Immigration is a funny issue. Not really "haha" funny, unless you count Yakov Smirnoff, which I don't. The United States was built on it, yet Americans have very mixed feelings about it. A recent mini-post about the Minuteman Project brought up a small discussion about immigration and its effects.
It's hard to know where to begin on such a complex topic. I should first note that we need immigration like we need air or water. The United States is one of only a few first-world countries that is growing and not declining. The only reason for that is immigration, since so many natural-born Americans are having less than 2 children. The replacement fertility rate is 2.1 children per family (above 2.0 to account for early deaths). The US fertility rate is 2.08, and to be honest, most of that is among our immigrant population. Our entire economy depends on growth. If our population does not grow, our economy stagnates. You may dislike the fact that the country is looking less and less like you (or you may love it, I don't know), but the reality is that we don't have enough children to sustain our way of life. We're trading our national future for private school and nannies.
That being said, I think most people understand how fragile our national infrastructure is. I commented previously how amazing our government is that no matter how bitter the political fight, the loser still turns out the lights and leaves the keys on the desk. We follow the rule of law, for the most part. Our military stays out of politics - we don't have to worry about the 53rd infantry marching on Washington. All of these institutions exist because we say they exist. They exist because there is a national conscious that keeps these things in place. It doesn't take a nattering nabob of negativism to imagine doomsday scenarios. I think most of us were at least a little afraid in 2000 that the election would never be resolved and we'd have competing Presidents with supporters on both sides. If we let immigration run unchecked and unregulated, how secure will these institutions be? We can debate whether we're a melting pot or a mosaic, but we're really a little of both. Immigrants get the American experience and we train them in the American way of life (SUV's, malls, American Idol). To this extent, Ben's comments on assimilation have a bit of validity.
One major complaint about illegal immigrants is that they work for peanuts. Because they're undocumented, employers don't always bother paying them minimum wage. Labor unions and workers in low-skill jobs understandably complain that they can't compete. In addition, as Ben pointed out, their earnings aren't taxed. (However, at such a low wage rate, even if they were legal, they probably wouldn't have incurred taxes anyway. Ironically, this is an argument both for and against minimum wage. For: MW helps protect workers from being exploited. In America, we believe the punishment should fit the crime. Should the proper punishment for sneaking across the border be slavery or deportation? Against: It seems the jobs that immigrants take aren't even worth $5.15 an hour. Why should be push for more? But this is also an issue that goes away with increased legal immigration, since if they're legal, they'll take legal jobs.
Another complaint - they send their money back to their home country. But think about this - they spend some of that money here, on rent, on food, on gasoline (OK, that money goes straight to Saudi Arabia), on entertainment. Any money they send home is still their money. Two things will happen to that dollar that goes to papa in Mexico City: it will come back to the US to buy goods or services, or it will stay in Mexico propping up the value of the dollar. The US Mint makes hundreds of thousands of dollars by making money that goes to collectors. By staying out of circulation, the treasury never has to buy it back. That's what's happening to the expatriate money in this case. Plus, think of the alternative. If a business relocates to Guadalajara, 100% of the salaries it pays (plus 100% of the overhead) goes to Mexico. If the business is in Arizona and hires immigrants, 100% of the overhead stays in the US along with maybe 30%-50% of the salaries. Which is a better situation?
The last complaint I want to talk about is their use of services. Certainly illegals can be a drain on a local government's resources. But maybe we forgot why we set up these services in the first place. Free schools, available healthcare, transit... we didn't create these out of the goodness of our hearts. These institutions benefit our society more than it benefits the people using them. We have schools, for example, because we have decided we want an educated workforce. If you have ever been in a hiring position, you know how crucial it is to get someone who has been properly educated. Imagine if only private schools were available and anyone who couldn't afford it would get no schooling. Our economy would wither for lack of a workforce. For all the talk about lowering unemployment, when we run out of qualified applicants, businesses suffer just as much. Ask someone working in Orlando in the late 90's, when unemployment there dipped to 0.5%. Try staffing a McDonalds when the Publix across the street was paying $0.30 more per hour. We provide emergency healthcare to the poor because we don't want plagues and epidemics sweeping the streets from time to time. (see above about staffing businesses) These aren't gimmee programs no matter how generous they look. There's something in it for us too.
We need to protect our borders - there's no question about that. But maybe it would be easier to spot the terrorists trying to cross if there were a trickle of illegals trying to come over instead of a flood. Maybe we should increase legal immigration and make these people legitimate citizens. In a time of trade deficits, maybe our greatest product is American citizenship. Maybe we can parley that into a new period of growth for our country. If you think you can do better, see about asking your friends to all have 4 or 5 children each. Good luck!