Immigration is taking center stage in the 2016 presidential primaries, and the arguments on the Republican side are fueled by fear, innuendo, and misinformation.
Republican candidates’ public statements on immigration have been troubling, to put it gently. Donald Trump’s remarks about the criminality of Mexican immigrants and his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States shocked some people early in the campaign season. Then there is Senator Ted Cruz’s new advertisement, titled “Invasion.” The main scene dramatizes a border crossing with white men and women dressed in suits, carrying briefcases and laptops as they run across a desert after a treacherous river crossing.
The narrator, Cruz, says that if those coming across the Rio Grande to the U.S. were bankers, lawyers, or journalists, then the media would be more concerned about how these immigrants were driving down wages. Cruz even claims that the arrival of immigrants from Latin America has led to the “economic calamity that has befallen our nation.”
Trump’s first official campaign ad shows a scene where a large number of people appear to be running over a border wall. The implication is that these are immigrants trying to illegally cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump’s ad ends with a statement about how he will “make America great again.” But, as many have already pointed out, the accompanying photograph was, instead, an aerial shot taken in Morocco of migrants crossing into Melilla.
Based on fear and propaganda rather than fact, these ads draw on traditional anxieties: Immigrants take jobs away from Americans, drive down wages, and negatively affect the economy overall. These three myths have inspired immigration policies that are dangerous, as well as economically, politically, and morally wrong—all based on thoroughly inaccurate assessments of what immigration actually looks like.
MYTH #1: IMMIGRANTS TAKE JOBS FROM AMERICANS
While the unemployment figures over the past decade have been dismal, they are not the result of an immigrant influx into the labor force. Nonetheless, some economists like to argue that this happens during periods of economic recession and that immigrants continue to experience a net gain, while the U.S.-born workers experience a net loss in employment.
But most credible reports say that, while immigrants have had employment gains in recent years, they are not displacing other low-skilled workers.
In an October 2015 analysis of Census Bureau data, the Urban Institute showed that the number of U.S.-born workers without a college degree has declined over the past decade. And because immigrants tend to get low-skilled jobs, they are not displacing these other workers in the way alarmists would have us believe.
As University of California–Davis Economics Professor Giovanni Peri explained in a paper delivered to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco in 2010, “immigrants expand the U.S. economy’s productive capacity, stimulate investment, and promote specialization that in the long run boosts productivity.” He adds, “there is no evidence that these effects take place at the expense of jobs for workers born in the United States.”
MYTH #2: IMMIGRANTS DRIVE DOWN WAGES
A report published by the National Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2014 demonstrates that the arrival of both low-skilled and highly educated immigrants in STEM fields actually raises the wages of U.S.-born workers.
The arrival of immigrants admitted by the H-1B visa program between 1990 and 2010, for example, enriched the U.S. economy by $615 billion, benefitting countless workers.
These conclusions are echoed in a 2008 study published in the Journal of Political Economy. As more low-skilled immigrants arrive in the U.S., the cost for service labor—like gardening and housekeeping—decreases. The larger U.S. population sees an overall benefit in purchasing power and wages.
A 2010 Center for American Progress report takes it one step further. It argues that, by granting authorized status to all immigrants and creating policy that allows for more immigrant laborers to arrive, not only would the overall economy benefit tremendously, but so too would all workers.
Critics of Obama’s immigration policy claim that low-wage, U.S.-born workers without high school diplomas do not experience wage increases because the influx of immigrant workers drive down service or manual labor wages.
Yet a report issued by the Economic Policy Institute in 2015 points to the real causes of wage decreases or stagnation: namely, policy shifts away from a focus on full employment, declining union power, and top-heavy business practices. Another factor, according to the report includes “policies that have allowed CEOs and finance executives to capture ever larger shares of economic growth.”
MYTH #3: IMMIGRANTS ARE CROSSING OVER IN GREATER NUMBERS
At the turn of the last century, immigrants made up between 13 and 15 percent of the U.S. population, with the peak occurring in 1890. Today, immigrants compose approximately 13 percent of the total U.S. population.
The undocumented immigrant population declined after the recession, while the overall immigrant population—which includes highly skilled immigrants from across the globe—increased only slightly. These numbers do not demonstrate a dramatically accelerating percentage of immigrant competition in the labor market.
Meanwhile, as demographers at the Pew Research Center point out in a 2015 report, the undocumented population in the U.S. dropped significantly during the recession and has since remained steady.
And what of the portion of the immigrant population who are rhetorical targets for Trump and Cruz?
Since 2009, more than one million Mexican immigrants left the U.S. for Mexico. With fewer Mexican immigrants arriving, the result has been a net loss of Mexican immigrants in the U.S.
There is also furor on the right over an increase in the influx of undocumented immigrants from Central America recently. It is true that more Central Americans are fleeing violence and seeking refuge in the U.S., but this latest influx has nonetheless accompanied a decrease in the overall undocumented population.
As President Obama asked during his State of the Union address: “How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, instead of what’s worst?”
To that end, the Republican candidates vying for the top office in our country need to rely on facts as they debate and perhaps decide immigration policy.