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Immigration - The Dangerous Distraction

by Frances Moore Lappé and Hannah Stokes-Ramos, July 10, 2024


Originally published in Common Dreams, July 10, 2024


In the presidential debate Donald Trump cast himself as our great protector against dangerous immigrants including the “insane” and “terrorists” who take our jobs and commit crimes. A top advisor reports that Trump plans to increase deportation 10-fold.


Such charges aren’t new. The terms “threat” and “immigration” have together soared through our media since the ‘90s. To many Americans it’s seemed self-evident that “others” are robbing us of opportunity, draining our resources, and even inflicting immediate harm.


But these charges are wrong, completely wrong.


Immigration is being used by economic elites as a powerful tool to shift our attention away from the real roots of crises, both economic and political. Plus, casting immigration as a crisis blinds us to the multiple ways immigrants contribute to our national well-being.


First, the basics. Immigrants—more than half of which are naturalized citizens—make up about 14 percent of our population. And they are an even bigger share of our civilian labor force— 19 percent.


Thus, they do a lot to keep our economy going—generating $1.6 trillion in spending power. Immigrants also contribute to the public good, paying $579 billion in federal, state, and local taxes. That’s a lot! It is over three-quarters of what we spend each year on defense, which is among our largest national expenditures.


Of course, millions more Americans are children and grandchildren of earlier immigrants—as am I—which has been a source of America’s pride.


Yes, our foreign-born population has been increasing, but barely. Between 2020 and 2022 the percent of foreign-born grew one point, reports the U.S. Census Bureau.


According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), between 2019 and 2023, our immigrant labor force grew yearly on average 2.3 percent; yet there’s no evidence of harm to the native-born, as our economy has also been growing. In fact, EPI also found that for U.S.-born workers, 2022-2023 was a time of “very low unemployment—and strong employment growth.” Robust growth continues to exceed expectations.


And what about the claim that immigrants are “taking” jobs, especially of the less-educated?


This, too, is misleading, as immigrants without a high school diploma fill very different jobs than comparable native-born Americans. Immigrants typically take jobs as maids and house cleaners, cooks, and agricultural workers. In California, for example, 69 percent of farmworkers are migrants. By contrast, native-born Americans with no high school education are apt to be cashiers, truck drivers, janitors, and building cleaners.


Among undocumented workers, the largest share of work is in agriculture, construction, administrative support, and tourism, hospitality, and food service.


In rural Ohio, I once had the opportunity to speak with such workers, and my heart broke as one woman expressed bewilderment at how she was treated. “Why don’t people here respect us?” she asked me. “We bring you your food.”


Some worry also that immigrants increase crime, but data doesn’t confirm this fear: From 1990 to 2013 unauthorized immigration tripled while the U.S. crime rates fell by almost half.


Furthermore, over decades unauthorized immigrants have proven to be less likely to commit crimes than the native-born, reports Northwestern University. And their incarceration rates are also lower. Among young, less-educated men from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador—who are a large share of undocumented immigrants—incarceration rates are at most about a quarter that of the native-born. Some studies also find delinquency rates of immigrant youth to be lower than their native peers.


Trump has charged repeatedly that immigrants drain Social Security, when the opposite is true. Almost all undocumented immigrants work and pay taxes into Social Security and Medicare. From 2004 to 2014, they paid over $100 billion into Social Security alone.


Yet, immigrants are not allowed to access the Social Security into which they’ve paid.


Note, too, that most immigrants by far are documented. In 2022, the undocumented were only a bit over one-fifth of all immigrants and added no more than 3 percent of our population. Yet, they contributed over $35 billion in taxes. Refugees make up an even smaller segment of the population and pay over $30 billion in taxes each year.


Trump’s proposed mass deportation of undocumented workers would strike a huge blow to the American economy. Our GDP would shrink by about $1.6 trillion, triggering a 5.7 percent decline in the economy while costing the U.S. government about $400 billion.


Moreover, offering current undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship would add $116 billion in federal tax revenue, $68 billion in state and local tax revenue. GDP would grow by $1.7 trillion over the next decade.


Plus, it’s false to assume that jobs vacated by deported immigrants would be filled by the native-born. After Arizona passed its restrictive SB 1070 law in 2008, the overall number of jobs shrank by 2.5 percent by 2015, and only 10 percent of vacated jobs had been filled by the native-born.


So, let’s spread the word that many Americans are struggling not because of immigrants taking their jobs and using up their resources. The real threat is the worsening and highly alarming concentrations of wealth and income in our country—more extreme here than in over 100 nations. The top 1 percent of Americans control 30.4 percent of the wealth. Just 806 billionaires hold more wealth than the entire bottom half of all Americans.


Such concentration continues because of our corrupt political system allowing big donors and private-interest lobbyists way too much power. Here, too, we are an outlier among our peer nations.


Blaming immigrants is thus a dangerous distraction. It harms not only them but virtually all of us. It distracts us from digging to the root causes of illegal immigration—extreme poverty, gang violence, and autocratic governments.


So let us redirect attention from false blame to face the truly critical challenges of fixing our democracy—via initiatives such as Equal Citizens—and to assume leadership internationally to address the root causes of poverty driving immigration.

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