Immigration: Facts vs. mythology

Phil Anderson

Immigrants being processed at Ellis Island in the early 20th century.

“I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true.” - Neil deGrasse Tyson 

“Despite the numerous studies and carefully detailed economic reports outlining the positive effects of immigration, there is a great deal of misinformation about the impact of immigration. Policymakers and the public need to be educated about the facts.” - U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  

“Most Americans are immigrants or descended from immigrants who sought opportunity and freedom on our shores ... Immigrants today continue to become Americans and, in the process, make the United States a wealthier, freer, and safer country.” - The Cato Institute, a far right libertarian, policy research group.  

This article discusses common myths many Americans believe about immigration. The facts presented below are well documented by a wide variety of experts and organizations including liberal, conservative, moderate and non-political sources.

I begin with the false notion that undocumented immigrants are “criminals” that endanger our communities and must be punished for their “crimes.” This is a common theme of the anti-immigrant proponents of “securing the border.” But these beliefs are inaccurate and misleading.

This politically motivated rhetoric is an overreaction to relatively minor violations of law by some immigrants and inhibits rational policy solutions. There are many violations of law that are not criminal offenses. Some of these violations involve doing something without the proper license or permit. You don't get arrested, prosecuted in criminal court, or branded a “criminal” for these minor violations of law. Most violations of immigration laws are in this category.

“Illegal” immigrants are more accurately described as “undocumented” rather than criminals. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) explains that “...violation of the immigration laws is not, standing alone, a crime...undocumented presence alone is not a violation of federal criminal law...Federal immigration laws are principally enforced through civil proceedings administered by the Department of Homeland Security...” and not in criminal courts. (ACLU Immigrants Rights Project, “Issue Brief: Criminalizing Undocumented Immigrants”).

This may seem like splitting hairs, but the impact on immigrants is significant. Detaining undocumented immigrants, including families, in prisons (or prison like conditions) is unjust, inhumane, and violates basic human rights. For asylum seekers it is specifically illegal under both federal and international law.

Detention is also expensive and unnecessary. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) oversees detention in more than 200 federal prisons, local jails and for-profit prisons at a cost of $2.9 billion per year. On a typical day (September 24, 2023, was used) ICE held 35,289 in detention and were monitoring 194,632 families and individuals in Alternatives to Detention programs (source: American Immigration Lawyers Association and TRAC Immigration).

Another widely believed myth is that immigrants are “invading” the country. This myth is based on misleading statistics. There are many people entering and there are more immigrants in total in the country. But the percentage of immigrants in the population is basically stable at about 13%. Three quarters are here legally. Forty five percent of undocumented immigrants came here legally and overstayed their tourist, student or temporary work visas (note that these people didn't cross the Mexican border so a wall will not stop this migration).

Misinformation about the impact of immigrants on the economy is also widespread. A 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found immigration “has an overall positive impact on the long-run economic growth.“ The report found that although first generation immigrants do have a modest cost ($1,600 per person year) the second generation immigrants are “among the strongest fiscal and economic contributors in the U.S.” Like with many economic activities there are up-front costs.

In 2016 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce did a lengthy report called “Immigration Myths and the Facts” (source of the quote above). They say, “The U.S. economy does not contain a fixed number of jobs for which immigrants and native-born workers compete.” Neither do immigrants drive down the wages or hurt communities that are struggling economically.

In fact immigrants have revitalized many communities with business start-ups and willingness to take unpopular jobs. Immigrants are necessary to replace (and care for) aging baby boomers. Both legal and undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars in taxes each year. Immigrants do not come here for the “generous” welfare benefits. Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for most public assistance programs and legal immigrants face stringent eligibility restrictions.

The Migration Policy Institute reports that “immigrants and their U.S.-born children have been the main drivers of U.S. workforce growth in recent years...They were responsible for 83 percent of labor force growth between 2010 and 2018...”

Future growth in the working-age population is expected to largely come from immigrants and their children. Immigrants are more likely to start new businesses than native-born Americans. This is not just for ethnic restaurants. The Mercatus Center at George Mason University says immigrants founded “over half of new businesses valued at more than $1 billion in 2016. Among Fortune 500 companies, 40 percent were founded by immigrants or their children.”

A look at demographic statistics on undocumented immigrants dispels other common myths. (source: Migration Policy Institute, “Unauthorized Immigrant Population Profiles”).

Most (71%) are 25-54 years old and in their prime working years.

Most (65%) age 16 and older are employed. Only 4% are unemployed. Twenty one percent work in in construction, 16% in hospitality and food services and 14% in professional, scientific or management occupations.

Most (74%) have family income above the poverty level. Twenty eight percent are homeowners.

Most (62%) have been in the U.S. for 10 years or more and 22% have been here for over 20 years. For adults 25 or over 46% have 12 years or less of education, 24% completed high school, 12% have some college or a 2 year degree and 18% have bachelor or professional degree.

About half (47%) speak English well or very well. Most children of undocumented immigrants (73%) are U.S. citizens by birth.

None of this implies we should not regulate the flow of immigrants. But we need to do this based on facts, rational thinking and effective public policies. The conservative Mercatus Center says, “The most cost-effective policy for reducing illegal immigration remains the expansion of opportunities for legal entry and work.”

Instead of spending billions to “secure the border” we need to fund a more rational, humane and efficient process to manage immigration.