Immigration: The Facts Lead Us in a Different Direction

In November 2007, the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors reducing immigration, released a report entitled “Immigrants in the United States, 2007: A Profile of America’s Foreign-Born Population.”   The report was covered widely in the media, and the author, Center staff researcher Steven Camarota, was given many opportunities to repeat his main theme: that immigration in the United States is now at unprecedented levels, and the new immigrants “create enormous strains on social services” because many of them are uneducated.

An excellent piece in the San Diego North County Times by Wayne A. Cornelius, a professor of political science at the University of California-San Diego, shows that the report spins its facts and statistics to give “a relentlessly negative view of the most recent wave of immigration.”  But what about Camarota’s broader claim that the “record” number of uneducated immigrants is creating a major problem for the country?

Actually, the percentage of foreign-born people in the total population was higher between 1900 and 1910, when many of the grandparents of today’s white Americans arrived from Europe.  Many of those immigrants were also uneducated.  A decent public education system (including subsidized higher education) and a system that privileges white people meant that their children had fewer barriers to success than the children of today’s wave of immigrants, the majority of whom do not trace their ancestry to Europe.

About a third of the newer immigrants have another barrier our grandparents didn’t face: a lack of legal status.  The earlier wave of immigrants from Europe came “legally” — because no laws had been written to keep them out.  (The first immigration laws, written in the 1870s and 1880s, were designed to keep out the Chinese.)  Virtually all immigrants would prefer to live here “legally” — with permission from the federal government — but many immigrants now have no options even to seek such permission.  If they don’t stand in line, it’s because there’s no line for them to stand in.

The existence of a large underclass of people who are denied their rights — as workers and as human beings — negatively impacts the labor market.  Earlier waves of immigrants from Europe were also exploited in low-wage jobs, but because they didn’t have to fear deportation, they were able to organize and fight for their rights.  They built a new labor movement, which won such gains as the eight-hour day, health and safety laws, and the minimum wage.

Camarota stresses that today’s undocumented immigrants and their children make up a large segment of the people without health insurance (implying that they strain public health services, although in fact they access health services at a much lower rate than the native-born).  But if people with a lower level of education are less likely to have the kind of jobs that provide health insurance, who is to blame?  Aren’t employers shafting taxpayers by refusing to provide workers with health coverage, thus forcing them to seek publicly supported medical care?

It’s probably true that low-paid immigrants contribute less in taxes than middle-class US citizens — though low-paid immigrants certainly contribute a larger share of their income, thanks to regressive taxes (on sales, for example).  But large corporations and the wealthiest citizens often get away with paying little or nothing in taxes.  And how many of our tax dollars are wasted on destructive policies like the war in Iraq?

Camarota’s proposed solution is to get rid of immigrants with less education.  Here’s a better solution, a five-point plan that would be much more effective at resolving the problems Camarota raises:

  1. Grant immigrants legal status, so they don’t have to fear deportation and can better defend their rights.  A big push of labor organizing will drive wages up for everyone.
  2. Get rid of trade policies like NAFTA and CAFTA, which increase poverty in Latin America and force many people to seek a better future beyond their borders.
  3. Stop spending tax dollars on wars that cause devastation and mass displacement of civilians.
  4. Improve health and education for everyone, so that the next generation has more opportunities.
  5. Confront the institutionalized racism that acts as a barrier to equality.

Jane Guskin is co-author, with David L. Wilson, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, July 2007).

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