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Dispelling Myths: The Case for Immigration Reform

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NORMAN, Okla. -- Lost in the bungled implementation of the Affordable Care Act, revelations about the National Security Agency spurred by Edward Snowden, and the government shutdown has been the most important item currently on the legislative agenda: comprehensive immigration reform. In his press conference on December 20th, President Obama urged the House of Representatives to support the Senate’s immigration bill, which passed 68-32 in late June. Among the concerns cited by Americans who oppose reform are that immigrants will take their jobs, drive down wages, increase criminal activity, burden the welfare system, and reshape the cultural dynamic of the country. These concerns are mostly ill-founded. The legitimate concerns have real solutions, and a more open immigration policy will be a net benefit for all Americans.

During the press conference, President Obama correctly asserted that, “There are a few differences here and there, but the truth of the matter is that the Senate bill has the main components of comprehensive immigration reform that would boost our economy, give us an opportunity to attract more investment and high-skilled workers who are doing great things in places like Silicon Valley and around the country.”

Although the President is correct that the bill would bolster our economy, he failed to address another key aspect preventing support for reform. Many social conservatives fear that such measures would continue to perpetuate what many vulgarly refer to as a “third world invasion.” However, the economic concerns as well as the cultural concerns voiced by the opposition are grossly misinformed. Not only do immigrants propel our economy; they assimilate quite quickly.

Immigration has been a divisive issue in America for centuries. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin complained about the number of Germans in colonial Pennsylvania, stating “[they] will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of Anglifiyng them.” A resolution to the current estimated twelve million illegal immigrants that currently reside in the United States has been elusive. It is clear that something must be done. What that solution should be is the point of contention.

The research provided in this article will demonstrate that if a plan similar to the current Senate bill would be instituted, which would (amongst other things) legalize most illegal immigrants currently here, the country would enjoy an enormous economic boost. The conservatives in America should be falling over themselves advocating plans that have been put forward by individuals such as Jason Riley and others from the Wall Street Journal editorial board. It is a question of supply and demand, and it follows the cherished logic of many conservatives, free market capitalism.

However, there is a more important concern that is preventing many with anti-immigrant sentiment from favoring reform. Many believe that the influx of millions of Latin American immigrants has and will continue to reshape what they view as integral ideals of this country. At the forefront of those who hold the fear of a cultural change are the Christian Nationalists, a group who believe that America was chosen by God and that it is their duty to protect its Anglo-Protestant heritage. This group of people comprises a large portion of those who also espouse the ideals of capitalism and the free market. It is imperative to reveal that not only is it in the economic interest of the United States to reform the immigration system, but also the fear that Latin American immigrants will change the cultural dynamics of the nation are illegitimate.

For decades, Republican ideologues including the likes of Patrick Buchanan, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, Samuel Huntington and many more have warned of a “third world invasion” from Latin immigrants. This fear-mongering which proposes the idea that this particular group of people will ruin America has been integral in stirring up anti-immigrant sentiment. However, the large majority of non-European immigrants do not pose a danger to the ideals of the religious right. Furthermore, a significant portion of them are likely to reinforce these values, much less detract from them. Francis Fukuyama, the famed  Harvard political scientist, astutely identifies that, “in contrast to other West European democracies, the American national identity has never been directly linked to ethnicity or religion. Nationality has been based instead on universal concepts like freedom and equality that are in theory open to all people.” The United States was founded on a creed, not an ethnicity. The founders were not natives of this land, but as Fukuyama states, “to be an American has meant to be committed to a certain set of ideas, and not to be descended from an original tribe of ur-Americans.”

The false perception of many conservatives is that those emigrating from Third World nations are likely to resemble the social struggles that can be seen in certain inner cities. The reality is that this phenomenon of the decomposing family, which includes shared values being disseminated through parent-child relationships, is one that is unique to more advanced societies. The dastardly poor economic condition of Third World nations is precisely the reason the peoples of such countries generally have larger and more intimate family units. Without a family unit, it is incredibly more difficult for children to survive, much less prosper, in Third World nations as opposed to more advanced ones.

It seems rather obvious that due to less opportunity, limited upward mobility, and minimal assistance from the state, immigrants from poor countries would hold more robust family values than an average middle class Anglo-American. In addition, it would also infer that they would be more conditioned to adhere to conventional authority as well as hold a more determined work ethic. The factors that have led to the decline of the middle class family unit include quickly moving economic environments, a shift in traditional gender roles, and the acceptance of alternative lifestyles. These conditions are rarely applicable to Third World countries, and for this reason, these immigrants often exude more traditional codes of morality and family framework. In addition, those who do decide to immigrate to America are a self selecting group, meaning that they generally hold more determination and drive than others within their country.

As with any subject, it is easy to infuse an illegitimate bias into the argument. Examples of this are the fallout from the Mariel Island boat lift, when 125,000 people from Cuban prisons and insane asylums migrated to Florida courtesy of Fidel Castro, or certain examples of violent crimes committed by illegal immigrants. The argument follows: if they had been prevented from coming, these atrocities would have never happened. However, that approach to problem solving is never effective. Nothing ever comes without its negative effects, but is it the measurement of the idea, in this case immigration reform, in the aggregate, that should be the determinant of its validity.

The Christian Nationalists, as well as others who cherish Christian ideas and family values, have been deceived by certain conservative political pundits that the flow of Latino immigrants considerably threatens these ideals. The data shows otherwise.

According to the 2013 Pew Research data, eighty-three percent of illegal immigrants, which arrive mostly from Latin America, are Christian. This percentage is higher than that of the American population as a whole, which is just under eighty percent. A 2010 Gallup poll revealed that Hispanics attend church services more often than non-Hispanic whites. The poll broke Hispanics into two groups, Black Hispanics and White Hispanics. Fifty-two percent of Black Hispanics and 46 percent of White Hispanics reported attending church “at least once a week” or “almost every week.” Non-Hispanic whites reported attending only 41 percent of the time. First generation Latino immigrants are overwhelmingly Catholic. However, subsequent generations are increasingly becoming evangelicals. A 2012 study by the Pew Research Center reported that 15 percent of Hispanics in America identify as evangelicals. Among native-born Latinos, the number is nearly 30 percent.

The Centers for Disease Control reports that Hispanics’ out of wedlock birth rate is 53.5 percent. This is higher than that of non-Hispanic whites, which is 29.4 percent, but much lower than African Americans, whose rate is 72.2 percent. In addition, according to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2012, between the years 2007-2011, single-parent households for Hispanics have constituted thirty-eight percent. The rate for African Americans is 63%, whites 28%, and Asians 17%.

Hispanics assimilate into the American society quite quickly and willingly. It is sometimes difficult to observe this because America is still undergoing a large migration from this group. However, longitudinal studies that account for the change from one generation to the next reveal this truth. Hispanic immigrants also adopt English rather quickly. A 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that 92 percent of second generation and 96 percent of third generation Hispanics speak English proficiently. The study published by the American Political Science Association entitled “Testing Huntington: Is Hispanic Immigration a Threat to American Identity?” states that “Hispanics acquire English and lose Spanish rapidly beginning with the second generation, and appear to be no more or less religious or committed to the work ethic than native-born whites. Moreover, a clear majority of Hispanics reject a purely ethnic identification and patriotism grows from one generation to the next.”

The case for immigration reform is strongest in economic terms. Contrary to the rhetoric regurgitated on talk radio, immigrants are not taking away jobs or depressing wages. In fact, they are creating jobs. Immigrants are integral in maintaining an American workforce that is both younger and better equipped than the rest of the world. It is quite remarkable that the most vociferous opposition to immigrants come from those who claim to be proponents of free markets. It would seem that a belief in free markets would naturally include the free movement of labor.

The fallacy that illegal immigrants are detrimental to the American economy stems from the idea of supply and demand. Since an influx of immigrants means an expansion of the labor supply, many assert that the result will be less jobs and lower wages However, as asserted by Jason Riley, a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, “The number of jobs in the United States is not static. It’s fluid, which is how we want it to be.” In actuality, the foreign workforce bolsters growth in the economy. Not only are many of the jobs that employ immigrants the type Americans would prefer to not take, even if they were filled by natives, it would in the aggregate be a worse scenario. Immigrants, including the majority who are employed in low-skill jobs, actually increase job opportunities for Americans. Riley states that “In 2006 there were around 146 million workers in the United States and 15 percent (21 million) were foreign born. If immigrants are stealing jobs, 21 million U.S. natives, or something approximating that number, should have been out of work. The actual number was only 7 million.” Immigrants were clearly not taking the jobs of natives. They were working in positions that would not have existed otherwise.

In 2006, the Congressional Budget Office released a report stating that proposed change to the immigration system would “increase GDP by between 0.8 percent and 1.3 percent from 2012 to 2016.” In addition, immigrants start news businesses at twice the rate of natives. In a study published by the Partnership for a New American Economy  the data states that in 2011, while only comprising 13 percent of the population, immigrants accounted for 28 percent of new businesses. These businesses help natives by providing them with new job opportunities. Immigrants or their children have started over 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies, which employ over 10 million people globally. As reported by the Fiscal Policy Institute in 2012, immigrant owned small businesses created in excess of $775 billion dollars in annual revenue. In addition, they employed nearly 4.7 million workers in 2007. Immigrants have proven to increase demand for consumer goods. Since consumer spending comprises 70 percent of America’s GDP, this is an important indicator. Furthermore, the a 2012 study by the  Immigration Policy Center posits that purchasing power of Latinos will exceed $1.5 trillion by 2015.

A 2013 study by the American Action Forum states that "immigration reform can raise population growth, labor force growth, and thus growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).” Their study indicates that without immigration, the population and consequently the economy would diminish as a consequence of declining American birth rates. It states that “benchmark immigration reform” would invigorate growth of the economy by one percent over the short term and result in a $2.5 trillion reduction in the cumulative national debt.

In 2013 the Bipartisan Policy Center came to similar conclusions. It makes the prediction that current provisions, as included in the Senate Bill, would raise GDP 4.8 percent over twenty years. Their data asserts that such a law would aid in recruiting younger workers which would help cut the deficit by $1.17 trillion over the subsequent twenty years. The report states that it would expect wages to decline initially, but that over a twenty year period, real wages would grow 0.5%. In addition, it also predicts that such a bill would bolster the housing market, estimating that spending on residential properties would increase by $68 billion per year.

What about the border and national security? Many legislators and their constituents have asserted that in order for there to be any sort of comprehensive immigration reform, the border between the United States and Mexico must be secured first. The problem is that there has been no feasible plan put forward in regard to how to accomplish this. In addition, a more open immigration policy would be the best initial step in securing the border. If the United States would create more legal avenues for job-seeking immigrants to enter the country, as a result the border patrol would be left with more resources to apprehend drug smugglers and terrorists, rather than those coming here to mow lawns and become housekeepers.

Another emotional tactic employed by those with anti-immigrant sentiment is the issue of crime. Television programs love to show shocking stories of an illegal immigrant killing someone due to drunk driving, or some other atrocious incident. However, natives are much more likely to commit crimes than are immigrants. According to the Immigration Policy Center, immigrant males between the ages of 18 and 39 (which constitute the greatest portion of the prison population) are five times less likely to be incarcerated than are natives. Furthermore, as reported by the Bureau of Justice Statistics between 1994 and 2005, when illegal immigration more than doubled to around 12 million, violent crime fell by more than 33%, and property crime fell by just over 25%. This was not just true nationwide, but these crimes fell at the same rate or greater in highly populated immigrant areas such as Miami, Los Angeles, and New York.

What about welfare? Although illegal immigrants do not qualify for federal welfare benefits, their American born children do. Therefore, the argument goes, immigrants come here to benefit from these “handouts.”  From 1994 to 2005, again, a period in which illegal immigration grew exponentially, welfare caseloads actually fell dramatically. Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin state in the December 2007 issue of Commentary Magazine, “Since the high-water mark in 1994, the national welfare caseload has declined by 60%. Virtually every state in the union has reduced its caseload by at least a third, and some have achieved reductions of over 90%.”

When immigrants do use welfare, they do so at a lower rate than natives. They use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), State Children’s Health Insurance Program, (SCHIP), and Medicaid all at lower rates than natives. According to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, between 1995 and 2005, noncitizen children receiving aid from the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) or receiving Medicaid benefits declined from 36 percent to 30 percent. During the same timeframe, native children’s usage of such programs increased from 45 to 54 percent.

There are two parts to overhauling the immigration system in America. One is the logistical portion, devising a plan of action that lays out rules and regulations of how to go about changing the current system. The second, and more difficult portion, is passing the legislation. This entails shifting public opinion and compromising where opinion cannot be changed. The latter involves refuting immigration myths that are so often reiterated throughout certain media outlets, religious groups, and by certain politicians. 

Immigrants have often been met with suspicion by Americans, and this will likely continue. However, it is imperative that their historical impact on this nation be understood. America thrives in large part due to its immigrant population. The recent wave of Latino immigrants has proven them to be willing assimilators. They come here because of the ideals that America stands for and the opportunity that it offers. Furthermore, it is in the economic interest of America to create a more expedient system for needed immigrant workers legally to live and be employed in this country.

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Brian Woodward

Brian Woodward is a native of Oklahoma and currently resides in Norman, Oklahoma. However, he...

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