I was on a call-in radio show late one night this week to discuss immigration and my new book, Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash. The radio station, WBZ, is a CBS affiliate in Boston that reaches much of the northeast United States, so I expected some conservative blowback to my unapologetically progressive stances, but not much. What I got, though, I wasn’t prepared for: unremitting anger at “illegals” for ripping off the system. This, in liberal Massachusetts.
I was taken aback because my strong sense in researching and writing the book was that the economic argument about unauthorized immigrants — that they are “stealing” jobs native-born Americans would gladly have — was largely a thing of the past. I argued that it was cultural issues — use of Spanish, the threat of crime and terrorism, jumping the line of those wanting to immigrate, and racism — which stirred so much anger.
But the callers and the radio host kept harping on how “illegals” were getting federal and state benefits they didn’t deserve, were undercutting American workers, were lowering wages overall, were stressing schools and hospitals, weren’t paying taxes, and so on: economic issues, perhaps fueled by the cultural anxiety I explained in Dream Chasers, but economic all the same.
Of course, times remain very difficult for people in the lower 75 percent of income in the United States, and immigrants of all kinds have, historically, been among the principal targets of blame for economic stress. Real income growth in the last twenty years has been only 9 percent, with most of the growth coming during the 1990s. People are rightly frustrated, although blaming low-income workers is scarcely warranted.
The effect of unauthorized immigrants on the U.S. economy has been extensively studied by economists, and the dominant conclusion is that such immigration is a net plus for the economy. There may be some impacts on low-skilled workers who do not have a high-school diploma, especially African-Americans. But the effect is very likely to be negligible, given that undocumented immigrants in the workforce are a small fraction of those native-born workers. The Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta found that the lowered wages come to about 0.15 percent, or an average of $56 annually. So the notion that immigrants, by offering labor at cheaper rates, nose out American-born workers, doesn’t stand up.
Likewise, a number of callers as well as the host of the WBZ radio show were incredulous when I claimed that these immigrants pay taxes in rather large sums. One independent estimate has it at $11 billion annually. An exhaustive weighing of expenditures and revenues associated with unauthorized immigrants at the federal, state, and local level by the Congressional Budget Office concludes: “Over the past two decades, most efforts to estimate the fiscal impact of immigration in the United States have concluded that, in aggregate and over the long term, tax revenues of all types generated by immigrants — both legal and unauthorized — exceed the cost of the services they use.”
The latest in the mythological list of economic impacts are the so-called anchor babies — children born in the United States to unauthorized immigrant parents. Welfare benefits accrue, so it’s claimed, from this intentional trick of Latinas, pregnant in Mexico, Central America, or wherever, to sneak into the United States so their child, born in the U.S., will be granted citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which enabled birthright citizenship. It’s true that such children would be eligible for some limited benefits such as food stamps. But no one who is not here legally can get welfare benefits. So the conjecture that families would move across the border, at great personal risk and expense, to acquire food stamps for one family member is, on the face of it, absurd.
Still, the assertion is made, and of course has been taken up with gusto by the GOP White House hopefuls and others in the right-wing blogosphere, who rarely permit empirical evidence to cloud their xenophobia. Yet the percentage of such children born to at least one unauthorized parent who arrived in the country in the last two years is only 9 percent of the total — a clear refutation of the belief that Latina women rush to America to have their babies. The objection to these babies being born here is that they are a burden on schools, hospitals, taxpayers, and so on — assertions that the CBO report and many other studies have long debunked.
What to make of these many false impressions about “illegals” and their impact on the U.S. economy? Many of them have been fostered by the well-funded media empire of right-wing purveyors, from Fox News to television and Web entertainers like Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and Michelle Malkin. But they strike a chord, of course, that is deeply emotional. Since the economic case for deporting massive numbers of undocumented immigrants is weak to nonexistent, something else is at work. And that something else is the cultural anxiety that obsesses Americans who feel they’re losing a grip on an American way of life.
As I’ve argued in Huffington Post previously, this cultural anxiety is powerful. It is stirred by the widespread use of Spanish, the economic doldrums and blame game, and a kind of self-righteousness about legality. (Illegal immigration is a civil infraction, “entry without inspection,” and is not, technically, a crime.) Opponents of reform — legalization and a path to citizenship — focus on these imagined slights and hurts, but ignore the U.S. role in stirring such migration (economic globalization, drug consumption) and the capricious way visa quotas for Mexicans in particular have been manipulated.
Apparently we’re going to hear much more about “illegals” from the GOP campaign, and among their rote talking points will be how harmful such immigrant are for the U.S. economy and workers (as if these candidates have shown any caring for workers before). Standing against such nonsense is not only the humane thing to do, however, but the factual thing to say as well. Immigration is good for America, and everyone benefits.
John Tirman is executive director of the Center for International Studies at MIT, and is author, most recently, of Dream Chasers: Immigration and the American Backlash.