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Immigration -- Legal or Illegal -- Is Good for the Country

Marc Jampole
June 25, 2017
by Marc Jampole From the Summer 2017 issue of Jewish Currents LIKE MOST of the battles between left and right in contemporary America, the fight over the role of immigration and immigrants has strong ideological and emotional components. Most people on the left believe that the United States is and should be a secular and pluralistic nation built on immigrants. We leftists rejoice in the diversity of beliefs, customs, cuisine, music, and cultural experiences that each new wave of immigrants has injected into American life. Moreover, traditional leftists, among whom I count myself, are at heart internationalists who think that all human beings deserve a quality education, health care, access to employment, and equal protection under the law, which certainly biases our views in favor of opening borders and providing government benefits to undocumented workers. Internationalism, a pillar of Marxist ideology, also makes leftists willing to absorb and embrace refugees, especially from nations like Iraq, Syria, and Guatemala, whose displaced populations are suffering, at least in part, because of past or present actions of the American Imperium. Love, empathy, charity, and mercy are the operating emotions for leftists. Emotions also underscore the right-wing’s view of immigration — fear, hate, anger, and a feeling of cultural and racial superiority. We can trace fear and disdain of the “other” as far back as the beginnings of the European presence in North America. It is well-entrenched in right-wing ideology, as is the belief that the American democracy is not built, at its core, on pluralism and equality but on an inherent superiority of northern Europeans practicing laissez-faire capitalism. The American right’s attitude towards immigration betrays a larger arrogance that believes in American moral exceptionalism and propels the right to reinterpret self-serving foreign adventurism as altruistic nation-building. The right rationalizes the emotional and ideological underpinnings of their dislike of immigrants with claims that immigrants, especially illegal ones, hurt the domestic economy, commit many more crimes than the native-born, and threaten America with terrorism. Rightwingers present these propositions as proven facts, then use these so-called facts to bolster the idea that liberals and progressives are irrational bleeding hearts lacking the toughness to deal with complex issues. But when we put aside the ideological and emotional arguments of both sides and focus on the realities of economics and crime, we discover that the right is just dead wrong. Virtually all peer-reviewed research disproves the notions that illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans, suppressing wages, or committing many more crimes than the native-born. In fact, current research supports the ideas that immigrants help the economy and commit fewer crimes per capita than native-born Americans. As it turns out, the humane and internationalist approach to immigration preferred by the left is also the rational choice, even when we limit our rational analysis to the rightwing concerns about the economy and crime. LET'S START with an extensive study by economics professors Andri Chassamboulli and Giovanni Peri, which found that deporting illegal immigrants hurts job possibilities for native-born Americans, while legalization of the undocumented increases employment opportunities for citizens. In other words, sending the undocumented home, as the Trump Administration wants to do, hurts the economy. What Chassamboulli, from the University of Cyprus, and Peri, from the University of California-Davis, did in a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper titled, “The Labor Market Effects of Reducing Undocumented Immigrants,” was to develop a computer model of the American and Mexican job markets and then evaluate what happened when they changed a number of variables, such as deportation of undocumented workers. The two economists analyzed the potential impact of four policies: 1) increasing border enforcement to reduce illegal immigration; 2) increasing the costs that illegal immigrants face in looking for a job, such as eliminating access to benefits; 3) increasing the frequency of deportations; 4) increasing the probability of legalization. Their big finding was that increasing the deportation of immigrants to cut the total number of all undocumented by 50 percent would raise the unemployment rate for native-born workers by about 1.6 percent and even reduce the purchasing power of their wages by a tiny amount, .08 percent. If, instead of reducing the number of illegal immigrants by deportation, we made them all legal, the unemployment rate of native-born Americans falls by 4 percent, while their wages rise by .19 percent. Chassamboulli and Peri checked and rechecked their results from various points of view and came to the same conclusions each time: that creating a path to citizenship helps all workers, while deporting the undocumented harms them. The basic mechanism is that mass deportation usually leads to a shrinking economy by reducing the overall population, which in turn reduces the demand for workers and the size of the overall economy. Deporting an undocumented job-holder may (or may not) free up a job for a native-born American, but it will likely lead to a reduction of demand for goods and services by two, three, four or more people (each worker typically supports a family). Thus the humane approach to addressing the status of the approximately 11 million undocumented people living in the United States is also the one that’s best for the economy: create a path to citizenship. WHAT ABOUT the terrible threat to our neighborhoods posed by the mass of murderers, rapists and drug dealers among immigrants, legal and illegal? Turns out, no such threat exists. Those who actually run the numbers have established time and again through the years that immigrants do not commit more violent crimes than the overall population. Census numbers tell the story: A smaller percentage of immigrants are in jail than are those born in the United States. Walter Ewing, Daniel E. Martínez and Rubén G. Rumbaut, three researchers at the American Immigration Council, found that roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males age 18-39 are incarcerated, compared to 3.3 percent of the native-born. This disparity in incarceration rates has existed for decades: The 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010 censuses all showed that the incarceration rates for the native-born were from two to five times higher the rates for immigrants. Professor Jörg Spenkuch of the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management recently took a different approach to assessing how much crime is committed by immigrants. Instead of poring over census numbers, which are self-reported, Spenkuch crunched twenty years’ worth of numbers from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, and the local records of every county in the continental United States that lists the percentage of local residents who are immigrants. He found that increased immigration has absolutely no impact on violent crime and only a miniscule impact on property crimes. Spenkuch estimates that a 10 percent increase in the number of immigrants would lead to a 1-1.2 percent increase in property crimes. He finds this slight increase in property crimes to be inconsequential when compared to both the enormous economic benefit derived from the undocumented, and a reduction in the annual cost of border patrols. Some sociologists have argued that if undocumented immigrants threatened public safety, municipalities from which more undocumented workers are removed would see crime rates decline. In an article in Criminology & Public Policy, Professors Elina Treyger (George Mason University Law School), Aaron Chalfin (University of Cincinnati Law School), and Charles Loeffler (University of Pennsylvania) examined the results of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Secure Communities program, which requires local law enforcement officials to share information with federal immigration officials at the time of booking. The professors discovered that the program, which takes illegal immigrants out of communities, has not led to a reduction in crime. If lowering the number of illegal immigrants in a community does not lead to a decrease in crime, then illegal immigration must not be causing additional crime. These are a sampling of the extensive research demonstrating that immigration does not lead to more crime, violent or otherwise. Various studies examine the issue from a number of points of view and methodologies. Some take a national approach, and others focus on communities or ethnic groups, such as Hispanics and Mexicans. All come to the same conclusion: immigration does not increase crime. One provocative study goes even further, asserting that legalizing the status of the undocumented may lead to a serious reduction in property crime. In “Effects of Immigrant Legalization on Crime,” published in a recent issue of American Economic Review, Scott Baker, a professor of finance at the Kellogg School, studied the impact of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). In one fell swoop, IRCA effectively legalized all undocumented residents of the U.S., almost three million people. Baker compared what happened to crime rates in geographic areas in which a lot of undocumented individuals gained legal status versus geographic areas where few legalizations occurred. He took into account economic conditions, declines in drug crimes, changes in policing, and other common explanations for the reduction of crime rates in the late 1980s and early 1990s. His conclusion: The IRCA’s massive legalization led to a 3 to 5 percent decline in all crime, especially property crimes. Thus the legalization of undocumented workers today could lead to a further decline in the crime rates, already at historic lows. IF IMMIGRATION, legal and illegal, does not raise the crime rate, why does the public persistently believe that it does? It’s easy to blame the news media for not reporting any of the studies cited in this article, but Deneesh and Tracy Sohoni, two sociologists at the College of William & Mary, depict an interplay in ignorance between the media and its audience. In “Perceptions of Immigrant Criminality: Crime and Social Boundaries,” published in a recent issue of The Sociological Quarterly, the Sohonis analyze reporting on immigration in, and the perceptions of readers of, the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg, Virginia. Of the 196 texts the Sohonis analyze, readers of the paper wrote 145, more than 70 percent, so the analysis reveals as much if not more about the misperceptions of the readers as it does about the sins of the publication. The Sohonis find that there are several ways that readers and reporters promote the myth that immigrants cause more crime. Readers in particular use the terms “Hispanic,” “illegal” and “immigrant” interchangeably, thus equating all immigrants and Hispanics with illegality. Reporters, columnists and readers all display what the Sohonis call an “innumeracy” about immigration, often overestimating the numbers of illegal immigrants crossing the border and applying numbers about a small population to much larger groups. The media, for its part, place too great a focus on high-profile criminal acts committed by immigrants. The media will also often mention a suspect’s immigrant status in police-blotter stories, but not the status of non-immigrant arrestees, contributing to the public perception that immigrants are responsible for a high percentage of crimes. In addition, much of the so-called objective coverage of the issue repeats, as news, the inaccurate anti-immigration rants of elected officials. Publishing the inaccuracies and conflations of readers also contributes to the overall atmosphere of ignorance regarding immigration and crime in the public marketplace of ideas. To rephrase the Sohonis’ conclusions: The news media, opportunistic politicians and long-held prejudices combine to blind the public to the economic and social benefits of immigration and of allowing currently undocumented individuals and families to become full-fledged legal residents. The immigration issue proves, once again, that when you look at the real world and do the math, the left is usually right! Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is a poet and writer and retired public relations executive. He last appeared in our magazine with “Paul Celan as Existentialist Poet,” and he blogs regularly at