Thursday, June 3, 2010

What's Really Behind the Agenda of Immigration Opponents?

By Mikhail Zinshteyn | June 1, 2010 | 6:04 pm


(Flickr/Fibonacci Blue)


With all the fury over the 12 million undocumented aliens living in the United States, exactly what kind of menace do they represent? Reduced crime and job market growth, indicate two sets of separate studies.

As Christopher Dickey observes, immigration opponents, among them Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, point out the relationship between rising crime and undocumented aliens, even though that relationship doesn’t exist. Tim Wadsworth of the University of Colorado at Boulder writes in a paper appearing in this month’s Social Science Quarterly that “growth in immigration may have been responsible for part of the precipitous crime drop of the 1990s.” Cities that underwent the largest increases in immigrant populations “experienced the largest decreases in homicide and robbery,” Wadsworth adds.

Meanwhile, The Uniform Crime Report of the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows major crime falling in immigrant-heavy cities for three years in a row. In metropolises with over one million people, murder fell by 11 percent for 2009 compared to 2008, and by seven percent and 10 percent for instances of violent crime and robbery. Dickey includes more cities with traditionally high immigrant populations that belie concerns immigration—and illegal immigration—contribute to a drop in public safety. Even El Paso maintained a stable crime rate despite its close proximity to drug-war ravaged Juarez, while Arizona’s numbers show six year lows in reported violent crime.

Job opportunity perhaps strikes a greater nerve in the illegal immigrant debate. And it’s not only a pecuniary self-interest that compels many individuals to look down on immigrant populations and the undocumented. As the nationalism and ethnic studies scholar Samuel P. Huntington remarks, national elites view new populations as sources of cheap labor and the expansion of the general job market. Yet, “the public, overall, is concerned with physical security but also with societal security, which involves the sustainability—within acceptable conditions for evolution—of existing patterns of language, culture, association, religion and national identity.”

But politicians cannot outright say their objection to new populations is motivated by some abstraction of what being American means for fear of seeming racist. So they lie, and tell their constituents these new foreign faces steal their jobs. Figures and the testimony of economists across the political spectrum tell a different story. The non-partisan immigration think-tank Migration Policy Institute says immigrants create nearly as many jobs as they occupy. Of the 12 million undocumented aliens living in the United States, over eight million work, purchasing goods with U.S. dollars, earned through hard effort and sometimes in 19th century work conditions.

Daniel Griswold of Cato agrees. Low-skilled workers create higher-skilled job opportunities through the revenue they produce, improving the financial fortunes of Americans with a high school diploma in the long run. That bit about finishing high school is important, since new immigrant labor creates a downward pressure on the wages earned by Americans without a high school degree. But the solution then would be to improve school performance and offer a curriculum that resonates with the students who otherwise dropout—instead of stirring up some caustic brew of nativist sentiment.

And a note on undocumented immigrants and their tax contribution: in 2008 they contributed nine billion dollars to Social Security alone. Many undocumented workers are on business payrolls, meaning come tax month, their income withholdings go straight to Uncle Sam. And unlike low-wage earners living in the States legally, the undocumented do not file tax returns for fear of drawing attention to their residency status. They give more than they receive.

So if draconian immigration laws are not a response to real rising crime nor are they a response to real job displacement, what gives? Why, in the face of evidence that recessions can make certain members of the population underemployed for ten years or more, would James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation conclude businesses must be allowed to break minimum wage laws to kick start the economy? Perhaps Huntington was right in his observation, but wrong in his construction of the relationship. Maintaining an anti-immigrant narrative makes the public hostile to integration measures for the undocumented, keeping twelve million residents disenfranchised and incapable of siding with the one political party they would overwhelmingly support. It also impacts union dues for the types of jobs recently organized by labor unions that welcome the undocumented. Jobs, votes, and collective bargaining—what’s really behind the anti-immigrant agenda.

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