How three prevalent misperceptions about immigrants are flatly wrong and harmful.
Thanksgiving is just a few dozen hours away here in the U.S. Let’s exclude this Thanksgiving when we say the holiday is centered on food, food comas, and family. (And parades, pies, and perspective.)
But there’s another aspect of this day that is sometimes overlooked or ignored, that it marks a significant step in how America was settled. Many people crossed a seemingly endless ocean and landed here to start something new for themselves and their communities.
While the specific modes for immigrating here and the makeup of who comes to the U.S. have changed over time, we’re still something of a beacon across the waters, plains, and mountains for those seeking a new life.
But with a constant stream of new neighbors comes a fear of them, frequently predicated on racism or a gross misunderstanding of the world. That fear isn’t a recent development here, but it does take some modern forms of unfair opinions and falsehoods.
So for this Thanksgiving, let’s look at three myths about documented and undocumented immigrant communities in the U.S. and explain why they’re incorrect (and harmful).
1. Immigrants do not “steal our jobs”
Let’s start with a very common myth: “Immigrants are taking our jobs.” This is sometimes given as a reason for why native-born residents have trouble finding employment, as if it’s an immigrant’s fault that your life isn’t better.
Fact: Immigrants work in most of the same positions other Americans do, and they are frequently the workers that take jobs others simply don’t want. As Brookings Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown put it, “Undocumented workers often work the unpleasant, back-breaking jobs that native-born workers are not willing to do.”
There’s some good news about this myth. Despite how prevalent this myth seems, a strong majority of Americans don’t buy it, particularly concerning undocumented immigrants. Still, this hasn’t stopped some, including President Trump and special interest groups, from using this myth to fear monger.
2. Immigrants are not a “drag on our economy”
This one is related to the previous one, but there are some specific subpoints I would like to explore and counter.
Returning to jobs, support for maintaining current levels of or increasing immigration into the U.S. depends on labor skill and education. Commonly, those who generally don’t support allowing people to immigrate here have a different perspective when these immigrants are categorized as “high-skilled.”
This touches on other misperceptions, that people who immigrate here are less likely to contribute to the economy immediately or effectively while receiving benefits from programs like SNAP or other human services. This is especially pointed toward undocumented individuals; “how can they pay taxes if they’re here illegally?”
In short, “immigrants take from the economy (human services, jobs) more than they give (taxes).”
Fact: Immigrants are an important and fundamental part of our workforce and economy, including undocumented immigrants.
Let’s turn back to jobs for a second. While those who immigrate here are more likely to take high-stress jobs that others won’t, this doesn’t mean these individuals or all other immigrants are “unskilled labor.” In fact, many people who immigrate here are professionally trained to fulfill most other roles—particularly in fields like health care.
The issue isn’t their lack of training or education, but rather that the process for the U.S. government to acknowledge these certifications can be slow going. Applications for temporary credentials—worker visas, for example—are complicated, and the timeline for a long-term and permanent immigrant to receive occupational licensing is full of other hurdles. This leaves us with an immigration population with skills that don’t match with the jobs they hold, or “brain waste.”
And while we practically force immigrants to take jobs they otherwise wouldn’t, we also do receive tax dollars and other revenue from these communities. In fact, immigrants are actually a big part of our federal, state, and local tax bases, meaning policies that decrease the number of people we admit into our country can have a profoundly adverse effect on our economy.
This includes undocumented immigrants, too—just ask the IRS. However, since they aren’t documented, they don’t receive some of the benefits from our human services network. For instance, without a social security number, they aren’t eligible for SNAP, Medicare, and subsidies from the Affordable Care Act.
To put it another way, immigrants tend to put more into our economy than they “take out of it,” not the other way around as this myth asserts.
3. Undocumented immigrants do not “bring crime into our communities”
One of the most concerning myths about undocumented immigrants involves crime. You likely know the story: Those here “illegally” are more likely to commit crimes than native-born people; instead of cooperating with entities like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), some cities institute policies to protect these undocumented immigrants from deportation by preventing local law enforcement from doing so (“sanctuary city policies”); crime in these places increases or remains high because of this obstruction.
This line of reasoning is grossly incorrect.
Fact: There is no empirical link between undocumented immigrant communities and crime increases, and the data we do have shows quite the opposite.
Let’s say it again: Undocumented immigrants do not exacerbate crime in our cities.
There is growing evidence that disproves the asserted link between immigration, sanctuary city policies, and crime. Recently, a study published in the Journal of Crime and Justice observed some 150 cities in the U.S. and found that the relationship might even be the reverse—some cities saw crime decreases when they experienced growth in their undocumented immigrant communities.
With no real evidence to back up this myth, why is it so ingrained in the broader dialogue about immigration? Well …it’s racism.
The theory of undocumented immigrant crime waves itself (here and in other countries) is predicated on a fear of “the other.” Meanwhile, U.S. policies and entities like ICE that interact with immigrants have an ongoing history of profiling and prejudice that use non-racial concepts like immigration status to discriminate against people of color.
Obviously, this is horribly unfair and its effects aren’t innocuous. This myth, like others, incorrectly and dangerously places the blame for broad systemic issues onto communities that want nothing more than to live with dignity like many of their new neighbors.
Not only does that poison the relationship among community members, but it also dissuades some immigrant communities from being more forthcoming with information when we absolutely need it the most. For example, that’s why the fight over listing a question regarding immigration status on this year’s Census form likely had costly effects on how accurate the final count will be, despite the question ultimately not being included.
So, how can this behavior be considered helpful—or morally good—in improving our communities?
The U.S. was built by immigrants centuries ago. People landed here to make something new, and this continues today (minus the tragedies of pestilence and genocide, I should add). If we continue to allow myths like these prevail, not only are we abandoning this part of our legacy, but we’re also harming ourselves individually and those around us. We should treat those who found their way here for who they are—our neighbors and an equal part of our community.
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Related reading, from 101PC:
- Last month, we covered President Trump’s reduction in how many refugees the U.S. will admit next year—and why it’s bad policy.
- In addition to being a nation of immigrants, we also have communities that lived here for centuries before European settlers made landfall. Although centuries more have passed, how Native American tribes are treated by the U.S. government remains several lacking. Here’s where things stand now.
- The Brookings Institute’s Brennan Hoban goes further in debunking one of the myths highlighted above regarding jobs, finding that anti-immigrant policies and sentiments do far more harm than good to U.S. citizens of all kinds.
- The National Immigration Forum has several charts that further show how instrumental immigrants are to the U.S.
- The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Hunter Haliman further explains how and why immigrants pay taxes.
- In a piece for The New York Times, Eduardo Porter and Karl Russel explore myths from across the globe about immigrants (paywall).
- How do we define skilled and unskilled immigrant labor? Dr. Jacqueline Hagan explains in a report for the American Immigration Council.
- The Brookings Institute’s Dany Bahar why accepting more refugees into the country would be good for the U.S. economy.
- What can be done to undo the “brain waste?” From the Urban Institute, Hamutal Bernstein and Carolyn Vilter go over “upskilling” to better connect immigrants with high-demand industries.
4 thoughts on “Debunking 3 Myths About Immigrants in the U.S.”
I read somewhere once that in order for the US economy to continue growing, there needs to be a lot more people here.
Also, “The Undocumented Americans” by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is a very good book and tells stories of immigrants across the country.
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Yeah, there’s an abundance of evidence that we’ll fall way behind internationally and be unable to pay for many of our domestic programs if we lower immigration levels. (This is to say nothing about what this would do to our immigrant communities specifically — culturally and morally.)
The Brookings Institute has a lot on the economic impact of immigration, and I was especially drawn to this piece about refugees: