3.6.06

Six Immigration myths

The trouble with the debate over immigration is that sophisms and bumper sticker slogans too often crowd out serious discussion. According to a whole host of polls, Americans of all ethnic groups understand that the system is broken and would like it reformed. Yet a series of myths has risen up around the immigration policy status quo in order to sustain it; these must be refuted in the interest of the majority that supports reform.

Immigration cannot be restricted because America is a nation of immigrants. There are a variety of problems with this position, which nevertheless packs emotional force with Americans who are either immigrants themselves or their descendants and do not wish to appear hypocritical or callous toward their heritage. First, it is on its own terms a non sequitur. Just because immigration has built a nation, it does not logically follow that said nation forever has limitless capacity to absorb new immigrants.

Second, insofar as it is true - at least in the literal sense - the same can be said of virtually all nations. Population movements have created nations other than the United States, albeit often more slowly. Third, to a certain extent this isn't even true literally. A majority of Americans were born here, and born to native-born parents. Moreover, Professor Samuel Huntington has observed that there is a distinction between settlers and immigrants. Settlers came to what we now know as America in the 17th and 18th centuries to form new societies; they had no interest in assimilating into the societies that were already there, and indeed they often fought with and displaced them. By contrast, immigrants move from one society to become members of another. Thus, settlers built America and immigrants came later to join and assimilate into the society they created. Approximately half our population to this day is descended from these settlers.

So what's the point of this? Simply that America has historically been a specific nation with a common language and culture - it is not simply a place built by whoever happens to want to be here. Americans are not violating any part of their national creed by acting to preserve this nation and expecting new immigrants to assimilate.

Immigrants - even illegal ones - only take the jobs that Americans won't do. Sigh. One doesn't get very far in an immigration discussion without hearing this argument. Some go so far as to suggest that this should be an argument for open borders. Others only use it to support their claim that mass immigration has no deleterious economic impact.

Of course, the key caveat is that immigrants only take the jobs that Americans won't do at the current wage rate. This says nothing about what Americans would do if wages for lower-skilled jobs were raised. Because the post-1965 wave of immigrants takes a disproportionate amount of these jobs, it is primarily the poorest Americans who see their wages and job opportunities reduced. According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council, immigration between 1980 and 1994 was responsible for 44 percent of the reduction in wages paid to high school dropouts. Low-skilled immigration thus can depress wages, increasing both the number of jobs that Americans won't take and can't get.

Immigration is good for the economy. Ironically, points 3 and 4 are often made by the same people even though they are in many respects contradictory - immigration theoretically helps the economy by increasing labor supply and reducing labor costs. It is also true that some immigrants have skills the U.S. economy is lacking and thus are quite economically beneficial. There is also some truth to the claim that immigrants make as well as take jobs - some immigrants do indeed create jobs.

But the question is not what specific immigrants do or what immigration under another policy might do. It is what the present immigration wave as a whole and those who will continue to be allowed in by current policy in practice will do to the economy that matters most in this discussion. The National Research Council study mentioned above actually found that the economic benefit of current immigration is minimal and the cost to lower-income American and taxpayers in high-immigration areas is significant. Public policy shunts skilled immigrants aside to devote slots for family reunification. Sure, this helps some employers who are looking for a steady supply of cheap labor. Immigrants most likely to create jobs often find it difficult to get in. But if these same employers had to instead modernize or improve productivity, the gains to the overall economy would likely outweigh this advantage.

Opposition to high levels of immigration is necessarily motivated by racism or xenophobia. Given that leading advocates of immigration reform are themselves immigrants, it is by no means a given that xenophobia is a prerequisite for supporting immigration reform. It is actually defenders of high levels of immigration who seek to continually preserve what amounts to a disproportionately minority low-wage servant class. Moreover, the negative economic consequences of current immigration policies fall heaviest on minority Americans.

The Center for Immigration Studies Steven Camarota provided one example in the fall 1998 issue of The Public Interest when he cited a study of the Harlem labor market by Katherine Newman and Chauncy Lennon of Harvard University. According to this article, they "found that 41 percent of the immigrants in their sample of low-wage workers were able to find jobs within one year, while only 14 percent of native-born blacks were able to do so. The authors conclude that immigrants fare better in the low-wage labor market because employers see them as better workers." Similarly, in a recent cover story for The American Conservative, J.P. Zmirak recalled open borders enthusiasts making racist remarks to support their preference for the immigrants admitted under policies they favored over native-born minorities.

Historically, America has generally experienced intermittent immigration. Waves of new immigrants were followed by pauses during which these immigrants were assimilated. We have not had a pause since immigration laws were liberalized in 1965 and have been admitted upwards of 1 million people a year in recent years. In order to promote assimilation and prevent cultural balkanization, such a pause is needed now. With the mechanisms that once assimilated immigrants now in disrepair, a pause is needed more than ever.

In addition to the social reasons for immigration reduction, the post-9/11 era points to another reason: Our borders are out of control and we need time to reestablish order. We need to reevaluate our admissions process to scrutinize who gets in and enforce this process through a system of deportations. All of the above are broken. This leads us into the sixth myth.

Immigration does not really pose any national security concerns. How often do we hear that we can't combat international terrorist cells by targeting immigrant busboys? This completely ignores the fact that the system is having great difficulty telling the difference; anyone can waltz through an open door.

Joel Mowbray pointed out in a National Review cover story that the visa applications of the 9/11 hijackers should have been rejected on their face. Syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin has cataloged specific immigration system failures that kept suspected Beltway sniper John Lee Malvo in the country; her first-rate book Invasion contains many similar examples. Immigrants and foreign visitors may be mostly law-abiding, but there are systemic inadequacies that are producing preventable errors with great consequences.

Myths that mischaracterize the motives of immigration reformers and the reasons for reform prevent a reasonable discussion of what is right and wrong about current immigration policy. More importantly, they prevent successful efforts to fix what is wrong. The second part of this article will focus on more such myths. Only by debunking them can the immigration debate proceed productively.

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