Former INS Official Debunks Immigration Myths

There has been no shortage of rhetorical excess in the national debate on immigration reform, and in recent months, spurious claims and tendentious spin-mongering have come to seem like just another part of the process, par for the course. So much of the debate has been waged on the level of opinion – and ideologically-charged opinion – that the verifiable facts get lost in the swirling miasma of controversy. Worse yet, the steady repetition of bogus information can make it seem, if not exactly true, at least truth-like – giving trumped-up claims a quality that the political satirist Stephen Colbert likes to call “truthiness.”

Seeking to separate fact from popular fiction, former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner published a recent piece in the Washington Post, entitled 5 Myths About Immigration. (See Washington Post, 02.May.2010.) Meissner, now a senior fellow at the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, takes on several persistent misconceptions that have distorted public debate on U.S. immigration policy.

  • Myth #1 – Immigrants take jobs from American workers. 
Not true, says Meissner, pointing out that immigrants are indeed overrepresented in the workforce, but only because the U.S. population skews older, compared to the younger immigrants who come here to work. Meissner also notes that immigrant workers tend to concentrate at the high-skill and low-skill ends of the labor market, in “occupations that complement – rather than compete with – jobs held by native workers.” Overall, says Meissner, immigration stimulates economic growth by bringing in new consumers, entrepreneurs and investors, which in turns raises wages for most American workers. The least-educated in the U.S. workforce, she says – those with less than a high school diploma – experience a modest wage loss, approximately 1 percent, due to immigration.
  • Myth #2 – Immigration is at an all-time high, and most new immigrants came illegally. 
Wrong, says Meissner. Immigrants now make up about 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, far short of the 14.8 percent they comprised in 1890, Meissner observes. At this writing, approximately two-thirds of immigrants are in the United States legally, Meissner says; of the estimated 10.8 million undocumented immigrants here currently, she says about 40 percent arrived legally but overstayed their visas.

  • Myth #3 – Today’s immigrants are not integrating into American life like past waves did. 
This is an old chestnut, based on a misremembering of the past, Meissner argues, pointing out that nearly every new wave of immigrants – whether German, Irish, Italian, whatever – faced the charge that they were not assimilating quickly enough. The fact is, Meissner says, “Today, as before, immigrant integration takes a generation or two.” She also points out that immigrants are working hard to learn English, to the point that adult education programs in immigrant-heavy states like California can hardly meet the demand for English instruction. Undocumented immigrants also face higher hurdles to integration, according to Meissner.
  • Myth #4 – Cracking down on illegal border crossings will make us safer. 
Wrong again, says Meissner. Actually, she explains, the focus on illegal border crossings takes valuable resources away from securing our borders from criminal aliens, noting that “[t]he seasoned enforcement officials I have spoken with all contend that if we provided enough visas to meet the economy’s demand for workers, border agents would be freed to focus on protecting the nation from truly dangerous individuals and activities, such as drug-trafficking, smuggling, and cartel violence.” Meissner further distinguished border enforcement efforts from anti-terrorism activities that depend more on “intelligence gathering and clandestine efforts,” than on routine police work.

  • Myth #5 – Immigration reform cannot happen in an election year. 
History shows otherwise, Meissner demonstrates, pointing to four major immigration laws that successfully ran the legislative gantlet in 1980, 1986, 1990, and 1996 – election years, every one of them. Ruling out immigration reform this year would be a mistake, Meissner concludes.

One hopes we will see more articles like this that seek to restore the primacy of facts and reasoned argument to the noisy public debate on immigration reform. Opinions are fine, but they are no basis for public policy, and certainly no substitute for facts. Hats off to Doris Meissner and the Washington Post for helping to restore some balance to the debate.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.