Cepeda column: Unauthorized immigrants help prop up America’s economy
CHICAGO — Whenever I see a viral video of a racist person harassing a Spanish speaker with brown skin because they seem “illegal,” I comfort myself with the vivid image of millions of Latinos watching the spectacle with bafflement as they fan themselves with a stack of $100 bills.
It’s not silly.
People act like unauthorized immigrants are the biggest pox upon the Great American Experiment, but the fact is that immigrants pour billions of dollars into the tax coffers of local and state governments every year. In fact, they paid an estimated $11.7 billion just in 2014, according to the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy. This includes an estimated $1.1 billion in state income taxes and $3.6 billion in property taxes.
Federal taxes can be added on top: The IRS estimated in 2015 that 4.4 million income-tax returns came from workers with no Social Security numbers, resulting in $23.6 billion in income taxes. This, of course, doesn’t include payroll taxes or the taxes paid by immigrants who work on someone else’s Social Security number.
For years, it’s been an open secret that unauthorized immigrant workers are propping up the Social Security retirement trust fund and Medicare systems — even though they can’t access benefits from either of those programs.
Most people don’t know that there’s been a system in place for unauthorized immigrants and other foreign-born people to get Taxpayer Identification Numbers with which to file income taxes since 1996.
Moreover, schemes to legalize immigrants have often hinged on requiring them to prove they have a track record of paying their taxes. This has, at least in part, resulted in a windfall for the government.
You also have to stop to consider that unauthorized immigrants represent but a small percentage of all the Latinos in our country — as a whole, all immigrants represent only about a third of all Hispanics.
And make no mistake: Latinos have money. They also have property.
“Over the past decade, Hispanics have accounted for 62.7 percent of net U.S. homeownership gains, growing from 6,303,000 homeowners to 7,877,000, a total increase of 1,574,000 Hispanic homeowners,” according to the 2018 State of Hispanic Home Ownership report from the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals.
This same report calculated that the median household income for Hispanics rose to $50,486 in 2017, accounting for the largest increase in income (3.7 percent) among all racial or ethnic population groups.
As if this weren’t enough, we’re just sunnier about our finances than almost anyone else. In a recent analysis of national survey results, Florida Atlantic University found that 67 percent of Hispanics said they are financially better off today than a year ago, and 74 percent said they’d be better off over the next year. Meanwhile, 59 percent said they expected the country as a whole to experience good business conditions in the upcoming year.
Only people with a vested interest in a business would forecast economic conditions for the year ahead, folks.
None of these numbers fits with the impoverished, downtrodden and marginalized people you might imagine if your only exposure to immigrants is what you see on cable TV.
But, alas, well-to-do Hispanics who are the third or fourth generation in a family to attend a good college — or who are simply successful in life without having been traumatized at the border or otherwise harmed — are not of great interest to lots of people in the mainstream media who have the power to tell stories about middle- and upper-class Latinos.
To borrow the tortured cliché about how Hispanic voting power is a “Sleeping Giant,” many Latinos are unaware of the strength they wield in the marketplace as well. And, alas, so far they are unable or unwilling to transform their considerable economic clout into the kind of political power that stops prejudiced people from attacking those who “look” or “sound” like an unauthorized immigrant.
Don’t let ignorance get you down, though.
Remember: There are way more Latinos who have the capacity to use fistfuls of hundred-dollar bills to cool themselves than there are close-minded bigots who think they’re entitled to harass someone just based on the color of their skin or their ability to speak a second language.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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