Immigration: Countering the right’s lies

May 12, 2010

Along with the passage of Arizona's racial profiling law SB 1070, which requires the state's law enforcement agencies to detain anyone "suspected" of being an undocumented immigrant, came a series of racist and patently wrong ideas about immigration and immigrants in the U.S.

Many of these ideas are the ravings of right-wing xenophobes. But quite a few have made their way into the mainstream political debate over immigration. Here, Elizabeth Schulte confronts some of these myths and lies about immigrants.

MYTH: Undocumented immigrants are a drain on the U.S. economy and sap social services.

FACT: Actually, undocumented immigrants pay more in taxes than they use in government resources.

According to a study released by the National Council of La Raza, undocumented immigrant workers will pay, on average, about $80,000 more in taxes per capita than they use in government services, since they are ineligible for just about all of the social services the federal government provides other workers.

Thus, even though undocumented workers--who typically work in low-wage, nonunion jobs--often find themselves living below the poverty line, they are barred from seeking assistance from programs like food stamps and Medicaid.

As reported in El Diario de El Paso, the president's Council of Economic Advisers stated in 2007 that the "impact of undocumented immigration on public budgets is likely to be very positive."

The comptroller for the state of Texas reported that in 2006, the undocumented accounted for about $424.7 million more in state revenues--including sales tax and property taxes--than they used in state services, including education and health care.

Thousands demonstrated on May Day for immigrant rights in New York City
Thousands demonstrated on May Day for immigrant rights in New York City (Vanissa Chan)

In addition to sales and property taxes, an estimated three-quarters of undocumented workers also pay payroll taxes, because they are forced to use false Social Security numbers to obtain work.

If you want to pinpoint the real drain on government resources, look at Corporate America, which benefits from billions in tax breaks every year. These corporations happily profit while keep living standards for workers--including immigrant workers--as low as they can.

MYTH: More immigrants translates into more crime in the U.S.

FACT: Arizona legislators used a few high-profile local incidents of violent crime to try to build support for criminalizing undocumented immigrants. The media lent a hand with this fear-mongering, splashing headlines on their front pages about immigrant gangs crossing the border to wreak havoc.

The fact, however, is that immigrant populations in the U.S. are no less law-abiding than the rest of the population--often, they are more law-abiding, according to the statistics.

Incarceration rates are actually higher among people who were born in the U.S. Among men aged 18 to 39--the majority of the prison population--the 3.5 percent incarceration rate of the native born in 2000 was five times higher than the 0.7 percent incarceration rate of the foreign born, according to a 2007 report by the Immigration Policy Center.

Historical studies note a drop in crime as immigration increases. According to an Immigration Policy Center fact sheet based on Department of Justice figures, the undocumented immigrant population doubled to about 12 million between 1994 to 2005--during which time the violent crime rate in the U.S. declined by 34.2 percent and the property crime rate fell by 26.4 percent.

The center points out that the decline in crime wasn't only on a nationwide basis, but also applied to cities with large immigrant populations, such as San Diego, El Paso, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Miami.

The only laws that many undocumented immigrants are "guilty" of breaking have to do with restrictive U.S. immigration policies--like entering the U.S. illegally or using a false Social Security number to get work. These "crimes," like so many others, are the result of poverty--workers have to break the law to put food on the table.

MYTH: Immigrants who come to the U.S. illegally should use legal channels if they want to come to America.

FACT: First of all, more than half of all undocumented immigrants entered the U.S. legally. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, only one-third of all immigrants are undocumented, one-third have some form of legal status, and one-third are naturalized citizens. Almost half of undocumented immigrants entered on temporary visas--as tourists, students or temporary workers--and stayed past their expirations.

Secondly, becoming a U.S. citizen "through legal channels" is easier said than done. According to a report by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights titled "Priced Out," the fee to become a naturalized citizen increased from $95 in 1998 to $675 in 2007, a 610 percent increase over a 10-year period.

Meanwhile, the federal minimum wage only increased by 27 percent over the same period. So an immigrant earning minimum wage and working full time would have to save eight weeks of their paychecks for the year to pay citizenship fees for a family of four.

Then there's the citizenship exam, which requires a level of education and English language proficiency that many poor or working-class immigrants find difficult to obtain.

And once they have fulfilled these requirements, many immigrants face yet more barriers. For example, thousands wait for security clearance simply because of their country of origin, as a result of the "war on terror." According to the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice's 2007 report "Americans on Hold":

Increased security checks in the citizenship application process, manifested in a substantial expansion of name check procedures, have illegally delayed the processing of thousands of applications from Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern and South Asian men...

They have passed every test and fulfilled every requirement related to the naturalization process, but continue to wait for security clearance on their application. Caught between two worlds but unable to call either home, these individuals are living in limbo; treated as outsiders in their new home and hindered in their ability to effectively maintain ties with loved ones in their country of origin.

All these hurdles are in place not to create "good citizens," but to keep immigrants in a no man's land, living without the protections and rights that other people living in the U.S. enjoy, like the right to join a union. On the contrary, employers enjoy an advantage if one section of workers can be kept in constant fear of being arrested and deported.

MYTH: But previous waves of immigrants followed the rules, didn't they?

FACT: Anyone who tries to tell you that "immigrants today should do what my ancestors did" doesn't know enough about the history of immigration in America.

Until the late 19th century, there were no immigration laws to break. Since the needs of U.S. industry required an influx of labor, there were no restrictions on entering the country. There was no Border Patrol until 1924, and no numerical limitations on immigrants until the 1920s.

Historically, the flow of immigration has largely mirrored economic ups and downs. When the U.S. economy declined, so did immigration. Despite this fact, employers and politicians have conveniently blamed immigrants for hard times--and imposed restrictions on immigration to keep out so-called "bad elements."

In the 1840s and 1850s, German and Irish immigrants were scapegoated. In 1882--not many years after a nationwide strike wave in 1877--the government pointed the finger at Chinese workers by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred them from immigrating to the U.S. In 1917, a literacy requirement was imposed to hold back immigration by Eastern European Jews and Italian Catholics.

Similarly, during the McCarthy era, immigrants were targeted as undesirables. In 1952, the McCarran Act banned socialists and communists from coming to the U.S. The law also resulted in the deportation of scores of foreign-born labor activists and rank-and-file leaders.

In the 1950s, U.S. bosses got the best of both worlds with a combination of a bracero guest-worker programs and a stress on Mexico-U.S. border enforcement. At the same time that employers could exploit inexpensive, temporary labor from Mexico, they had greater power to deport that vulnerable workforce.

Upton Sinclair's famous novel The Jungle, about the slaughterhouses of Chicago and the brutal conditions that immigrant groups suffered around the turn of the 20th century, captured perfectly how profit and greed drove the system:

Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers; under such circumstances, immorality was exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it was under the system of chattel slavery.

It's impossible to read these words about Lithuanian meatpackers in Chicago and not think of the conditions endured by immigrants from Mexico and Central America today.

MYTH: Immigrants are taking American jobs and driving down wages.

FACT: According to many studies, immigration has an overall positive impact on the economy.

For example, researchers have shown that an increase in immigrant workers tends to increase employment rates among native-born workers as well. According to a Pew Hispanic Center study, between 2000 and 2004, "there was a positive correlation between the increase in the foreign-born population and the employment of native-born workers in 27 states and the District of Columbia."

Former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner Doris Meissner pointed out:

[I]mmigrants tend to be concentrated in high- and low-skilled occupations that complement--rather than compete with--jobs held by native workers. And the foreign-born workers who fill lower-paying jobs are typically first-hired/first-fired employees, allowing employers to expand and contract their workforces rapidly. As a result, immigrants experience higher employment than natives during booms--but they suffer higher job losses during downturns, including the current one.

This isn't to say that immigrants aren't pitted against native-born workers. They are--this is why American business has always encouraged immigration, including immigration under conditions of illegality. This guarantees a pool of cheap and more easily controlled labor--because undocumented immigrants live under the threat of deportation.

Thus, undocumented immigrants are used twice over--as workers who can be super-exploited because they have no legal rights, and as a group that can be pitted against other workers, whether native-born or other immigrants, as a threat against the wages and conditions of everybody.

But neither jobs nor wages can be defended by organizing around these arbitrary divisions between workers, imposed by employers in the interest of making more profits. This is why it's critical for the labor movement to champion the struggles of the undocumented--as both a necessary basis for workers' unity, and as a spur for other workers to fight.

Solidarity between immigrants and native-born workers is the only effective way to counter the employers' divide-and-conquer methods. That requires rejecting the idea that "American jobs" are for "American workers" only.

MYTH: The U.S. needs greater immigration enforcement because borders must be respected. That's the law.

FACT: First, what does greater immigration enforcement mean? It means increased border security, and that means immigrants forced to risk dying of thirst while crossing the Arizona desert or drowning in California's so-called "All-American Canal"--the aqueduct that carries water from the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley--in pursuit of livelihoods in the U.S.

It means raids and deportation--workers living in daily fear that their employers will turn them in and they will be separated.

These policies that supposedly exist out of "respect" for national borders fundamentally disrespect human dignity. They should be overturned.

There's a more general point to be made about borders. The U.S. government dictates that workers must abide by national borders, but U.S. corporations almost never do. Corporate America moves freely to other countries, profiting off sweatshop labor in the maquiladoras of Mexico, for example.

And when U.S. imperial interests are at stake, there are no borders that go uncrossed--as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have shown most recently. For all the U.S. government's talk about "respecting borders," it never met a border it didn't cross.

MYTH: We are a nation of immigrants.

FACT: That may be true, but it's also true that some immigrants are more welcome in the U.S. than others. Thus, when people from other countries seek refuge in the U.S., the government's first concern is politics, not oppression.

Beginning in 1966, Cubans who came to the U.S. were automatically classified as refugees, granted permanent residency status and given help to settle in America, under the Cuba Adjustment Act. This was the standard for Cuba's "refugees from communism."

The U.S. applied a different standard to those fleeing repression in Haiti. For example, when the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a right-wing coup in 1991, tens of thousands of Haitians fled when death squads unleashed terror on Aristide supporters.

The Haitians boarded boats, risking their lives on an ocean voyage, but U.S. immigration officials intercepted the asylum seekers and sent them back. The U.S. government--an ally for decades of Haitian strongmen before the election of Aristide--dubbed the asylum seekers economic refugees and sent them back to their fate in Haiti.

And let's for a moment reflect on the "first immigrants." According to the Thanksgiving story that every schoolchild learns, the Pilgrims traveled to what would be called America and learned from the Indians how to live off the land.

The "first immigrants" were welcomed with open arms by native-born people. And what did the Native Americans get in return? European settlers tried to enslave the Indians, and when they couldn't, they drove Native Americans from their land and slaughtered them in horrifying numbers.

As the Shawnee leader Tecumseh described it:

When the white men first set foot on our shores, they were hungry; they had no places on which to spread their blankets or to kindle their fires. They were feeble; they could do nothing for themselves. Our fathers commiserated their distress, and shared freely with them whatever the Great Spirit had given to his red children...

Brothers, the white people are like poisonous serpents: when chilled, they are feeble and harmless; but invigorate them with warmth, and they will sting their benefactors to death.

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