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Six Myths About Immigration That Just Won't Die

We need to straighten out our thinking about some of the basic issues in order to have a useful and serious policy argument.

If they can’t see eye to eye on anything else, all sides in the passionate immigration debate—from President Obama to the National Council of La Raza, to the most rabid anti-immigrant restrictionists—seem to have reached a universal agreement about how to characterize the issue. The adjective used most frequently to describe the United States immigration system is “broken.” Politicians run the words together so much that the phrase “our broken immigration system” has become a cliché. Frankly, I’ve used the term myself. But, in truth, the consensus use of the term “broken” doesn’t have much meaning in this context, since there’s no useful point of reference. Was there at one time an intact immigration system, one that was in perfectly good shape before it fell into disrepair? If so, when was that? And, if it is broken down, who busted it?

It’s not a stretch to argue that the immigration system is far from broken. It may defy explanation in terms of an overarching policy objective. But “broken” conveys a dysfunctional system that works for no one. In fact, while it may be uneven, the immigration system from one standpoint is not at all broken; it has actually well served disparate interests. Many employers have benefited from a low-wage migrant workforce. Immigrants themselves have improved their circumstances and made lives for themselves in a new world. Americans have saved enormously on costs of goods and services made possible by foreign-born workers. The immigrant detention and deportation industry has been provided a tremendous boon from policies under successive administrations that stress enforcement as the chief component of U.S. immigration policy.

The commonly accepted rhetoric about the immigration system is just one example of the myths and misunderstandings that seem to characterize the immigration debate. The language and rhetoric are important because they often reflect widely held assumptions that aren’t always true. If there is going to be a useful and serious policy argument, at the very least, we need to straighten out our thinking about some of the basic issues. Here are the six biggest myths about immigration that we have come to take for granted:

    1. Immigration is mainly an American issue
      In just about every developed country of the world, migration is a hot button political issue, particularly during the Great Recession. Just as in the United States, anti-immigrant fervor has been on the rise, with proposals for border restrictions as well as budgets for higher fences, more border guards, and migrant prisons. The recent British election was marked by debates over how to restrict migrants, and by criticism from the right that the government had embraced a too-lenient immigration policy. In the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, Denmark and elsewhere, fear, xenophobia and anxiety over the immigration issue have spurred the rise of nationalist groups, just as in the United States. And, as the U.S. is trying to deter illegal immigration, mostly from Latin America, Europe is attempting to keep out non-Europeans.

    3. The number of people here illegally matters more than why they’re here
      Unless we start to look at the reasons that immigrants cross borders, the debates never get resolved; they just get recycled. The fixation on legal issues to the exclusion of immigration’s driving forces in the end is self-defeating. President Ronald Reagan legalized some three million illegal immigrants with the signing of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. But now we’re back to square one, with a population of illegal immigrants estimated at 11 million. To seriously address the immigration issue, policy makers need to tackle such matters as income disparities and trade policies that spur migration. But such endeavors can be subversive. A Roman Catholic Archbishop, Brazilian Dom Hélder Camara famously remarked: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me communist.” Asking about why people risk their lives, leave their families, communities and countries to migrate leads inevitably to the need to address such politically uncomfortable issues about income gaps, economic development, and the addiction of the developed world to migrant labor.

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