The United States population consists almost entirely of immigrants and their descendants. The only Americans whose ancestors did not come here from abroad in the last 500 years are Native Americans, and all except enslaved persons trafficked from Africa came here voluntarily.
Yet the history of immigration in the United States is one of bigotry against successive “othered” ethnic groups, beginning with the influx of Irish Catholics during the 1840s potato famine. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 virtually prohibited Chinese people from entering the country, denied them citizenship and prevented them from bringing family members over. The Immigration Act of 1924 was designed to exclude Jews, Italians and others from southern and eastern Europe. Until the national-origins quota system was repealed in 1965, it allowed barely 100 immigrants a year from China and less than 1,000 from Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados combined.
Today, the main immigrant groups targeted are Latinos — particularly those from Mexico, by far the largest single source of immigrants — and Muslims. Donald Trump blames them for declining wages, accuses them of polluting America’s character and calls them criminals and terrorists. He channels the anger that should be directed at corporate America against immigrants.
Three Anti-Immigrant Myths
Much of the opposition to immigration is based on a few widespread myths: That immigrants are criminals and parasites who collect welfare and don’t pay taxes.
In reality, undocumented immigrants very rarely receive public assistance or unemployment benefits. These benefits are limited to U.S. citizens or those legally authorized to be in the country, and the documentation required to apply is daunting. The two public benefits the undocumented have automatic access to are emergency-room care and the right of children to enroll in public schools, although local school authorities frequently challenge this.
The second myth is that undocumented workers don’t pay taxes. First, they pay sales tax on things they buy. Second, if they pay rent, it indirectly goes to their landlords’ property taxes — the main source of financing for public schools in much of the nation. Most important, the Social Security Administration allows anyone, including undocumented immigrants, to obtain Social Security numbers and then pay Social Security taxes. In addition, many undocumented immigrants use other people’s Social Security numbers to work at jobs where they are required — which means that they pay taxes into the system, even though they are not eligible to receive any benefits from it.
The third myth, promulgated by Trump, is that immigrants plague the United States with crimes from murder to rape to theft. In reality, immigrants, whether documented or not, are arrested and convicted at a lower rate than that of people born in the United States. This difference is particularly striking when low-income immigrants are compared with similarly poor native-born people.
Does immigration from low-wage countries drive down the wages of U.S. workers? One argument against that is that a growing economy needs additional workers — who can come from either immigration or teenagers becoming old enough to work and replace people who’ve retired. But in the United States, the birth rate of slightly less than 1.9 children per woman is below the rate of 2.1 that is necessary to maintain a stable population. This means that an increasing proportion of the population will be elderly people who must be supported by those currently working. Immigrants fill that gap in the workforce.
The problem comes when immigrants are denied the same labor rights as other workers. Employers use the threat of deportation to pay undocumented workers below minimum wage, refuse to pay them for all the hours they worked and require them to work in dangerous conditions.
Why People Emigrate
People immigrate to the United States for two main reasons: “Pull” factors that make them want to come here, and “push” factors that make them want to leave their home countries. For people in low-wage nations, a main pull factor is the possibility of making more money. That has to be balanced against the difficulty of leaving the communities where they grew up, leaving their family behind and having to learn a new language and adjust to a foreign culture — not to mention the life-threatening risks of crossing the border by trekking through the desert, or paying as much as a year’s income to smugglers.
Many immigrants also don’t understand that the higher wages in the United States also come with a much higher cost of living. In any case, immigrants from poor countries typically send a large proportion of their income to their families back home.
The “push” factors — the need to escape poverty, unemployment and violence — are often more important. Immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are fleeing cities that have among the highest murder rates in the world. The poverty, dictatorships and natural disasters endured by Haiti similarly fuel emigration. In Mexico, the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement devastated farmers and agricultural workers, by allowing imports of cheap U.S.-grown corn to overwhelm the market.
International treaties oblige the United States not only to allow people to apply for asylum from outside the country, but to ask people who are being considered for deportation if they wish to claim asylum. To be granted asylum, people must document a claim that they are being persecuted because of their membership of a cognizable group. Poverty doesn’t qualify, and neither does fleeing a high level of violence, except for domestic violence in places where it is not recognized as a crime.
The United States bears a large part of the responsibility for this, and thus has a moral obligation to ameliorate that damage. It has a long history of intervening militarily or otherwise to support repressive governments — and, from Guatemala in 1954 to Honduras in 2009, to aid or abet the overthrow of democratically-elected governments perceived to be inimical to U.S. corporate interests.
Racism and xenophobia form a lethal combination that threatens to undo many of the achievements of the past in making a better and more just life for Americans. Defending immigrants’ rights is an essential component of any struggle to build a progressive movement in this country.
Paddy Quick is a Professor Emerita of Economics at St. Francis College, Brooklyn and a member of the Union for Radical Political Economists (URPE)
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Illustration by Charlyne Alexis.