10 Illegal Immigration Myths Debunked & Some History on US Immigration Policy
[Updated 8/15/20] President Trump, his supporters, and most Republicans in Congress spend an inordinate amount of time talking about illegal immigration. The GOP now views it as their signature issue and it's a subject the President will return to again as the 2020 election draws closer.
Unfortunately, there are quite a few myths regarding illegal immigration and the President has been prone to frame the issue as a "crisis" or "invasion". The fact that there are people living illegally in America is something which needs to be addressed, but it's not a crisis that requires draconian measures like Trump's "family separation, zero tolerance policy." In fact, the total number of illegal immigrants living in America has been declining for many years and American businesses that depend on immigrant labor are now scrambling to find replacements [see below].
A brief history of US Immigration Policy: The first step in addressing any public policy issue is to get your arms around it by understanding the magnitude of the problem and dispelling myths by looking at the best possible research on the subject. That's what we will do here starting first with some history.
Our history as a nation is a story of immigration. Europeans migrated here during the Colonial era to escape religious intolerance and for expanded economic opportunities. Our Immigration and citizenship laws have always been controversial, political, and more than a little bit racist. In 1790 Congress passed the Naturalization Act which allowed any "free white person, being of good character", and living in the United States for two years, to apply for citizenship. This meant that indigenous peoples, free African Americans, and slaves were excluded from citizenship, but, our borders were wide open to Europeans who came by the millions throughout the 19th and early 20th century.
At first, most came from Northern and Western Europe, and between 1815 and 1865 one-third came from Ireland which experienced a famine in 1845. Between 1820 and 1930, almost 5 million Irish migrated to the United States, many settling in cities along the east coast. In the 19th century, the United States also welcomed about 5 million German immigrants. Many of them settled in the cities of the Midwest.
During the mid-1800s America also began to draw Asian immigrants, first lured by the gold rush in California and then to help build our railroads. This influx led to America's first significant piece of immigration legislation, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigrants. But, anti-immigrant sentiment extended beyond Asians among some of America's predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant population. Immigrants were resented as unwanted competition for jobs, and because of their religious beliefs [especially Irish Catholics]. In the 1850s, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, Native American Party, more commonly referred to as the "Know-Nothings" tried to curb immigration. The Know Nothings believed Catholics wanted to undermine religious liberty in the United States and they drew support from native-born Protestants in the defense of America's "traditional religious values". They faded as a political force by the end of the 1850s, but their anti-immigrant, nativist sentiment has remained a part of our political culture. As historian Elliott J. Gorn wrote about the era, “appeals to ethnic hatreds allowed men whose livelihoods depended on winning elections to sidestep the more complex and politically dangerous divisions of class."
As America industrialized between 1880 and 1920, a new wave of almost 20 million immigrants was drawn to the United States seeking jobs in America's growing economy. American business interests supported an open immigration policy during this period to supply the labor necessary for the nation's industrial expansion. Many of the new arrivals came from Eastern and Southern Europe including more than 4 million Italians.
However, in the early 1920s the door to America began to close when Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924 which created a quota system that restricted entry to 2 percent of the total number of people of each nationality in America as of the 1890 national census. The system was meant to favor immigrants from Western and Northern Europe and limit those from Southern and Eastern Europe. The act also excluded all immigrants from Asia.
In 1965, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which did away with the quota system based on nationality and created a priority system giving preference to relatives of persons already in the United States and to individuals with special skills [people with advanced degrees for instance]. But, Congress also placed an annual cap of 290,000 on total immigration which reflected worries about competition for jobs.
Picture: President Lyndon B. Johnson gives his remarks before the signing of the new Immigration Act in 1965 at Liberty Island
In the 1980s, Americans began to worry about the number of students and tourists who overstayed their visas and Mexican laborers who crossed the border to work on farms, ranches, and factories in the Southwest. In 1978 the Congressional Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy estimated that there were between 3 and 6 million undocumented immigrants living in the country. The Simpson–Mazzoli Act of 1986 was enacted to regain control of the situation by hiring more border patrol officers and by fining the employers of undocumented workers. The Act also legalized immigrants who had lived here for 5 years, paid a fine and back taxes, proved that they were not guilty of crimes, and spoke English. About 3 million received amnesty via the law.
However, undocumented workers continued to cross the border to meet the demand for their services, especially after NAFTA made it possible for cheap U.S. corn to flood Mexico and forced that nation's small farmers to find employment elsewhere. To make matters worse, the border control elements of Simpson–Mazzoli were funded very slowly by Congress and employers found it easy to circumvent the fines for hiring foreign workers. As a result, the number of illegal immigrants peaked at about 12.2 million in 2007 but decreased during our 2008-09 recession as the economy slowed and border enforcement increased, and has leveled off at about 10.5 million.
Moreover, the number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico has steadily declined since 2007 and makes up less than half of illegals today. While Mexicans have been returning home, there has been an uptick among those coming from Asia and also Central America, especially Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, as violence in those nations has increased.
Myth # 1: There's an Immigration Crisis.
It's true that there are still more than 10 million illegal immigrants in the United States and Congress seems incapable of passing any sort of comprehensive immigration reform legislation despite attempts during both the Bush and Obama administrations. However, that is more a crisis of political will than an immigration crisis.
As noted above, there's been a net outflow of undocumented workers since 2008 despite our improved economy. However, the rhetoric regarding the issue has not diminished, and, if anything, has increased since Donald Trump entered the Republican Presidential primaries in 2016, advocating a wall along our southern border. But, at a time when more illegals are leaving than coming to America, a wall may be exactly the wrong idea.
Moreover, the vast majority of undocumented migrants are hard-working contributors to our nation, not rapists and drug dealers as President Trump portrays them. In fact, about two-thirds [66%] have lived and worked in America for more than a decade, half for more than 15 years. They aren't a problem to be dealt with; they are an essential element of the labor force.
Myth #2: Illegal Immigrants are taking the jobs of American workers.
The vast majority of illegals come to America to work, and they work hard. The old myths about "lazy Mexicans" have been banished and we now realize that they find employment because they work hard for less money and take jobs that Americans no longer want to do.
Illuminate: "About 8 million of them have jobs making up almost 5% of our overall workforce, up to 9 or 10% in states like Texas, California and Nevada. Moreover, they constitute more than 50% of US farm-workers, 24% of maids and cleaners, and 15% of our construction workforce. In other words, they are filling positions in some of America's most physically demanding and unglamorous occupations."
And American business needs immigrant labor. Its not just that they can pay them less.
Bloomburg Business: "In a study published in 2013, economist Michael Clemens analyzed 15 years of data on North Carolina’s farm-labor market and concluded, “There is virtually no supply of native manual farm laborers” in the state. This was true even in the depths of a severe recession."
"In 2011, with 6,500 available farm jobs in the state, only 268 of the nearly 500,000 unemployed North Carolinians applied for these jobs. More than 90 percent (245 people) of those applying were hired, but just 163 showed up for the first day of work. Only seven native workers completed the entire growing season, filling only one-tenth of 1 percent of the open farm jobs."
The Houston Chronicle recently documented the construction industry's dependence on undocumented immigrants and the worker shortage that has developed as immigration has declined.
Houston Chronicle: "A prolonged shortage of construction workers has the Associated General Contractors of America calling for immigration reform."
“We recognize it’s important to have safe borders,” said Kenneth D. Simonson, the group’s chief economist. “But it’s also really important for the growth of the U.S. economy to make sure that we have a large enough workforce.”
And dairy farming in America can't survive today without the labor of undocumented immigrants.
The Oklahoman: "In dairy barns across Wisconsin, farmers and workers said there is a simple truth: Without the work of Latino immigrants – many, if not most, of them undocumented – the signature industry in America’s Dairyland would collapse."
And conservatives in state government who claim to support tough measures to decrease illegal immigration have done little to reduce the hiring of undocumented workers in their states.
Bloomberg Business: "In 2011 states across the Southeast passed laws that threatened private employers with dire consequences—including losing their license to do business—if they didn’t enroll with a federal data service called E-Verify to check the legal status of new hires."...
"Seven years later, those laws appear to have been more political bark than bite. None of the Southern states that extended E-Verify to the private sector have canceled a single business license, and only one, Tennessee, has assessed any fines. Most businesses caught violating the laws have gotten a pass."
Anti-immigrant activists wonder how it's possible for so many illegals to get jobs, but its not a mystery; businesses are going to hire the laborers they need to survive.
Myth #3: Terrorist groups exploit our border with Mexico.
Not to say that it's impossible, but, to date, there is not one single incident involving someone crossing the Mexican border and then successfully committing a terrorist act in the United States. None.
However, it is fair to note that Shain Duka, Britan Duka, and Eljvir Duka crossed as children with their parents in 1984 and then plotted to commit a terrorist act twenty years later which was thwarted by the FBI. But, no one that I am aware of has ever tried to argue that their parents crossed the border in 1984 so that their kids could commit an act of terrorism in 2007.
Myth #4: Illegal Immigration is driving up crime rates in the US.
This is a tough myth to bust, especially after President Trump's rhetoric during the 2016 election. But studies have shown that it's simply not true. Actually, there is more evidence that undocumented immigrants have lower crime rates than native born Americans.
Some of the most recent research was summarized in an article by Emily Moon for the Pacific Standard:
Christopher Wilson, Washington Post: ... "FBI statistics I have analyzed for a forthcoming report for the Mexico Institute show that from 2011 to 2015, all but one of the 23 U.S. counties along the border had violent-crime rates lower than the national average for similar counties, a finding that echoes previous analyses."
From the Journal "Criminology": Recent research by Professor Michael T. Light, and PhD candidate Ty Miller showed that "undocumented immigration does not increase violence."...
Cato Institute: "A Cato Institute study looked at prison data and found that the incarceration rate for native-born Americas was 1.53 %, compared to 0.85 % for illegal immigrants and 0.47 % for legal immigrants."
And, a new analysis by the Marshall Project and the New York Times of crime statistics and undocumented immigrant populations found that U.S. cities that take in larger numbers of illegals do not see higher rates of violent and property crime
New York Times: "...The analysis found that crime went down at similar rates regardless of whether the undocumented population rose or fell. Areas with more unauthorized migration appeared to have larger drops in crime, although the difference was small and uncertain."
The Marshall Project study adds to the growing body of evidence that Donald Trump's stereotype of the violent, lawless immigrant is a lie.
New York Times: "The results of the [Marshall Project] analysis resemble those of other studies on the relationship between undocumented immigration and crime. Last year, a report by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, found that unauthorized immigrants in Texas committed fewer crimes than their native-born counterparts. A state-level analysis in Criminology, an academic journal, found that undocumented immigration did not increase violent crime and was in fact associated with slight decreases in it. Another Cato study found that unauthorized immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated."
Cato updated their study recently by looking at crime data from Texas in 2017 and the results are even more remarkable.
Illuminate: Their results show that in Texas in 2017, "illegal immigrants were 47 percent less likely to be convicted of a crime than native-born Americans and legal immigrants were about 65 percent less likely to be convicted of a crime than native-born Americans. The conviction and arrest rates for illegal immigrants were lower than those for native-born Americans but higher than those for legal immigrants. This result holds in just about every case, including homicide, sex crimes, larceny, and most other crimes."
Simply put, there is no peer reviewed research showing that undocumented immigrants are more prone to criminal activity. Such claims have far more to do with racism and xenophobia than with reality.
Myth #5: Immigrants from Latin America are bringing diseases into the U.S.
You often hear this myth on conservative talk-radio shows, but it's not supported by the facts.
International Business Times: "Immigrants from Mexico and Central America pose very little risk to U.S. residents in terms of spreading disease. Immunization rates for common infectious illnesses in Mexico and in other countries from which most U.S. immigrants originate are actually relatively high -- in some instances, Mexican and Central American immigrants are even better protected against diseases than Americans. While some immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are indeed ill, very rarely are there cases of swine flu, dengue fever or tuberculosis, as politicians have previously claimed. "...
..."Immigrants tend to arrive in the U.S. tired, dehydrated and with injuries like twisted ankles, not dangerous diseases. The chance an unauthorized Mexican immigrant has been vaccinated against common infectious diseases is pretty high, given that Mexico has a relatively robust immunization program and healthy immunization rates. The country has a 99 percent vaccination rate for measles, which is actually higher than the U.S. rate of 92 percent. For other infectious diseases, the U.S. and Mexico have comparable immunization rates, according to the World Bank."...
..."A child from Guatemala is more likely to have been immunized for most infectious diseases than a young person from Texas, which, along with California, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois, handles the bulk of new immigrants arriving in the U.S., both legally and illegally."
Myth #6: Spanish-speaking immigrants to the United States don't assimilate as fast as European immigrants have in the past.
This is an easy one, despite the "press 2 for Spanish" jokes. Actually, people coming to America today are assimilating faster than the waves of immigrants who came before them.
Sociologist Claude S. Fischer has been studying this for some time and wrote the book, "Made in America" about the issue. In a recent article he wrote:
Timeline: "Unfortunately, Americans hold a warped collective memory of earlier immigration history. Many assume that the European immigrants of generations past assimilated quickly, unlike Latin American, Asian, or Muslim immigrants today. Not true. Lasting ethnic enclaves like Greektowns and Little Italys were typical. Today’s immigrants actually learn English and forget their native languages faster than did the earlier newcomers."
A new paper by socioligist by David Lindstrom published in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science adds to Fischer's work by showing that Mexican immigrants are actually assimilating faster now than ever before, and not just based on language skills.
Pacific Standard: Lindstrom found that Mexican immigrants' linguistic and social integration have steadily increased over the years. "The general trend for Mexican migrants is one of increasing contact and interaction with people outside of the Mexican community, regardless of whether they were temporary, long-term, or settled migrants," he writes.
Myth #7: Immigrants are using up scarce resources in America.
Despite the fact that people living illegally in the US cannot claim federal benefits like welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps, some still argue that they consume more public services than they contribute in taxes and fees. Donald Trump has claimed illegal immigration costs $113 billion a year to the US, but such arguments over-estimate their use of state and local government services, vastly underestimate the amount undocumented immigrants pay in taxes, don't count the economic impact of their spending on goods and services, and ignore their contribution to the labor force.
For instance, many people believe that illegals don't pay federal taxes, however, the IRS estimates that about half of undocumented immigrants actually do file individual income tax returns each year, and Illegal immigrants pay social security and medicare payroll taxes but are not eligible for benefits.
The same is true at the state level. The Texas State Comptroller reported in 2006 that the 1.4 million illegal immigrants in Texas alone added almost $18 billion to the state's budget, and paid $1.2 billion in state services they used. The Texas state controller's office found that "undocumented immigrants in Texas generate more taxes and other revenue than the state spends on them."
And a 2020 study conducted by researchers at Rice University found that for every dollar Texas spends on public services like schools and health care for undocumented immigrants, the state collects $1.21 in revenue.
Professor Francine J. Lipman addressed the cost-benefit question in his article "Taxing Undocumented Immigrants: Separate, Unequal and Without Representation" back in 2006. He notes that most cost-benefit analyses of the undocumented don't take into consideration their consumption of goods and services and subsidiary job creation.
"Americans believe that undocumented immigrants are exploiting the United States' economy. The widespread belief is that illegal aliens cost more in government services than they contribute to the economy. This belief is undeniably false. [E]very empirical study of illegals' economic impact demonstrates the opposite . . .: undocumenteds actually contribute more to public coffers in taxes than they cost in social services. Moreover, undocumented immigrants contribute to the U.S. economy through their investments and consumption of goods and services; filling of millions of essential worker positions resulting in subsidiary job creation, increased productivity and lower costs of goods and services; and unrequited contributions to Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance programs. Eighty-five percent of eminent economists surveyed have concluded that undocumented immigrants have had a positive (seventy-four percent) or neutral (eleven percent) impact on the U.S. economy."
Myth #8 Mexicans are more likely to engage in sexual assaults. This is a particularly ugly myth, with no basis in fact. Actually, they are underrepresented in the nation's sexual assault statistics.
Gustavo Arellano, Politico: "Latinos can—and better—rage at the cheap political points earned by sliming Mexicans with the rapist stereotype. And the best way to do it is with the truth: A 2011 U.S. Government Accountability Office study “Criminal Alien Statistics: Information on Incarcerations, Arrests and Costs” found that of the three million arrests of immigrants, legal or not, examined by investigators, only two percent were for sex offenses—two percent too many, but hardly an epidemic. It didn’t break down the ethnicity or legal status of the offenders, but the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) National Crime Victimization Survey breaks down such stats by victims. For 2013 (the most recent year available), it shows that whites accounted for 71 percent of all sexual assaults documented (above their total percentage of 63 percent of the U.S. population), while Latinos accounted for 9 percent, far below their total percentage of 17 percent."
Myth #9: Local governments which designate themselves as "sanctuary cities" put their citizens at risk.
Again, it's quite the opposite. Sanctuary cites are at least as safe as those that cooperate with ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] requests.
NPR: "A study conducted by Tom K. Wong, a political scientist at the University of California-San Diego, found that there are broad benefits for local jurisdictions that resist cooperating with federal immigration enforcement — they are safer in the aggregate and enjoy stronger economies. "For the first time we're kind of seeing that crime rates are lower when localities stay out of the business of federal immigration enforcement," Wong said."...
..."On average, counties that did not comply with ICE requests [sanctuary cities] experienced 35.5 fewer crimes per 10,000 people than those that did. Wong also found that counties that did not comply with detainer requests had higher household incomes, lower rates of unemployment, lower rates of poverty, and were less likely to have children under 18 in households receiving public benefits."
"The crime numbers did not surprise Wong. Research has shown that working with federal immigration enforcement made it harder for local police agencies to investigate crimes because witnesses and victims who were in the country illegally would be less likely to come forward if they thought they risked being detained and deported. It could be that sanctuary counties have immigrant populations who are more integrated into their social fabric and economies, he said."
Wong's research was substantiated recently by a paper published in Urban Affairs Review by Professors Benjamin Gonzalez O’Brien, Loren Collingwood, and Stephen Omar El-Khatib. Their study "found no significant differences in violent crime, property crime and rape between sanctuary and non-sanctuary cities."
Sage Journals: "We find no statistically discernible difference in violent crime, rape, or property crime rates across the cities. Our findings provide evidence that sanctuary policies have no effect on crime rates, despite narratives to the contrary. The potential benefits of sanctuary cities, such as better incorporation of the undocumented community and cooperation with police, thus have little cost for the cities in question in terms of crime."
Myth #10: A wall would stop illegal immigration because the vast majority sneak across the Mexican border.
To the extent that it was ever true [the whole ladders and tunnels problem], it is becoming less and less true because today many undocumented immigrants have simply overstayed their tourist, student, or work visas. That means that they entered the U.S. legally, but after overstaying their visa became undocumented.
Doris Meissner, former head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, and current director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program via PBS, Newshour: “People that came with visas are probably about 40 percent of that 10 to 11 million that are in the country illegally,” Meissner said.
"They are often people who came here for short-term work on properly issued visas, but their employer wanted them to stay … They are often foreign students who finished their education and decided to stay without being able to renew their visas,”...
[Updated 1/7/19] An analysis by the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), a New York City-based think tank, found that only about one-third of recent undocumented immigrants came here via our southern border. The majority are arriving legally on some type of visa and then overstaying.
CBS: "According to CMS, about 42 percent of the 10.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. in 2014 — the most recent year for which data was available — were doing so on expired visas. As the southern border has hardened, that number is estimated to have risen to over half, Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. Programs at the Migration Policy Institute, said."
"The fight over a border wall is a typical issue of 'fighting the last war': ten years ago was the fight against Mexican migration to the U.S.," Capps said in a telephone interview with CBS News. "The problem isn't Mexican migration anymore. Now the immigration problem is overstayers, not border crossers."
The myths discussed above won't fade easily because there are politicians that need illegal immigration to remain a "crisis" and thus a campaign issue.
Post Script: Most of the folks that you saw on television last year, such as those in "caravans", attempting to enter the United States via the Southern border are asylum-seekers from Honduras or Guatemala. They are legally entitled to present themselves at the border to ask for asylum if they have a "well founded fear of persecution" in their country of origin. Asylum claims are an important but separate issue because it will have little net effect on undocumented workers residing in the United States. US Immigration Judges will reject the vast majority of their asylum claims and the few who win their cases will become legal residents, not undocumented migrants.
By Don Lam & Curated Content