immigration-marcher.thumbnail.JPGPart 2 of a 3-part series.

You have to wonder if there would even be an "immigration debate" of any serious dimensions if it weren’t for the nativist right. After all, they’ve been the ones bitching and complaining about "illegal aliens" prominently in recent years — organizing vigilante "Minutemen" squads and proposing punitive legislative measures and griping endlessly in the media about the supposed ill effects of illegal immigration.

But those measures in turn have prompted a response that, in the end, has changed the nature of the discourse, and made clear that scapegoating and hatemongering are not solutions, they’re problems. After all, it was the Republicans’ horrendous legislative proposals that sparked the massive street marches in 2006, and the ugliness of much of the media reportage on immigration has more recently sparked a pushback from Latinos as well, embodied by Lou Dobbs’ evasive confrontation with Janet Murguia of the National Council of La Raza. Even if the discussion was, for several years, a debate between the nativists and the status-quo corporatist conservatives, it’s started to shift.

So to at least some extent, we can thank the right-wing hatemongers for making an issue out of immigration, raising it in the public profile, and making us stop and think about how we are handling immigration now, and how we want to handle it in the future — relying to at least some extent, one hopes on an understanding of our past and the mistakes that have been made in the hopes of avoiding them.

And one thing is clear when we take that approach: The prescriptions offered by both the nativists and corporate conservatives are poisonous, likely to harm the body politic both culturally and economically, perhaps even at a catastrophic level.

There’s a good reason for that: Much of the right — the nativists particularly — have been whipped up by scapegoating artists relying on a series of popular delusions that are built on a foundation of falsehoods and distortions. They are fundamentally untrue in important ways, so much so you can’t properly call them "myths" — "canards" or "popular delusions" would be more accurate.

The existence and persistence of these delusions is the chief reason progressives have largely been on the defensive when it comes to dealing with immigration. And it’s an unfortunate fact: If they want to make any headway and forge their own approach to the debate, their first job is going to necessarily entail debunking the nativists’ canards, and dispelling many of the popular delusions about immigrants. The public isn’t going to follow a rational program if they continue to cling to old falsehoods.

Moreover, in refuting these falsehoods, we can begin to see the outlines of a powerful and effective response based both on reason and, as we noted last week, fundamental human decency.

A stroll through the list of canards themselves can be highly instructive.

1. Illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from American laborers and depressing U.S. wages.

In fact, according to a Pew Hispanic Center study:

Rapid increases in the foreign-born population at the state level are not associated with negative effects on the employment of native-born workers, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center that examines data during the boom years of the 1990s and the downturn and recovery since 2000.

An analysis of the relationship between growth in the foreign-born population and the employment outcomes of native-born workers revealed wide variations across the 50 states and the District of Columbia. No consistent pattern emerges to show that native-born workers suffered or benefited from increased numbers of foreign-born workers.

In fact, the number of native-born low-wage earners is falling nationally, so it turns out that immigrants play an important role in taking up the slack. According to the Urban Institute:

In 2005, immigrants overall represented more than a fifth of low-wage workers—those earning less than twice the minimum wage—and almost half of workers without a high school education. Unauthorized workers were nearly a tenth of low-wage workers and a quarter of low-skilled workers. The number of low-wage and low-skilled native-born workers fell between 2000 and 2005, due to improvements in their educational attainment but also due to decreasing labor force participation.

According to the study, the number of low-wage workers dropped by about 1.8 million; meanwhile, unskilled immigrant workers increased by 620,000, representing an offset of about a third.

2. Illegal immigrants are a drain on the U.S. economy.

Studies from numerous sources and in a variety of contexts come to a unanimous conclusion: The immigrant community is not a drain on the American economy but in reality has a powerfully positive net effect.

For instance, there is the the CATO Institute study which finds the following:

Immigration gives America an economic edge in the global economy. Immigrants bring innovative ideas and entrepreneurial spirit to the United States, most notably in Silicon Valley and other high-technology centers. They provide business contacts with other markets, enhancing America’s ability to trade and invest profitably abroad. They keep our economy flexible, allowing American producers to keep prices down and meet changing consumer demands. An authoritative 1997 study by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that immigration delivers a ‘‘significant positive gain’’ to native Americans of as much as $10 billion each year.

Meanwhile, the The President’s Council of Economic Advisors found that the average immigrant pays substantially more in taxes than they collect in government services:

One key point is that "snapshot" views of immigration’s fiscal impact, particularly when based on analysis of households headed by immigrants, are insufficient and potentially misleading guides to immigration’s long-run fiscal impact.10 Instead, "Only a forward-looking projection of taxes and government spending can offer an accurate picture of the long-run fiscal consequences of admitting new immigrants" (Smith and Edmonston 1997, p. 10). This approach captures the full costs and benefits of the children of immigrants. Of course, such projections must rely on assumptions about the future path of taxes and government spending as well as economic and demographic trends. From this long-run point of view, the NRC study estimated that immigrants (including their descendants) would have a positive fiscal impact – a present discounted value of $80,000 per immigrant on average in their baseline model (in 1996 dollars).11 The surplus is larger for high-skilled immigrants ($198,000) and slightly negative for those with less than a high school degree (-$13,000).

Reviewing a number of studies for the Journal of Economic Perspectives, economists Jennifer Hunt of Yale and Brown’s Rachel Friedberg concluded:

"Despite the popular belief that immigrants have a large adverse impact on wages and employment opportunities of the native-born population … empirical estimates in a variety of settings and using a variety of approaches have shown that the effect of immigration on … natives is small. There is no evidence of economically significant reductions in native employment. … Even those natives who should be the closest substitutes with immigrant labor have not been found to suffer significantly as a result of increased immigration."

Even localized studies in areas with high immigration rates find the same. A Texas study on immigration’s economic benefits concluded:

The Comptroller’s office estimates the absence of the estimated 1.4 million undocumented immigrants in Texas in fiscal 2005 would have been a loss to our Gross State Product of $17.7 billion. Also, the Comptroller’s office estimates that state revenues collected from undocumented immigrants exceed what the state spent on services, with the difference being $424.7 million.

A similar study conducted in California by the Public Policy Institute of California found:

… [A]ccording to our calculations, during 1990–2004, immigration induced a 4 percent real wage increase for the average native
worker. This effect ranged from near zero (+0.2%) for wages of native high school dropouts and between 3 and 7 percent for native workers with at least a high school diploma.

… [T]he results indicate that recent immigrants did lower the wages of previous immigrants. Wages of immigrants who entered California before 1990 were 17 to 20 percent lower in 2004 than they would have been absent any immmigration between 1990 and 2004.

As Derrick Jackson reports:

They perform jobs that are inseparable from our standard of living. Undocumented workers are about 5 percent of our overall labor force but — according to the Pew Hispanic Center’s analysis of Census data — are between 22 and 36 percent of America’s insulation workers, miscellaneous agricultural workers, meat-processing workers, construction workers, dishwashers, and maids. The American Farm Bureau, the lobbying group for agricultural interests, says that without guest workers, the United States would lose $5 billion to $9 billion a year in fruit, vegetable, and flower production and up to 20 percent of production would go overseas.

Indeed, the evidence so far indicates that immigration is an essential component of our economic health:

Amid the blizzard of data concerning immigrants’ effects on wages, welfare and municipal budgets, the essential point is this: The latest wave of immigrants — legal and illegal, skilled and unskilled — has stimulated enormous economic activity and wealth generation in this country, and it is implausible that the American economy would fare as well without them.

3. Undocumented immigrants are a burden on the American taxpayers because they don’t pay taxes.

In fact, according to an Immigration Policy Center study titled "Undocumented Immigrants as Taxpayers":

Between one-half and three-quarters of undocumented immigrants pay federal and state income taxes, Social Security taxes, and Medicare taxes. And all undocumented immigrants pay sales taxes (when they buy anything at a store, for instance) and property taxes (even if they rent housing).

They also contribute mightily to the solvency of the Social Security fund:

As the debate over Social Security heats up, the estimated seven million or so illegal immigrant workers in the United States are now providing the system with a subsidy of as much as $7 billion a year.

While it has been evident for years that illegal immigrants pay a variety of taxes, the extent of their contributions to Social Security is striking: the money added up to about 10 percent of last year’s surplus – the difference between what the system currently receives in payroll taxes and what it doles out in pension benefits. Moreover, the money paid by illegal workers and their employers is factored into all the Social Security Administration’s projections.

4. Illegal immigrants are a burden on the health-care system.

Actually, according to a Rand study:

…[I]n the United States about $1.1 billion in federal, state and local government funds are spent annually on health care for undocumented immigrants aged 18 to 64. That amounts to an average of $11 in taxes for each U.S. household.

This compares to 88 billion dollars spent on all health care for non-elderly adults in the U.S. in 2000. Moreover, as Justice for Immigrants notes, non-natives tend to use fewer health-care services. For example, in Los Angeles County, “total medical spending on undocumented immigrants was $887 million in 2000 – 6 percent of total costs, although undocumented immigrants comprise 12 percent of the region’s residents.”

5. Illegal immigrants increase the crime rate.

There have been several studies that have debunked this claim from different angles. An Immigration Policy Center fact-check has most of the details:

Although the undocumented immigrant population doubled to about 12 million from 1994 to 2005, the violent crime rate in the United States declined by 34.2% and the property crime rate fell by 26.4%.2 This decline in crime rates was not just national, it also occurred in border cities and other cities with large immigrant populations—such as San Diego, El Paso, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Miami.

Moreover, according to an the AILF study titled "The Paradox of Assimilation And The Myth of Immigrant Criminality", immigrants are five times less likely than native-born to be in prison, and immigrants from nations that account for most of the undocumented have lower incarceration rates. And

6. Illegal immigrants bring disease to American shores.

This canard picked up a lot of momentum thanks to Lou Dobbs’ fraudulent reporting connecting a supposed rise in leprosy rates to immigration, but it’s been around awhile. A Texas legislator last year tried to claim that immigrants were "bringing Polio, the plague, leprosy, tuberculosis, malaria, Chagas Disease and Dengue Fever to the United States in alarming numbers." Earlier, the Washington Times and Michelle Malkin tried to actually claim that sickle-cell anemia — a non-communicable disease — was being brought to American shores by immigrants.

Not only are all these claims utterly without foundation, the sources for the majority of them are largely far-right hate groups and pseudo-scientists who are better regarded as kooks.

7. These new Latino immigrants don’t want to learn English and are reluctant to assimilate.

In fact, according to the Pew Hispanic Center:

Nearly all Hispanic adults born in the United States of immigrant parents report they are fluent in English. By contrast, only a small minority of their parents describe themselves as skilled English speakers. This finding of a dramatic increase in English-language ability from one generation of Hispanics to the next emerges from a new analysis of six Pew Hispanic Center surveys conducted this decade among a total of more than 14,000 Latino adults. The surveys show that fewer than one-in-four (23%) Latino immigrants reports being able to speak English very well. However, fully 88% of their U.S.-born adult children report that they speak English very well. Among later generations of Hispanic adults, the figure rises to 94%. Reading ability in English shows a similar trend.

As Justice for Immigrants notes:

The development of English proficiency among non-English speaking immigrants today mirrors that of Nineteenth and early Twentieth century immigration, when masses of Italian, German, and Eastern European immigrants came to America. While first generation, non-English speaking immigrants predictably have lower rates of English proficiency than native speakers, 91% of second generation immigrants are fluent or near fluent English speakers. By the third generation, 97% speak English fluently or near fluently.

The American Immigration Lawyers Association reports:

Within ten years of arrival, more than 75% of immigrants speak English well; moreover, demand for English classes at the adult level far exceeds supply. Greater than 33% of immigrants are naturalized citizens; given increased immigration in the 1990s, this figure will rise as more legal permanent residents become eligible for naturalization in the coming years. The number of immigrants naturalizing spiked sharply after two events: enactment of immigration and welfare reform laws in 1996, and the terrorist attacks in 2001.

This last point is illustrative of the way a progressive approach to immigration can make more sense and can solve people’s legitimate concerns in a persuasive, common-sense fashion that doesn’t rely either on scapegoating and dehumanization or bogus talking points that only bolster the longstanding prejudices of bigots.

Because I think anyone who’s had experience with the immigrant community can attest there is some slowness to assimilate at work here, and that the sheer size of this wave of immigration, which has created large communities where it’s possible for new immigrants to work and prosper without ever learning English, has a role in this. But the largest single factor in this reluctance is the immigrants’ undocumented status, leaving them in the shadow status of being the embodiment of a kind of dehumanizing cliche: "illegal aliens." As long as these people are forced into the shadows and threatened with deportation, they won’t ever be encouraged to embrace American values and join the culture.

As I’ve discussed previously, when liberals talk about immigration, helping immigrants forge a clear and attainable path to citizenship is an essential cornerstone of their approach — and when they do so, it should be in the context of talking about our shared values as Americans.

As we’ve noted, fundamental human decency has to be the foundation of any positive program of liberal immigration reform. We’ll try tackling that next week.