Brett Seaton | The boogeyman at the border

From the Overton window to the wall | Why America’s immigration system is incentivized to stay broken

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Brett Seaton

“America no longer wants you. Yes, you. Who are you anyway, that you think you can immigrate to THE United States of America? Apply for your measly STEM OPT extension, enter our H-1B lottery which only takes 15% of applicants, work for 6 years, and then, and only then, apply for coveted permanent residence in our country.” 

This is the message that prospective legal immigrants are receiving from the American government. Penn has 6,887 international students currently enrolled. Statistically, 3,500 of them will be unable to stay in the country after graduation. Think of your two favorite international friends—one of them will have to leave after their Optional Practical Training visa expires.

Why is the US seemingly anti-legal immigration? Why do we send home graduates of Penn who earn 70% more than the average American? Why do politicians continuously promise comprehensive immigration reform and then return home to their districts empty-handed?

And it isn’t just politicians like Donald Trump with anti-immigrant beliefs—78% of Americans believe the situation at the Mexican-American border is either a “Crisis” or a “Major Problem”. I was in this 78% myself until recently. Watching TV coverage of the situation or listening to political candidates condemn the volume of migration or rampant crime perpetrated by individuals crossing the border can be quite convincing. So, why has the U.S. government continued this regime of extraordinarily difficult legal immigration and relatively easy illegal immigration? Is our government incompetent, malicious, or both? Usually both, but not in this case.

The government is continuing to ignore illegal immigration because it benefits our country economically—specifically by supporting entitlements. Illegal immigrants pay into Social Security and Medicare but are unable to receive the benefits. This is because about half of illegal immigrants have a social security number that they have acquired fraudulently or are still using despite their visa being expired.

As I have previously written, the health of these two funds is critical to the future financial solvency of our country. Social Security and Medicare spending are currently growing at 2% and 3.6% faster than our GDP, and, together with debt service payments, will be 165% of our tax revenues within 10 years.

From a very basic macroeconomic perspective, labor is a net benefit to our country. 70% of American output comes from labor and 30% from the amount of capital in the country. Additions to our labor force make up the largest single contributor to our GDP–we should celebrate those who help us continue to grow our economy and increase our standard of living year after year.

Who cares about the economy and Social Security if illegal immigrants are committing disproportionate numbers of crimes? Let’s dig in and see if that’s the case.

There were 1.2 million violent crimes committed in the U.S. in 2019 (which was quite low compared to many years on record), which gives us a violent crime rate of 0.367%.

If on average, the crime rate for illegal immigrants is higher than 0.367% then the Trumpers are right and we should build the wall until it touches the moon. Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

There have been 7.5 million encounters between border patrol and illegal immigrants since 2021. Of those encounters, there were 321 total criminal convictions since 2021. America has a whopping 5x higher violent crime rate than illegal immigrants. In fact, even if you extend the analysis to all crimes, not just violent ones, American citizens commit 4x more crimes than illegal immigrants.

Many who claim illegal immigrants have a higher crime rate than Americans will point to statistics on the number of federal arrests by citizenship status as evidence that illegal immigrants commit higher rates per capita than American citizens. Arguments like this, which were made in this viral Heritage Foundation article, are faulty—federal arrests include arrests made at the border, most of which are for illegally crossing into the country. In the report that Heritage points to, it even says, “Ninety-five percent of the increase in federal arrests across 20 years was due to immigration offenses. In 2018, 85% of federal arrests of non-U.S. citizens were for immigration offenses.” Immigration crimes should not be included when analyzing crime rate differences, but, even if you include them as I did above, Americans commit 4x more crimes. Alas, no moon wall.

So, illegal immigration is beneficial to the United States—it provides economic opportunities to migrants, pays into Americans’ Social Security and Medicare while not receiving these benefits, and decreases our violent and non-violent crime rates. What about legal immigration?

Economist Milton Friedman once argued that immigration is only good if it’s illegal. While that is not entirely true, legal immigration is not as economically beneficial to the country as illegal immigration. Legal immigration creates new tax revenues and new liabilities in the form of entitlement benefits. The average legal immigrant earned $50,000 in 2019 while the average native-born American earned $46,000. So legal immigrants present great opportunities for collecting tax revenues.

However, legal immigrants arrive at 35 years of age on average which causes their careers to be shorter. Short careers, because of the progressive benefit structure of Social Security and Medicare, significantly advantage legal immigrants over native citizens. For example, if one worker contributes $100 to social security for 10 years and another contributes $100 to social security for 20 years, the shorter-term worker would receive a check 58% as large despite only contributing 50% as much as the longer-term worker. For Medicare, this imbalance is even worse, as the shorter-term worker would receive 100% of the benefits.

Some data points to long-term population benefits from legal immigration, but legal immigrants’ fertility rate is 2.06 per couple or merely replacement level. What about crime? Legal immigrants are about 30% less likely to commit crime. Again, no need for a moon wall. The younger that legal immigrants are accepted into the country the better. Even young legal immigrants, however, do not change the fact that illegal immigrants present more favorable economics to the country.

The economics and crime statistics are clearly in favor of more illegal immigration and more legal immigration from young people. Politicians who stand against illegal immigration are either uninformed, malicious, or more attached to the rule of law than the economic benefits that this migration provides.

I am sympathetic to concerns that this flaunts the rule of law. One solution to preserving the rule of law while enabling legal migration from South and Central America is to change legal immigration rules such that they are eligible for significantly less benefits than native citizens. But this type of solution would not be beneficial to the right who uses illegal immigration as a baton to smack President Biden, nor would it help Democrats who prefer to fail at passing sweeping amnesty bills (which would bankrupt our country) to remain ideologically pure.

Another seemingly common-sense idea is to allow every graduate of an American university to legally remain in our country permanently. This would be incredibly beneficial economically because it prioritizes the young in legal immigration as previously discussed, and outsources the difficulties of evaluating individual cases to universities that have both the bureaucracy and expertise necessary to do so.

Unfortunately, common sense ideas are often held hostage by radical politicians on both sides of the aisle who determine the ideological purity of their colleagues in order to push a policy that fits their alternative views instead of economics. Both parties benefit from the economics of illegal immigration and restrictive legal immigration while bashing the immigration system at every chance they get.

Thousands of talented international Penn students and millions of students across the U.S. wait patiently for an American immigration system that recognizes the incredible economic opportunity that young legal immigration provides. 

For the sake of our country’s future and those who live every day unsure of their future in this nation, I hope we don’t keep them waiting long. 

Brett Seaton is a junior in Wharton Finance, Real Estate, and Computer Science from Manhattan, KS. Brett is also the Ombudsman for The Pennsylvania Post. His email is

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