Six Myths About Immigration That Just Won't Die


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.

    2. 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.

    3. Illegal immigration is tied to crime

      The crime issue has always been used to demonize migrants or as a tool to advocate for greater crackdowns against immigrants. In fact, data and various studies over the decades have shown that immigration is generally associated with lower crime rates. As for crime committed by illegal immigrants, even the staunchest advocates of stricter immigration laws concede there are no reliable measurements. Nationally, even though illegal immigration soared over the past 15 years, the crime rates actually dropped—even in Arizona. Advocates of the law passed recently in that state argue that illegal immigrants commit a disproportionate share of crime, overlooking the fact that many of those crimes involve human smuggling, fraudulent documents and kidnapping of migrants, rather than offenses committed against the general population. Another argument is that stiff immigration laws could somehow deter border violence sparked by feuding Mexican drug cartels. But, while there is increasing concern about “spillover” violence, “communities along the U.S. side of the 2,000-mile southern border have shown virtually no increase in crime for several years” as the Los Angeles Times recently reported. Police chief Jeffrey Kirkham of Nogales, Arizona told the paper: “If you look at it statistically, if you look at the community as a whole, it's very, very safe.” Just as redbaiters in the 1950s urged more border controls to prevent "communists" from invading the United States from Mexico, the pleas for more border controls and stiffer immigration laws seems like an excuse concocted more by political considerations than any evidence linking Mexican organized crime to U.S. immigration policy.

      1. This must be resolved at the federal level by comprehensive immigration reform

        That’s another mantra used by all sides in the debate. It was invoked by the proponents of SB1070, the extreme law recently passed by the Arizona state government whose members complained they had no choice because the feds were falling down on the job. But, in reality, meaningful and truly comprehensive immigration reform cannot be enacted unilaterally by Washington any more than it can be by lawmakers in Phoenix. Think about it. By its nature, immigration is an international issue because it involves borders. In other words, the U.S. and other countries need to realize thattrulycomprehensive immigration reform requires an international approach. Consider a World Migration Organization similar to the World Trade Organization. If trade can be addressed internationally, why not migration?

      2. Economic studies pinpoint the economic advantages and disadvantages of immigration

        Pick a number, any number. Restrictionists argue that illegal immigrants sap public resources and depress wages. The Federation for American Immigration Reform placed the cost of illegal immigrants at $26 billion in 2000. Another group advocating stiffer restrictions, the Center for Immigration Studies estimated in 2004 that illegal immigrants in the United States cost the federal government more than $10 billion a year. On the other hand, immigrant advocates contend that the costs are more than offset by tax contributions and the value of migrant labor. Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda at UCLA estimates that legalizing unauthorized immigrants would pump some $1.5 trillion into the U.S. economy over 10 years and would boost wages for all workers. The studies may be useful for political debates but don’t get us very far. First of all, they carry with them an assumption that we can finely engineer the rate of migration by adjusting the resources we devote to enforcement. We can’t. As Hinojosa wisely pointed out, “The number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States has increased dramatically since the early 1990s despite equally dramatic increases in the amount of money the federal government spends on immigration enforcement.” Secondly, there’s an implicitly selfish attitude about calibrating the worth of immigrants. Formulating an immigration policy on the basis of what they can do for us dehumanizes migrants and steers us away from the more necessary focus on the relationship of migration to economic development and income disparities.

      3. Immigration is a problem to be solved

        The success of this myth is astonishing. Migration is a fact of life, just like weather and aging (despite the claims of those purveying “anti-aging” remedies). It will never go away. Ever since humans left east Africa tens of thousands of years ago, our species has been on the move, traveling the globe in the effort to seek out better opportunities for food, shelter and general welfare. As trade routes expanded, we followed merchants by boat and on camel. The development of the saddle allowed us to go farther and faster. Pushed and pulled by the relative merits of staying behind or moving, if the potential opportunities outweigh the risks, people will cross borders, just as we’ll go across the street or move from one city to another. I have asked countless conservatives and Republicans the same question: “If you had to support your family on $3-a-day or less, but had the opportunity to cross a border illegally to raise your living standard, would you migrate?” The answer from the most diehard anti-immigrant immigrant advocate is consistent: “Yes.”

      It’s tempting to think that our “broken” immigration system can be easily repaired. Promises of “fixes” make for good sound bites by politicians eager to please voters on both sides of the issue. But even though many of the proposals on the table are long overdue, they fail to address the larger, underlying problems that most mainstream pundits and politicians generally ignore. These include trade policies that fuel immigration, our addiction to migrant labor, and huge income disparities that push people across borders regardless of the obstacles. Keep those issues in mind next time you hear anyone calling immigration reform “comprehensive."

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