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Myths of U.S. Immigration, Documented and Undocumented

PROFESSOR BEATRICE McKENZIE, Contributor

As the presidential election cycle nears, we can expect to hear calls to secure the borders and deport those who break the law, countered by appeals to secure the rights of people in our communities and put undocumented immigrants on a path to legal status and citizenship.  The debate is riddled with myths.

Myth #1: Liberals support immigration reform and conservatives oppose it.

Not true.  Political scientist Daniel Tichenor offers a classification system of views on immigration held by four constituencies:  cosmopolitans, economic protectionists,  pro-immigration conservatives and border hawks.

“Cosmopolitans,” or pro-immigration liberals, see a problem not with undocumented aliens but with their status as vulnerable second-class citizens.  They want to see the 11 million unauthorized migrants put on a path to legalization and citizenship.

Other liberals, however, “economic protectionists,” believe undocumented immigration benefits corporate and professional Americans at the expense of blue-collar workers and the unemployed.  Protectionists favor employer sanctions and oppose guest worker programs, which exploit workers and take jobs.

Like liberals, conservatives appear on both sides of the issue.  “Pro-immigration conservatives,” who promote free markets and business growth recognize that the U.S. economy is dependent on and benefits from cheap, unskilled, and malleable labor.  They view employer sanctions as unfair to large and small American firms.

Also conservative, “border hawks” see illegal immigration as a challenge to American sovereignty.  Insecure borders, the hawks say, compromise national security, the rule of law, job opportunities for citizens, public education and social services.  “Amnesty,” for border hawks, rewards law-breaking and stimulates new waves of illegal immigrants who then hope for their own amnesty in the future.  This group favors strengthened border security, mass deportations, workplace enforcement and denial of social services and other public benefits.

Myth #2: Undocumented immigrants do not pay taxes.

Not true.  As pointed out by a Harvard University law review article, “every empirical study of illegals’ economic impact… demonstrates that the undocumented contribute more to public coffers in taxes than they cost in social services.”  Undocumented immigrants do use resources, particularly public schools and emergency rooms.  They also pay taxes.  Those who use false social security numbers to get minimum wage jobs in electronics assembly or other industries have federal income tax and social security taxes deducted from their paychecks.  These employees actually pay a higher tax rate than other residents since they are unable to reclaim any overpayment of taxes.  Unlike the wealthiest in our communities, who pay taxes at a much lower rate, these immigrants subsidize citizens and lawful permanent residents who use social security or other federal benefits.  Even those who are paid under the table—let’s say day-laborers or nannies paid in cash—join the rest of us in paying state and local taxes.  They pay taxes when purchasing or renting homes–which pay for schools and other state services–and when purchasing other goods and services.

Myth #3: It’s not about race.

Not true.  U.S. immigration policy through history sought to maintain what race theory scholar David Theo Goldberg calls a “racial state,” one that uses political means–like immigration law–to exclude and include in racially ordered terms and to categorize hierarchically.  There were explicit racial categories built into immigration laws until the middle of the twentieth century, after which Congress and the states began to pass laws with implicit racial consequences.  Highlights include the 1790 Naturalization Act limiting citizenship to “free white people,” the 1870 Act limiting citizenship to whites and blacks, the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone, an imaginary line drawn through the Pacific Ocean blocking “Asians” from immigrating, quotas in 1924 limiting the number of not-quite-white Eastern and Southern Europeans (Italians, Jews, Poles, and Russians among others) the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act writing racial exclusions into national quotas (Ngai), and “Operation Wetback” in which Immigration and Naturalization Service deported Mexicans as a means of labor control (Lytle Hernandez).        

Recent immigration laws and actions implicitly affect people of color more than other groups.  Two examples are California’s Proposition 187, “Save Our State,” passed in 1994, which prohibited residents from accessing emergency health care and public schools and required medical personnel and school teachers to inform on lawbreakers (Jacobson), and Arizona’s strict 2010 law, SB 1070, soon to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The law requires all persons to carry identity documents, police to determine the immigration status of any person suspected of being undocumented, and authorities to detain anyone who cannot produce identity documents.  It’s definitely about race.

Myth #4: Helping out at the border is less important than working locally.

Not true.  Any concerned person could be of use to border organizations with networks already in place, such as Borderlinks, Humane Borders or No More Deaths.  This does not preclude local involvement.  Students who wish to get involved in immigrants’ rights issues here in Beloit can tutor or teach at Stateline Literacy, which offers citizenship, GED, math and computer skills classes.  Beloit alumni and students have interned and found permanent employment at local, regional and national organizations offering immigrant services and promoting immigrants’ rights.  Carol Wickersham at the Liberal Arts in Practice Center can help make contacts.

The debate over immigration is contentious and burdened by political rhetoric.  Yet polls conducted in Dec. 2011 by sources as varied as National Journal, Fox News, Pew Research Organization and Spanish-language Univision conclude that at least 66 percent of Americans support balanced solutions to immigration reform and reject radical solutions such as mass deportations.  There is plenty of room for all opinions in this debate, but know your facts before adding your voice to the conversation.

Beatrice McKenzie, Assistant Professor of History at Beloit College, teaches seminars on the history of U.S. immigration and citizenship.  Her book manuscript, “American at Birth: History of U.S. Birthright Citizenship, 1868-2001” is under review for publication.  Prior to studying for the Ph.D., Dr. McKenzie served as a diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service where, among other duties, she issued visas to intending immigrants and visitors. 

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