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Demonizing Undocumented Workers

By       Message Joe Parko     Permalink
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The term “illegal alien” is the latest bugaboo concocted by the far right to keep Americans from focusing on their real problems. Messrs. Dobbs, O’Reilly and Limbaugh can trigger a Pavlovian response of drooling xenophobia by just mentioning “illegal aliens”- a phrase clearly designed to demonize people by making them sound like fugitives from Mars.

One of their favorite devices is to angrily denounce these “illegal aliens” for using our government services while not paying taxes.

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Let’s debunk this latest bit of propaganda from these far right ranters. To begin with let’s drop the pejorative “illegal aliens” and replace it with “undocumented workers” which is more descriptive of these struggling human beings. Let’s do a reality check on this myth of undocumented workers not paying taxes.

Suppose you come across the border looking for a job. Suppose you get hired and your employer (who is hopefully law-abiding) needs to withhold federal income tax and Social Security taxes from your paycheck. So, your employer will ask for a Social Security number and you will use a false number to conceal your condition. When you are paid, the deductions will be taken out…but you’ll never be able to collect since your deductions will end up going to pay somebody else’s benefits.

Federal income tax will be withheld, but do you think you’re going to say, “Hey, I deserve a tax refund because I’m undocumented.”?

Of course, your employer may be the kind who likes to take advantage of his workers and will only hire you “off the books” thus avoiding paying his share or withholding the usual deductions. Or you might just pick up odd jobs here and there at very low wages.

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If you have to work under these conditions, you might be able to survive as an undocumented worker but you will never get any benefits such as unemployment or disability payments which require a valid Social Security number.

As an undocumented worker, suppose you manage to scrape together enough cash to buy an old car. You’re going to have to pay sales tax and registration fees in order to get a license plate or your car will be impounded. When you buy gas, you don’t say, “Hey, I’m undocumented so I don’t have to pay state and federal gasoline taxes.” When you go shopping for clothes, you don’t tell the cashier, “Hey, I’m undocumented so I don’t have to pay local and state sales taxes.” When you pay your rent, you don’t tell your landlord, “Hey, I’m undocumented so I should get a rebate for the portion of my rent that goes to pay property taxes.”

So, you see, undocumented workers who are employed by reputable businesses pay ALL the taxes everyone else does, and even those employed in the worst situations still pay plenty of taxes but get very few of the benefits. In fact, undocumented workers are, in many cases, actually subsidizing these benefits for the rest of us.

To assert that undocumented workers are here to milk our government services at the expense of taxpayers is simply a crass attempt to appeal to our propensity for xenophobia, an attempt to put lipstick on the pig of racism in hopes that we will be diverted from examining the real source of our economic problems.

America’s social programs and public infrastructure are falling apart but the real problem is not undocumented workers.

It is not “illegal aliens” who are threatening our economy. It is the illegal and enormously expensive war in Iraq that is doing the damage. Building a border wall will not solve our economic problems.

The simple fact is that the sooner we get our military back within our own borders, the better for all of us.

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Joe Parko is a retired college professor who taught in the School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. He is a founding member of the Georgia Peace and Justice Coalition.

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