Defending the Unwelcome Stranger: The Truth About Immigration

Published in LIP Magazine,, September 26, 2003

Before 9/11, before the Patriot Act, before the latest round of racial profiling at airports, in which Arabs have been subjected to heightened scrutiny as potential terrorists, life was already difficult enough for immigrants of color to the U.S. In 1994, California voters approved Prop 187, the purpose of which had been to eliminate a wide array of income support, education and health benefits to “illegal aliens.” Although most of the law’s provisions have been effectively blocked by the courts, the anti-immigrant backlash signified by the election made clear that to be an immigrant at this time was to be a suspect. If not yet suspected of terrorism, then suspected of laziness, taking advantage of welfare programs, overburdening social services and health care facilities, lowering the quality of education with demands for bilingual instruction, or worse, driving the drug trade and contributing heavily to the crime problem. But as with the overreaction to Arabs and Muslims so prevalent after 9/11, so too are the stereotypes about immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia false.

In this time of renewed Nativist impulses, perhaps we would do well to revisit some of the more traditional anti-immigrant rhetoric, so as to demonstrate the fallacies that permeate the discourse and restore some sanity, not to mention accuracy to the debate over this important issue.

To begin with, the supposed “alien invasion” has been greatly exaggerated. A recent study by demographers in the U.S. and Mexico City found that the numbers of illegal immigrants entering the U.S. is only about 105,000 per year, as opposed to the millions claimed by anti-immigrant forces. Other estimates place the number of undocumented entrants into the U.S. at no more than 300,000 annually–even then a far cry from the proclamations of anti-immigrant groups. What’s more, the population of undocumented entrants into the U.S. has remained constant as a share of national population for over two decades, at no more than two percent.

As for immigrant use of welfare benefits, undocumented workers and their families are not eligible for cash or food stamps. They are only eligible for emergency medical assistance, prenatal care and educational benefits, all of which are considered worth providing so as to reduce health emergencies, epidemics and the social problems associated with lack of schooling. In fact, a proper analysis of welfare receipt rates shows that immigrants are no more likely than native-born residents to receive welfare. Excluding emergency refugees (who are eligible for several types of assistance in virtually any country to which they escape), recent immigrants receive public aid at lower rates than the native-born, and immigrant use of welfare has been decreasing for twenty years. Contrary to common perception, today’s immigrants of color are less likely to receive assistance than were the European immigrants of the early 1900s. Over half of all persons on relief rolls in 1909 were immigrants, and these immigrants were three times more likely to receive assistance than the native-born.

As for the cost of immigration to the public sector, rather than draining tax coffers, immigrants contribute positively to the economy of the United States; indeed, recent immigrants create a net surplus to the public sector of nearly $30 billion annually, according to the Urban Institute. Data from New York State, with the second largest immigrant population in the nation, shows that the foreign born population there pays about $18 billion in taxes each year, with a per capita tax payment hardly distinguishable from their native born counterparts. Even immigrants in New York illegally (only 16 percent of immigrants in the state) pay over $1 billion annually in taxes. In California, home to 43 percent of illegal immigrants in the U.S., undocumented workers contribute approximately seven percent of the state’s economic product: roughly $63 billion annually. According to a study by researchers at UCLA, the gross economic contribution by each illegal immigrant to the economy of California was nearly $45,000 per year.

Given that the average undocumented worker receives very low wages — typically less than $10,000 annually — this means that even with paltry social service benefits available to these immigrants, the net transfer of income is the opposite of that implied by immigrant bashers. Instead of the state and nation subsidizing immigrants, it is more accurate to say that immigrants subsidize the economy and companies for which they work by performing low-wage labor that is worth at least four times more, than what they earn from income and welfare combined.

The study most often cited to prove the high cost of immigrants was conducted by Donald Huddle, of Rice University, on behalf of the anti-immigration group, Carrying Capacity Network. Yet further analysis of the Huddle study by researchers at the Urban Institute revealed several flaws that undermine its conclusions. While Huddle claimed that immigrants cost U.S. public coffers $42 billion annually, he arrived at this number by using one study of Los Angeles, which he then extrapolated to the nation as a whole, despite significant differences in the costs associated with immigration in different parts of the country, and the different incomes earned by immigrants across the nation. Indeed, Huddle’s underestimation of immigrant income was so extreme, that he miscalculated the amount of taxes paid by these immigrants by roughly $21.3 billion. Then by ignoring the FICA taxes (Social Security), unemployment insurance taxes, and gasoline taxes paid by immigrants, Huddle further underestimated the tax payments of immigrants by $29 billion more. These two mistakes alone (and there were others) torpedo Huddle’s conclusion that immigrants are a net drain on the nation’s economy, by indicating that taxes paid by immigrants are higher than the amount they cost the country in public expenditures.

Of course, the claim that immigrants seek to take advantage of the U.S. welfare system is ironic, since, if anything, it is U.S. corporations whose desire to take advantage of trade agreements and labor in exploited nations has led to the flow of immigrants to the U.S. in the first place. For example, as a result of trade agreements that open up Latin America for corporate penetration, companies have moved south of the border in search of low-wage labor and intent on developing markets for exports, especially in agriculture. As a result of the shift from local subsistence farming to profit-oriented corporate agriculture, Mexican peasants are driven off the land, so they head for Mexican cities in search of jobs. But the lack of jobs in the cities and large pool of unemployed labor there then results in a stream of workers from Mexican cities into the United States.

Current research estimates that over 300,000 Mexican farm workers have lost their jobs due to NAFTA, thereby fueling the desperate rush for the U.S. border in search of subsistence. In fact, if anyone is taking advantage or “sponging” off of others, it is the American corporations who run to Mexico where low wages and non-existent environmental laws allow them to save as much as $25,000 per worker compared to what they would have to pay in the United States.

As for criminality, it appears that immigrants only pick up these bad habits after being in the country a while. A study at the University of North Carolina found that it is only after immigrant families become more “Americanized” that they experience dramatic increases in drug use, weapons use, violence and sexual promiscuity. Indeed, Mexican immigrants have drug abuse rates that are only half as high as their U.S.-born, Mexican American counterparts, indicating that it is acculturation and Americanization, not immigration, which presents the larger problem. Studies have found that immigrants nearly always exhibit lower crime rates than native-born persons, and there is simply no evidence to indicate that as immigrants move into an area crime goes up.

Evidence from Miami — a large city with a substantial number and percentage of Latino and Caribbean immigrants, and the largest percentage of Latino residents of any large county in the U.S. — indicates how flawed the “immigration brings more crime” argument really is. Despite the city’s large presence of immigrants, the fact remains that Cubans, Jamaicans, and Haitians are actually less likely to be involved in homicides than the native born, and as the rate of Latino immigration to Miami increased in the 1980s, the murder rate there actually declined. Haitian immigrants, in fact, typically commit murder less often than whites and have the lowest rate of homicides of any ethnic group in Miami. Likewise, there are no significant differences in the rates of homicides between Latinos and whites in Miami. While it is true that Miami led the nation in terms of its homicide rate throughout most of the ’80s, this was also the case in the late ’40s and early ’50s, long before the immigration explosion that would transform the town in more recent decades.

Ultimately, however, the battle over immigration is not about money, welfare, language or crime: it is about the desire by a large segment of the U.S. citizenry to define what it means to be an “American” in explicitly racial terms. Not only do such persons fail to recognize America as a continent, which includes the very dark-skinned neighbors to the South they so fear, but they also fail to conceive of the U.S. as anything less than a white nation. Of course, such a racialized conception of the United States is intriguing, precisely because this country, unlike many others, has long been a multiracial, multicultural land, which would be unrecognizable as the nation it is today but for the contributions of people of color from distant and not so distant shores.

From the beginning of conquest and colonization of the Americas, the land that is now the U.S. was always multiracial. Not only were there millions of indigenous American Indians, representing over two hundred separate nations, but the numbers of African slaves often equaled or even surpassed the numbers of “free whites” in many communities, particularly in the south. Until the massive increase in European immigration beginning in the mid-1800s and lasting until the 1920s, people of color were a substantial portion of the population: in many communities as much as a third or more. Only by changing the inherent makeup of United States demography via “white” migration did the U.S. become 90 percent white in the 1950s.

In the final analysis, none of the claims made by the right to inveigh against immigration hold up to scrutiny: immigrants are no more and perhaps less likely to receive public assistance than the native born; they are no more and often less likely to engage in serious criminal activity; and ultimately, their desire to live in the U.S., especially given the anti-immigrant backlash of recent years, is testament to nothing so much as their desire to take advantage of the greater opportunities still available here, relative to the places from whence they come.

Of course, a few more years of Bushanomics might well remedy the situation: after all, if there aren’t any jobs being created, no one will want to come to the United States.

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