Common Myths About Immigrants, Debunked

by JR Thorpe
Drew Angerer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Anti-immigration sentiment is so poisonous in the U.S. that it may have caused the death of an innocent Indian engineer in Kansas over the weekend, so it's more crucial than ever to go to the root of things: the numbers. Yep, data is where it's at when it comes to identifying the truth about immigration and its impact on the American country: Are immigrants really bad for the economy and for wages? Are they stealing everybody's jobs? Do they raise the crime rate and cause a massive burden on welfare?

Beliefs about these issues, along with bog-standard racism and prejudice, are at the root of anti-immigration sentiment, and what makes the situation even more unfair is that the numbers are often pretty clear: immigrants are good for the United States, for its crime rate, its financial health, and its public finances.

Immigration opinions often blur between different things, like the wish to control undocumented immigrants and the situation of people who are in the U.S. on valid documents. This is why it's pretty important to seek clarity, and also to understand how people reach the numbers they do. Data can be manipulated for political purposes, and knowing how to track a study's particular methods and identify what it's trying to do is crucial if you're going to battle falsehoods. Immigrants have been subjected to a lot of numbers-rigging, so let's get some facts.

"They Raise Crime Rates"

The Myth: A depressing study from back in 2000 found that 23 percent of Americans thought the statement that "immigrants cause higher crime rates" was very likely, and another 48 percent thought it somewhat likely. But this just isn't borne out by the numbers. For all President Trump yells about "bad hombres," the data says that more immigration actually means less crime.

The Truth: One study looked at 200 American metropolitan areas over 40 years, from 1970 to 2010, and found that as immigrant populations increased, rates of murder, robbery, larceny, and burglary actually went down. Other rates of crime remained completely stable. And another look at the data across 20 years, incorporating over 50 separate studies from around the U.S. found that an overwhelming proportion of them discovered crime either remained static or went down as immigrant populations went up. Immigrants also have much lower incarceration levels than native-born Americans, no matter what your local Trump supporter might tell you; 1.6 percent of young migrant males between 18-39 are in jail, compared with 3.3 percent of the same demographic of native-born American men. The National Bureau of Economic Research suggested in 2007 that this is likely because immigrants "have lower criminal propensities or are more responsive to deterrent effects than the average native."

There's also a point to be considered about what immigrants in jail are actually there for. A large proportion of immigrants in federal prison, for instance, are there because of immigration offenses — a third of them, according to one analysis. (And federal prisons represent a tiny minority of prisons in the U.S., but that's where immigrants with visa issues are sent.)

"They Take American Jobs"

The Myth: This is an intriguing and complicated one, because prominent economists disagree about some of the data. When it comes to the wider U.S. population, though, the idea of immigrants threatening U.S. job security and depressing wages is pretty common: the International Business Times cited studies in 2015 showing that 51 percent of Americans, and around 70 percent of GOP voters, appeared to believe that their jobs were under threat from immigrants, particularly undocumented ones. The reality, however, is not that immigrants to the U.S. are gobbling up jobs left and right. It's more nuanced than that.

The Truth: For one, the jobs pursued by immigrants are often quite different to those pursued by native-born Americans of the same skill level. They're not competing for or stealing jobs in the same area, according to census data of 16 million Americans published in 2015. The people seen as most vulnerable to immigrant competition are native-born Americans without high school diplomas, but it seems, according to the study, that they and immigrants actually take quite different low-skilled jobs, with immigrants taking maid and housekeeping jobs, agricultural work, cooking and construction work, while low-skilled native-born Americans tend to go towards cashier jobs, sales work, behind-the-scenes stock jobs, and waiting jobs at restaurants. There's some overlap, but less than you might imagine.

And that matters, because a lot of the worry about immigrants centers on these low-skilled jobs and how migrants create more competition and lower wages. There is possibly some cost to native-born Americans in this bracket, but with less competition from migrants, it's not as pronounced as it could be. (There's a lot of dispute among economists about what migrants have really done to the wages of lower-skilled Americans; some argue definitively that there's a recognizable gap, while others argue against it. The most notable study about this comes from Miami, where a sudden influx of low-skilled Cuban immigrants in the 1980s was studied for its effects on everybody's wages and employment. Startlingly, there was no impact at all; migrants didn't depress wages or cast anybody out on their ear.)

The days of mostly lower-skilled new migrants are also likely to be over. According to a 2017 study of the census, immigrants arriving in the U.S. in recent years are far more educated on average than those in previous immigration waves; 48 percent of the ones who arrived between 2010 and 2015 have at least a bachelor's degree. Competition among highly-skilled workers is different to lower-skilled ones, because it's much harder to substitute one worker for another. The ACLU notes that "immigrants are blamed for unemployment because Americans can see the jobs immigrants fill but not the jobs they create through productivity, capital formation and demand for goods and services." Immigration in general boosts wealth levels, spurs market innovation and is particularly good for creating jobs — especially in businesses started or joined by higher-skilled immigrants.

"They Use Up America's Welfare Money"

The Myth: This is one of the biggest preconceptions about immigrants: that they cost public money. And it's been fueled by poor data analysis. (If you ever think economics is boring and irrelevant, this is why it matters to everybody.) A furore about the welfare costs of migrants was fueled by a report by the conservative Center for Immigrant Studies in 2016 that proposed that immigrant households cost $2,323 more in welfare than native-born ones. However, there were two problems with this: the CIS's report also acknowledged that once you controlled for worker status, education and number of children, migrants actually received a statistically minimal amount more. And the liberal Cato Institute also took them to task for counting things by household, rather than by individual, which would have shown that actually immigrants receive less welfare than native-born Americans overall, particularly when they have children (who, as they go from second to third to fourth generation immigrants, put far more in the public purse and take less out).

The Truth: So how much welfare do immigrants actually get? The OECD offered a pretty good indication in 2013, when it calculated the "net direct fiscal position" of immigrants in countries around the world (you calculate that by taking the taxes and social security contributions of immigrants and taking away the amount of public assistance they get). If the U.S. was giving immigrants more than it was receiving, the number should have been below zero. It wasn't. The average immigrant household did about the same as the average native-born household: it contributed around +$11,000. And that didn't take into account other positive economic impacts, like starting businesses that paid business tax.

So no, immigrants are not costing you your hard-earned tax money. And in this environment, it's more important than ever to know how to read data closely, just in case it's selling you up the river.