Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Often though, the immigration debate seems virtually fact-free. Some of the polling seems outright delusional. I thought I'd explore in this post two common public assumptions I perceive as "myths" about immigration. I'll suggest what I think is a more fact-based analysis, and would request that you, gentle readers, proceed to poke holes either in my arguments or in my straw men, as you like. Maybe I'm missing something. Let me know.
Myth: Immigrants are more likely to commit crimes and our prisons are filling up with illegal immigrants.
Reality: Immigrants commit fewer crimes than U.S. natives across the board.
According to a recent LBB report (pdf, p. 2), 5.3% of Texas inmates are Mexican nationals, with 1.03% coming from other Latin American countries. (Not all of those, by any stretch, came here illegally.) By contrast, the 2000 census estimated 13.9% of people living in Texas' are foreign born (roughly half immigrated legally). So that's actually a pretty small figure given the overblown rhetoric on the topic. In the big picture, it turns out, Texas' situation is typical - an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute found:
Data from the 5 percent Public Use Microsample (PUMS) of the 2000 census were used to measure the institutionalization rates of immigrants and natives, focusing on males 18 to 39, most of whom are in correctional facilities. Of the 45.2 million males age 18 to 39, three percent were in federal or state prisons or local jails at the time of the 2000 census — a total of over 1.3 million, in line with official prison statistics at that time.As an aside, let's take a moment to look at that 11.6% figure for incarcerating black men 18-39 - all you can say is "Wow!". That's a huge number.
Surprisingly, at least from the vantage of conventional wisdom, the data show the above hypotheses [that immigrants commit crimes more often] to be unfounded. In fact, the incarceration rate of the US born (3.51 percent) was four times the rate of the foreign born (0.86 percent). The foreign-born rate was half the 1.71 percent rate for non-Hispanic white natives, and 13 times less than the 11.6 percent incarceration rate for native black men ...
Of particular interest is the finding that the lowest incarceration rates among Latin American immigrants are seen for the least educated groups: Salvadorans and Guatemalans (0.52 percent), and Mexicans (0.70 percent). These are precisely the groups most stigmatized as "illegals" in the public perception and outcry about immigration.
Just as striking, though, the analysis explodes stereotypes about immigrants posing a greater crime risk. It's just not true - they pose less of one.
Myth: We've restricted immigration for 200 years and now it's out of control.
Reality: Immigration restrictions are what's new and radical. They weren't part of the founding fathers' vision of America and are a historically recent, relatively modern phenomena.
Again, from the Migration Policy Institute: "Mexicans were able to enter the United States without quantitative limit prior to the 1965 amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act (implemented in 1968). And it was not until 1976 that Congress extended the strict, 20,000 per-country limit and preference system to countries in the Western Hemisphere, including Mexico."
From the nation's creation until 1875 there were no immigration restrictions at all for people moving to the United States. Anyone could come, and they did. From 1875 to 1918 the US restricted criminals and the infirm from entering, but not able-bodied workers. Per country limits weren't established until after World War I as a result of so-called nativist movements whose ideologies still animate much anti-immigrant hysteria on the right. As far as today's debate, as mentioned above, numerical limits on Latin American immigration didn't start until 1965, and have never been effectively enforced.
So two key myths surrounding immigration - that immigrants are more likely to be criminals and that some golden age existed in the past when Latin American immigration was restricted - just aren't true. There are a few more common assumptions about immigration I also find annoyingly fallacious, but those myth-busting polemics must wait for another day.