Author’s note: as we enter the longest government shutdown in American history as 2019 unfolds because of Trump’s border wall delusions, my look at the immigration debate from 2015 is still deeply relevant.
Anti-immigrant Americans in the mid-nineteenth century were known as “Know-Nothings,” a title well-deserved for Republicans when it comes to the immigration issue today.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse August 27, 2015
AMMAN — Illegal immigration is seldom not in the political spotlight these days. Prominent Republican politicians, in particular, are quick to emphasize the supposed massive harm that illegal immigration causes the United States and its legal citizens and residents. Calls to deport all illegal immigrants are now routine and regular among leading contenders for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination for the 2016 election. In fact, the consistent Republicans leader and front-runner in the polls of late, businessman and reality-TV personality Donald Trump, seems to talk about this issue more forcefully and more prominently that any other candidate. Add to this fact that he seems to be getting a nearly unlimited amount of press coverage and the situation is clear: illegal immigration is currently one of the most talked about political issues, possibly the most talked about issue, and looks to be a dominant topic throughout the 2016 election season, with or without Trump.
Leading Republicans, especially Mr. Trump, have made some bold claims about illegal immigration: who the immigrants are, what effect they are having on our country and economy, what solutions will best work towards addressing the problem. Here, we will get to bottom of the real nature of the human beings who come to work and live in the United States illegally and the effects they collectively have on America as a whole and the states where they are most numerous. Then we will look at what some of the leading Republicans are saying, and see how that squares with the reality of the situation.
The Current State of Illegal Immigration
Pew presents research that shows illegal immigrants living in the U.S. peaked after a steady increase of many years in 2007 when they reached 12.2 million people (about 4% of America’s population then). That level has since reached a relatively stable level and has declined from its 2007 peak of 12.2 million to 11.3 million in 2014 (3.5% of the U.S. population), and was as low as 11.2 million in 2012. These people represent 26% of America’s foreign-born population, down from 30% in 2007. That means that, roughly, for every four foreign-born people that enter the U.S. and stay, three do so legally. A little over half of the illegal population (52 %) are Mexicans as of 2012 but this percentage is in decline, as are their absolute numbers, to 5.9 million down from 6.4 million in 2009. At the same time, illegal immigrants from other some other parts of world have slightly increased. After Mexico, for 2013 only El Salvador had an illegal immigrant population that is more than 5% of the total illegal population, and only slightly so. The country with the next highest number of its people living illegally in the U.S. is Guatemala, with a little under 5%. India comes next, in the middle between 4% and 3%, followed by Honduras and then China, with a bit under 3% each. The only other country that broke 2% was the Philippines, and only slightly. The Dominican Republic follows at close to 2%, with South Korea slightly behind. The only other countries that are each contributing at least 1% of the total illegal U.S. population, in descending order, are Ecuador, Colombia, Haiti, Vietnam, Peru, and Brazil, the last three at 1% and the others only slightly above this.
As of 2013, almost sixteen percent had arrived just recently (less than five years prior), over 24% had been in the U.S. from five to nine years, over 28% percent had been in the U.S. from ten to fourteen years, 14.5% had been in America for fifteen to nineteen years, and 17% for at least twenty years. Combining elements of this data, we can see that in 2013 over 40% of illegal immigrants had been living in the U.S. for less than a decade, while almost 32% had been here for at least fifteen years. The largest number of illegal immigrants, over 28% of the total, arrived from 2000 to 2004 and about 24% arrived from 2005-2009. This means that about a little over one-half the total illegal immigrant population arrived in the decade of 2000-2009 (for those looking for political “blame,” George W. Bush was president for almost that entire time, meaning more of the current illegal immigrants arrived under his presidency than under any other president). About 17% arrived from 1995-1999, and about 11% from 1990 to 1994 (28% overall from that decade). About 12% have arrived from 2010 on, and only about 8.5% before 1990, although it should be remembered that in 1986 the Reagan Administration gave legal status to about 2.7 million illegal immigrants who had entered the U.S. before 1982 after Congress passed a law authorizing Reagan to do so in 1986. Further action by Reagan and his successor, George H. W. Bush, added to this number and brought it closer to three million than 2.7 million. In addition, many Cuban immigrants have legal status in the U.S. as the special situation between Cuba and the U.S. over the decades since Castro’s revolution gave way to special policy, law, and agreements for people arriving to the U.S. from Cuba, giving them legal status in ways that if they were not specifically Cuban would have left them part of the illegal immigrant community. As of 2013, over 1.1 million people born in Cuba were living in the U.S, the product of a half-century of these special policies.
The recent decline in illegal immigration is in part due to the Great Recession; since 2009, about 350,000 people each year (100,000 of them Mexican) have entered the U.S. illegally, but this represents a dramatic decline in the number of immigrants from over a decade ago, when far more people were coming to the U.S. illegally and far more illegal immigrants as a share of the total pool were recent arrivals, with the proportion of illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for at least a decade almost doubling since 2000 while the proportion who have been in the U.S. for less than five years being more than halved since 2000.
Also, from 2009 to 2012, the illegal immigration population fell in fourteen states and rose in only seven. Illegal populations decreased in Oregon, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, New York, Massachusetts, and grew in Idaho, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Jew Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Florida. The six states of Texas, Florida, California, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey together have 60 % of the illegal immigrant population in the country, and Nevada is the state with the highest proportion of its population (8 %) consisting of illegal immigrants. Nevada also stands out as the state with the highest percentage of K-12 students who have at least one illegal immigrant parent (18%), while next-highest are the states of California, Texas, and Arizona, where that number is between 13% and 11%. Overall in the U.S., about 7% of all K-12 students fall under this category, with almost four-fifths of those being born in the U.S. Illegal immigrants also make up 5.1 % of the labor force, a rather high percentage considering they just account for 3.5% of the population. The states with the highest percentage of illegal immigrants in their labor forces (ranging from 10% to 8%) are Nevada, California, Texas, New Jersey, and, again, Nevada leads the pack with 10% (for those wanting more data on illegal immigrant populations state-by-state you can look here and here).
As far as their socio-economic status, in 2013 illegal immigrants were almost twice as likely be living in poverty (27.6%) than the population as whole (14.5%, taken from census data including illegal immigrants), are far less educated—only 13.6 % of illegal immigrant adults had at least a college degree and only a little more than half had successfully finished high school compared with 31% and almost nine out of ten for the whole population, respectively—and are much less likely to have health insurance, with only about one-third of illegal immigrants having coverage compared with over 86.8% of Americans in general.
Republicans might be particularly surprised to learn about illegal immigrants’ contributions to the U.S. system overall. At the federal level, their tax contributions far outweigh any financial payments they receive. For example, Illegal immigrants pay about $15 billion in payroll taxes each year into Social Security, but only take about $1 billion in benefits, and over the years they have paid about $300 billion into Social Security, accounting for 10% of the contributions even though they are only about 3.5% of the population (and never more than their 4%-2007-peak) and are only about 5% of the labor force. They also paid $11.84 billion in 2012 alone in state and local taxes with about 8% of their income (compared with 5.4% of the income for the richest 1% of Americans). Only a small percentage of illegal immigrants receive any type of federal benefits, even though they still often pay payroll taxes that go to Social Security and Medicare. Giving all illegal immigrants temporary legal work permits could bring in as much as $2.2 billion more in state and local taxes. President Obama is trying to do this for a 5.2 out of America’s 11.4 million illegal immigrants through executive action (which would generate about $845 million in new state and local taxes if fully implemented), despite lawsuits from twenty-six states, twenty-four of which have Republican governors, that have put his program on hold.
While there is some variation at the state and local level, state and local costs associated with illegal immigration are an overall small percentage of state and local spending, and have only a “modest” effect on state and local budgets (averaging 5% of the relevant programs), an impact that is greatly offset by state and local taxes paid by illegal immigrants and by federal assistance for covering these costs, though not wholly offset, with some states pulling in modestly less revenue relative to expenditures related to illegal immigrants and other states (e.g., Texas) pulling in significantly morerevenue from them than they spend on them. These numbers only relate to state revenues and expenditures, and do not even factor in other much-harder-to-measure but very significant economic benefits for the states’ economies (e.g., illegal immigrant consumer spending, productivity and contribution to states’ GDPs, and the costs employers save by paying relatively low wages to them).
As for crime, immigrants tend to be imprisoned less often than native-born Americans (one-fifth the rate of native-born Americans and decreasing significantly over the years), seeming to have either or a combination of less of a crime-committing tendency or being “more responsive to deterrent effects” and going out of their way to avoid any problems with law enforcement. This is also true across all immigrant groups, from Indians and Bulgarians to Mexicans and Guatemalans. However, it should also be noted that the data of this study was not able to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. Crime also decreased nationally as illegal immigration increased and crime decreased even more so in states with large immigrant populations, with immigration even seeming to actually decrease crime in cities. Even statistics that show proportions of illegal immigrants in federal prisons are relatively high for violent crimes are incredibly misleading, as almost all of these crimes are handled by state and local authorities; for example, the statistic that illegal immigrants in 2013 were 9.2% of all federal prisoners held on murder charges might seem bad, but this only involved eight cases. In short, there is no data linking illegal immigrants or specific groups of them, such as Mexicans, with higher rates of committing violent or drug-related crimes than the native-born American population. In fact, four out of five drug-related arrests by the U.S. Border Patrol—and this does not include normal domestic arrests, only those made by the Border Patrol—involved American citizens. This suggests the problems are not so much about Mexicans bringing drugs into the U.S. from Mexico, but, rather, Americans bringing drugs in from Mexico and, more generally, the high American demand for illegal drugs.
Many Republicans “Know-Nothing” About Immigration As an Issue or How to Handle It and Their Harsh Approach to Immigrants Matches Their Harsh Approach to Everything Else
The current leader—and dominantly so, from polls to media coverage—among the Republican presidential candidates, real estate mogul and reality-TV-personality Donald Trump—has called for deporting all 11+ million illegal immigrants, as well as any of their American-born children, whom are derisively called “anchor babies” by Trump and those with harsh views on immigration but whom are widely accepted to be defined as citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Such a move would cost at least hundreds of billions of dollars to well over a half-trillion and take as long as twenty years, and if associated economic costs are included, could cost closer to $1 trillion for America overall. Trump’s comments also suggest he clearly believes that many illegal immigrants are criminals: drug traffickers, murderers, rapists, etc. But Trump’s plan and views on illegal immigration, like many Republicans and conservatives’ views on this issue, are based on a highly inaccurate fantasy of “false assumptions” that is light on facts and heavy on mythology. Trump seems to be dragging other candidates down with him on this issue, too.
Critics of the Tea Party and the Republican Party often find a dearth of rationality and practical or forward thinking; that in 2015 the number one issue in the Republican nomination contest—illegal immigration—is, as noted above, a problem that has dramatically lessened in severity, volume, and proportionality has done little to reduce the incessant importance of this issue in the conservative/Republican mind. With America as a nation facing real-life severe, looming crises and with most of the of the oxygen in the political discussion of one of America’s two major political parties being burned focusing on a problem that is becoming far less of an actual problem while other problems only increase with severity, there is little to respect in that party—the Republican Party—as being worthy of serious consideration for taking over the reins of governance of our modern super-state replete with crises requiring serious, rational, and grown-up solutions. America is hardly the only place where such xenophobia is growing, for one only needs to look at Europe in recent years, for example, to dispel such a notion. And as alarming as the recent nativist wave should be for all Americans and people in the world for whom a well-governed, rational America tackling its crises head-on and being an example worthy of emulation and alliance throughout the world, the emergence of xenophobia in this time of crises should also hardly be surprising. There is nothing new in America having a fluctuating undercurrent of nativism, or anti-immigrant feeling, hinged with anything from a hint of intolerance to outright bigotry and violence (just watch Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York to get a loose sense for this vibe in years past), but in the year 2015, to see a party—its leaders and base of constituents—so crudely consumed by blind, ignorant, and irrational fear and hatred of “the other” is banal in the most tedious and hackneyed sense.
While many of us are ready to move forward into the twentieth century, too many others are stuck in the nineteenth. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton came out with a bold new plan to tackle the $1.2 trillion student loan debt-bubble and college financing, put forth a detailed economic plan that emphasizes raising median and women’s income, proposed a bold environmental/energy policy that even exceeds President Obama’s recently proposed plan, laid out an immigration policy that would give millions of hard working, law-abiding illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, and spoke out passionately about the racism in American society and in its criminal justice system. A Republican Party that lost the last two presidential elections by losing a majority of all American gender and ethnic categories by more than ten percentage points (and often far more) except males as a group and whites as a group is running on defining an exclusive America that rejects or ignores others—illegal immigrants, homosexuals, the poor and uninsured (Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Scott Walker both just released health care plans that would dramatically lessen assistance for the poor and uninsured, those people most in need of healthcare)—is now seeking to build a community and constituency of Americans based on existing affluence, privileges, rights, and opportunities and that takes care of it members through the distribution of benefits through the system while excluding from these benefits those who are currently shut outside of this community. How this party expects to win in the face of changing American demographics that very much do not favor white voters and will only make such strategieseven less likely to succeed than in the past is a mystery for which no one has an answer. It is the 2012 election’s “makers vs. takers” debate all over again, and is the political equivalent of a town election campaign based on shifting resources to the nice, gated communities of homeowners and away from those outside these gated community—immigrants, the poor, the uninsured, perpetual renters, homeless, and those struggling while working part-time jobs with no benefits.
For such a campaign, America is a gated community where those with means should band together; in the immigration debate, this is about keeping “non-Americans” out of the community and shutting the gate, but this theme runs rampant through all the other Republicans’ policies, generally speaking, except those who are to be shut out are no longer illegal immigrants without American citizenship, but American citizens of much lesser means looking for ways into the gated community but whose chances are all but crushed by a society that keeps punishing them for their lack of means. All this is part of a general redistribution of wealth, energy, and resources away from the needy and to the affluent. If many Republicans want to deport millions of illegal immigrants, this same crowd also wants to deport millions of Americans not from the soil of our nation but from the rolls of welfare, Medicaid, educational assistance, affirmative action, Obamacare, and other programs that make a major difference in the lives of those Americans without means. Thus, immigration warfare and class warfare are in many ways one in the same, from the same exclusive heart and spirit that captures so much of today’s conservative movement.
One final point: 72% of Americans are against forcing illegal immigrants to leave America, with only 27% against letting them stay; this even includes a majority of Republicans (56%), but you would not know this from listening to many of the leading Republican candidates.
Time for Republicans to Look to Lincoln
In thinking about immigration as an issue, perhaps the greatest Republican—Abraham Lincoln—can be the most instructive even 150 years later. In Lincoln’s time and before the Civil War, a new political party emerged, popularly called the “Know Nothings” and officially called the (Native) American Party (it doesn’t get more nativist than that for an official title!). They were virulently anti-immigrant and would likely capture the same people that in today’s America that are so angry and paranoid about immigration. For Lincoln, the anti-immigrant sentiment was dangerously similar to proslavery sentiment. In a speech given shortly after Independence Day in 1858, Lincoln noted how that holiday was often celebrated by the descents of the Americans who fought the Revolution as a day to celebrate both their ancestors and their connection to these ancestors. He continues:
But after we have done all this we have not yet reached the whole. There is something else connected with it. We have besides these men—descended by blood from our ancestors—among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe—German, Irish, French and Scandinavian—men that have come from Europe themselves, or whose ancestors have come hither and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, [loud and long continued applause] and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world. [Applause.]
Thus, for Lincoln, a shared love of freedom and equality within immigrant and native-born alike united all as Americans. But also for Lincoln, discriminating against a black man in America was the same as discriminating against a German man or anyone else:
Now, sirs, for the purpose of squaring things with this idea of “don’t care if slavery is voted up or voted down,” for sustaining the Dred Scott decision [A voice—“Hit him again”], for holding that the Declaration of Independence did not mean anything at all, we have Judge Douglas giving his exposition of what the Declaration of Independence means, and we have him saying that the people of America are equal to the people of England. According to his construction, you Germans are not connected with it. Now I ask you in all soberness, if all these things, if indulged in, if ratified, if confirmed and endorsed, if taught to our children, and repeated to them, do not tend to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this Government into a government of some other form. Those arguments that are made, that the inferior race are to be treated with as much allowance as they are capable of enjoying; that as much is to be done for them as their condition will allow. What are these arguments? They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument of the Judge is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. Turn in whatever way you will—whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent, and I hold if that course of argumentation that is made for the purpose of convincing the public mind that we should not care about this, should be granted, it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out!
In an 1859 letter of Lincoln’s in which he wrote why he would not support certain anti-immigrant initiatives, Lincoln expressed his disdain of any measure based on the exclusion of people:
Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them. I have some little notoriety for commiserating the oppressed condition of the negro; and I should be strangely inconsistent if I could favor any project for curtailing the existing rights of white men, even though born in different lands, and speaking different languages from myself.
An earlier 1855 letter has Lincoln expressing a deep sadness with the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment:
I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “ all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.
Well, it sure seems Lincoln would feel despair in reaction to his own Republican Party today on the issue of immigration (not to even mention others). As usual with Lincoln, I find myself as a writer humbled in reading him, and at this point I cannot “add or detract” to his poetic words. Perhaps no other American can so beautifully and simply express how anti-American it is to be anti-immigrant. Trump and other Republican presidential hopefuls are missing the facts of reality in their framing of this issue. But when it comes to the spirit of their sentiment, it is their own Lincoln they should read to can see how deeply wrong they truly are.
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