Editor's note: Darrell M. West is vice president of governance studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of the Brookings Institution Press book, "Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy."
(CNN) -- Nevada Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle says in a campaign ad that Democratic incumbent Harry Reid is the "best friend an illegal alien ever had." According to her, he tolerates illegal people "sneaking" across the border and receiving "illegal Social Security benefits."
One Democratic commercial isn't much better. Rep. Walt Minnick of Idaho has a spot accusing his opponent, Raul Labrador, of helping illegal immigrants stay in the United States and running a website offering advice on how to seek amnesty.
Not to be outdone, Delaware GOP candidate Christine O'Donnell calls for "closing the border." She argues we need to stop illegal border crossings before any other legislative action is taken on immigration.
These and other appeals heard on the campaign trail this year are inflammatory and move the immigration issue in the wrong direction. They are based on erroneous assumptions and misguided arguments. These claims play to popular fears and emotions rather than reasoned debate over the controversy.
Similar to the views of many Americans, candidates are exaggerating the cost of immigration and underestimating its benefits. Critics assume we can solve the illegal immigration problem through strict law enforcement and putting more money into border protection. Spending on customs and border security rose from $7.4 billion in 2002 to $17 billion so far in 2010, according to the Department of Homeland Security, yet we still have more than 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States.
Part of the misunderstanding is that 40 percent of those folks are here not through illegal border crossings but from overstaying visas. They came to America through lawful means, but didn't leave when their visas ran out. Half arrived before 2000, according to research by the Pew Hispanic Center, so tougher border enforcement will not eliminate undocumented visitors.
In terms of the drain on government resources, skeptics fail to understand that many illegal immigrants actually pay taxes. They incur sales taxes on purchases, property taxes when they rent or buy homes, income taxes when they are employed, and Social Security payments for jobs. A study by the Social Security Administration, for example, found that undocumented immigrants have contributed an estimated $120 billion to $240 billion to the Social Security trust fund, even though they are ineligible to receive Social Security benefits.
Research by the George W. Bush Council for Economic Advisors estimated that immigrants contributed $37 billion annually to the country's overall economic activity. American cities with the biggest increases in numbers of immigrant workers also have the fastest growing economies. Rather than a drag on economic growth and job creation, as is commonly thought, immigrants help spur economic growth through employment, tax payments and consumer purchases.
Immigrants are vital to American innovation and entrepreneurship. They perform jobs in agriculture, hotels, restaurants and constructions that many Americans don't want. At the high-skilled end, they set up businesses and create high-paying jobs. One quarter of the technology and engineering businesses launched in America between 1995 and 2005 had an immigrant founder. In Silicon Valley, that number was 52.4 percent.
These are not isolated stories. Google, Yahoo, eBay, and Intel are among the companies with immigrant founders or co-founders. Where would the U.S. economy be if Google were based in Russia, Yahoo in Taiwan, eBay in France, and Intel in Hungary? There would be far fewer jobs and much less technology innovation in the United States.
To be sure, these ventures have come through the efforts of legal, and not illegal, immigrants. But, some of the crackdowns on undocumented workers, such as the Arizona law, create a chilled climate for those here illegally, possibly persuading other immigrants to take their energy and innovation to other countries.
It is time for candidates and political leaders to tell the real story about immigration. Even though illegal immigrants enrage many Americans, it would be prohibitively expensive to deport 11 million people. As a vivid illustration of this point, the Center for American Progress found that mass deportations would cost $285 billion over five years, or an average of $900 for every American.
If people actually are worried about government cost, they should support the creation of a pathway to citizenship based on paying back taxes, learning English and collection of a serious fine for illegal entry. Experts say that a full path to legalization would add $1.5 trillion to the American economy over the next decade. It would be cheaper to legalize illegal immigrants than keep them underground and outside the mainstream economy.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Darrell M. West.