding" in a grey zone. Not even U.S. government


authorities know how many illegal immigrants reside in the country and how many of them make use of public services.



To conclude, although illegal immigrants contribute to the wellbeing of the American society, they cannot profit from most social services. As a consequence, public services disillusion the idea illegal immigrants have of the American Dream because of the large gap between reality and their imagination or expectation. Most illegal Hispanic immigrants contribute to the American society, for instance, by working hard in often low-paid jobs, or by paying into the Social Security system. However, they do not receive back. They do not receive social security and cannot profit from health care benefits the way American citizens do. (+ something. about fake ID's, housing and education)

       With respect to illegal immigration as a gray zone in contemporary American history, we showed that although there are statistics on illegal immigration in the U.S., these do not reflect reality entirely. Reason for this is that many unauthorized immigrants simply do not reveal themselves as such for obvious reasons. Therefore, the U.S. is not able to grasp the whole extent of illegal immigration going on in the country - illegal immigrants remain in a gray zone.