The immigration crisis isn’t what you think it is
A solid majority of Americans believe that the surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border is a “crisis.” Some of them, to be sure, decry family separation and violations of the rights of asylum seekers, while others emphasize threats to national security.
That said, many Americans are drawing the wrong conclusions from the crisis. Stigmatizing individuals and families who enter the country legally as well as illegally and denying or downplaying the contributions of undocumented people who have lived and worked here for decades, they do not recognize that increased immigration is essential to addressing inflation and the great and growing labor shortage in the United States.
Drawing on xenophobia, which is deeply embedded in American political culture, and espoused most fervently by white Christian nationalists, Donald Trump has framed the issue of immigration for his MAGA base. He has used the terms “invasion,” “criminals,” “drug dealers,” and “terrorists,” hundreds of times. As he announced his candidacy for president in 2015, Trump declared that Mexico is “not sending their best.” In July 2016, he maintained, without evidence, that “decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens.” In 2018, Trump said “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, without judges or court cases, bring them back from where they came.” And, of course, building a wall became the Trump administration’s actual — and metaphorical — solution to America’s problems.
Not surprisingly, then, a majority of Americans see the surge of migrants as “an invasion,” and 24 percent (39 percent of Republicans) believe, incorrectly, that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes than individuals born in the United States; 38 percent (56 percent of Republicans) believe that immigrants are more likely to use public assistance, and 39 percent (60 percent of Republicans) blame immigrants for smuggling most of the fentanyl into the United States.
Although more than two-thirds of Americans say that legal immigration is a benefit to the country, 31 percent (42 percent of Republicans) claim it is a national problem; 38 percent (two-thirds of Republicans) want to decrease the number of immigrants permitted to enter the country; 79 percent of Republicans think it’s important to deport a large number of the immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally. More than half of Republicans agree that “native-born Americans are being systematically replaced by immigrants.”
While they blame the Biden administration for the crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border that President Trump’s draconian policies did not solve, Congressional Republicans continue to oppose employment-based as well as comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
Xenophobes are drowning out supporters of immigrants from around the world, including asylum seekers, who have been trapped in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic logjam, exacerbated by Trump administration caps on refugees, reductions in temporary employment visas, and cuts in programs and personnel at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
And nativists have made it more difficult to consider compelling evidence that adding immigrants to the labor force will produce a stronger and more competitive American economy.
Between 2010 and 2020, labor economists point out, population growth was the second lowest in U.S. history. In about 12 years, adults 65 or older will outnumber children under 18 for the first time. For every person on Social Security, there will be 2.1 workers paying into a system that needs 2.8 to remain solvent.
COVID-related withdrawals from full-time jobs, most pronounced among seniors, and a dramatic reduction in annual immigration, which by 2021 was one-quarter of what it had been in 2016, have deprived the labor market of about 1.6 million workers.
Legal immigrants constitute 17 percent of the civilian labor force. Including the 7.6 million “illegals,” immigrants fill a large proportion of so-called “unskilled” jobs in agriculture, hotels, restaurants, gardening, housekeeping, and health care that are shunned by many native-born workers. Contrary to the stereotype, immigrants are also well represented in computer science, mathematics, and an array of STEM fields, where job openings now outnumber qualified applicants by about 3 million.
Congress should address the crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border and the status of the 11 million illegal immigrants who live in this country. But inflammatory rhetoric and partisan stunts are not constructive.
Nor should we allow xenophobia to trump a fundamental tenet of the American Creed, represented by the lady with the lamp who resides near Ellis Island, that welcomes immigrants who can help ensure a more prosperous future for themselves and their fellow Americans.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”