Dispelling Misconceptions About Immigrants and Immigration

The public discourse on immigration policy is only as good as the information that goes into it, and much of what goes into it would not pass even a basic fact-checking. As a recent Time.com article points out, the heat and fury of our national immigration debate are products of popular misconceptions about immigrants and a misunderstanding of the immigrant demographics, vis-a-vis native-born Americans. (See How We See Immigration – and Why We’re Wrong, by Eben Harrell, Time.com, 03.Feb.2011.)

According to Time.com, a survey by the German Marshall Fund asked 6,000 people in the United States, Canada, and six European countries whether there were “too many” immigrants in their country; when the respondents were “primed” with an inaccurate statistic – that about 40 percent of their population was foreign born, more people found the current level of immigration unacceptable; however, when given the correct figure – less than 14 percent, in the U.S. – those surveyed were 20 percent less likely to object to current immigration levels. This is a problem, because, as Time.com reports, the average resident of the United States thinks the higher number is accurate; thus, many who object to current levels of immigration do so on the basis of mistaken information. Similar misconceptions color Americans’ views of illegal immigration, such that “58 percent of those polled said that most immigrants did not have legal residency. In fact, illegal immigrants comprise less than one-third of the migrant population in the U.S.,” Time.com said.

This gap between perception and reality makes it difficult to sustain a rational immigration policy, both here and in Europe, “where concerns over labor-market competition, assimilation and crime have led many citizens to demand tougher immigration laws and enforcement,” Time.com contends, noting that the German Marshall Fund study found that “majorities in the U.S. (73%), the U.K. (70%), Spain (61%), France (58%) and the Netherlands (54%) felt their government was doing a poor job managing immigration.”

Here again, the perception lags far behind reality, at least in the United States. Public concerns about immigration and border security have continued to mount throughout the Obama administration’s concerted, unprecedented, and highly successful efforts to stem the tide of illegal immigration across our southwestern border. The administration’s immigration enforcement efforts have been so successful that the President is beginning to feel the heat from Latino and immigrant-advocacy groups, who are complaining loudly and bitterly about this trend.

Whatever the public perception may be about the government’s management of immigration policy, it is not flying blind, or otherwise lacking in reliable information on which to base its policies. The non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently provided Congress with a statistical snapshot of immigrants – legal and illegal – living in the United States. (See The U.S. Foreign-Born Population: Trends and Selected Characteristics, by William A. Kandel, Congressional Research Service, 18.Jan.2011, PDF 398KB.)

Among the findings:

  • “Although the foreign born are relatively small in absolute terms – 38 million people representing 12.5% of the total U.S. population of 304.1 million in 2008 – they are growing far more rapidly than the native-born population.
  • “Between 2000 and 2008, the foreign born contributed 30% of the total U.S. population increase and almost all of the prime 25-54 working age group increase. Close to 30% of the foreign born arrived in the United States since 2000, and roughly 29% were residing illegally in the United States.”
  • Immigrant men working at a higher rate than U.S.-born. Foreign-born men have a higher rate of workforce participation than native-born workers, regardless of age or education, while foreign-born women have lower rates than native-born women, except at lower levels of education;
  • Native-born Americans have greater education at the low end of the scale than their foreign-born counterparts, while at the higher end, “the proportion of the foreign born with at least a bachelor’s degree matches that of the native born.”
  • On average, newer immigrants are more educated. “Average education levels have been rising consistently throughout the world, and consequently, more recent immigrants, on average, arrive to the United States with more years of schooling than immigrants who arrived in earlier decades.”
  • Poverty is a function of immigration status, in part. “Poverty for the foreign born varies by citizenship status, with relatively smaller proportions of naturalized citizens and greater proportions of noncitizens falling below the poverty threshold.”

In other words, immigrants are not coming here to sponge off an over-generous social welfare system, as some would have it; they’re here to work, and, on average, they may be better educated than were the ancestors of many native-born Americans whose families have been here for generations.

The CRS findings paint a more nuanced picture of immigrants in the United States than one is accustomed to getting from network sound bites or from the nightly news, and there is something comforting in that; even if the immigration controversy is being driven by bad information, our policy makers in Washington have access to non-partisan statistics and analysis to help them steer a more accurate course. One hopes they will share this information with their constituents.

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.