Racism: Fuel for the Immigration Debate Fire

This morning, I opened my inbox to the usual stuff: a slew of work-related emails, my daily deal emails (which I never even read any more . . . I just delete), and an email from Amnesty International asking for donations.  Mixed in there somewhere was a rather interesting forward titled, “You Want Liberal . . . Check the Last Photos . . .”  Here’s the text and photos from the email:

Maybe we should turn to our history books and point out to people like Mr. Lujan why today’s American is not willing to accept this new kind of immigrant any longer.

Back in 1900 when there was a rush from all areas of Europe to come to the United States, people had to get off a ship and stand in a long line in New York and be documented. Some would even get down on their hands and knees and kiss the ground. They made a pledge to uphold the laws and support their new country in good and bad times.They made learning English a primary rule in their new American households and some even changed their names to blend in with their new home.

They had waved goodbye to their birth place to give their children a new life and did everything in their power to help their children assimilate into one culture. Nothing was handed to them. No free lunches, no welfare, no labor laws to protect them. All they had were the skills and craftsmanship they had brought with them to trade for a future of prosperity.

Most of their children came of age when World War II broke out. My father fought along side men whose parents had come straight over from Germany, Italy, France and Japan. None of these 1st generation Americans ever gave any thought about what country their parents had come from. They were Americans fighting Hitler, Mussolini and the Emperor of Japan. They were defending the United States of America as one people.

When we liberated France, no one in those villages were looking for the French American, the German American or the Irish American. The people of France saw only Americans. And we carried one flag that represented one country. Not one of those immigrant sons would have thought about picking up another country’s flag and waving it to represent who they were. It would have been a disgrace to their parents who had sacrificed so much to be here. These immigrants truly knew what it meant to be an American. They stirred the melting pot into one red, white and blue bowl.

And here we are with a new kind of immigrant who wants the same rights and privileges. Only they want to achieve it by playing with a different set of rules, one that includes the entitlement card and a guarantee of being faithful to their mother country.

I’m sorry, that’s not what being an American is all about. I believe that the immigrants who landed on Ellis Island in the early 1900’s deserve better than that for all the toil, hard work and sacrifice in raising future generations to create a land that has become a beacon for those legally searching for a better life. I think they would be appalled that they are being used as an example by those waving foreign country flags.

I wouldn’t start …. dismantling the United States just yet.


 As I read the forward, my blood started to boil.  My usual response to annoying forwards is simple: Delete.  However, in this case, I couldn’t look past the blatant racism I saw in the above piece, so I decided on a different tact: Reply All.
Here’s my response:
Aaaah Racism, the old stand-by that keeps the immigration debate flowing.
The essential message of this forward is as follows: When MY people (White people) immigrated to the United States, everything was just right.  When THEIR people (the Brown ones from down South) immigrate here, everything is terrible.  Even look at the photos used.  Does the photo of Brown men using crude gestures say anything about where it was taken or of the citizenship status of those in the photo?  Is it possible that those in the photo are 3rd generation American citizens?  Or was that photo taken in the United States at all?  Is it not possible to find plenty of pictures of White U.S. citizens acting like idiots?

The Cast of Jackass

How about we consider this photo or any of the others from Rick Nahmias’ The Migrant Project.

Bracero Rally, Los Angeles - The Migrant Project by Rick Nahmias

It doesn’t make any sense to compare the immigration experience of Ellis Island in the early 1900s to the immigration experiences of today.  First, the immigration policies of Ellis Island at the time were explicitly racist.  Virtually any person coming from Europe could arrive at Ellis Island and pay a paltry fee (usually about $.35 USD), sign a paper, and were immediately welcomed as U.S. citizens.  However, those immigration rights were not extended to people from other parts of the world.  The Chinese Exclusion Act forbade immigration from anyone “Oriental” (which actually did not just forbid Chinese immigrants but forbid Indian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Cambodian, etc).  Similar exclusion was established for anyone from the continent of Africa or from Central or South America.  See a pattern?  If you weren’t European (read White), you were not allowed into the country.
Today, on the other hand, it costs a minimum of $600 (the federal application fee – 10% of the average Mexican yearly income) and 6 months to 3 years to immigrate to the United States legally.  Once your application is approved, you have a short-term visa, but if you want to become a citizen, it will cost a few hundred more dollars and you will have to pass a test that a strong majority of American Citizens (even college-educated American Citizens) cannot pass.  By that standard, my White European ancestors would not have made the cut.  Would yours?
Lastly, I encourage you to check out the following Immigration Myths and Facts before forwarding on this trope.

MYTH: Immigrants are a drain on our social services.
FACT: By paying taxes and Social Security, immigrants contribute far more to government coffers than they use in social services.
In its landmark report published in 1997—arguably the most thorough national study to date of immigration’s fiscal impacts—the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that on average, immigrants generate public revenue that exceeds their public costs over time—approximately $80,000 more in taxes than they receive in state, federal and local benefits over their life times.1 This same conclusion was reached in 2007 by the Council of Economic Advisers in their report to the Executive Office of the President where they state that “the long-run impact of immigration on public budgets is likely to be positive,” and agree with the NRC report’s view that “only a forward-looking projection of taxes and government spending can offer an accurate picture of the long-run fiscal consequences of admitting new immigrants.”2

Moreover, according to government reports, noncitizens are much less likely than citizens to use the benefits for which they are eligible. For example, immigrants, especially the undocumented, tend to use medical services much less than the average American.3 In fact, the average immigrant uses less than half the dollar amount of health care services as the average native-born citizen.4 Moreover, the claim that immigrants account for high rates of emergency room (ER) visits is refuted by research; in fact, communities with high rates of ER usage tend to have relatively small percentages of immigrant residents.Indeed, most non-citizens are not even eligible for the majority of welfare programs unless they are legal permanent residents and have resided in the United States legally for at least five years. This includes benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), SSI, Medicaid, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP).

Likewise, according to Department of Agriculture reports, noncitizens who are eligible for food stamps are significantly less likely to use them than are all other individuals who are eligible for the program. For example, about 45 percent of eligible noncitizens received food stamps in 2002, compared to almost 60 percent of eligible individuals overall.5

Most of the fiscal impact from immigration is felt at the state and local levels. The Council of Economic Advisors points out in its report to the Executive Office of the President that “the positive fiscal impact tends to accrue at the federal level, but the net costs tend to be concentrated at the state and local level,” which bear primary responsibility for providing not only health care but education.6

Still, according to recent studies from a number of cities and states—including the states of Arizona, Texas, Minnesota, California, New York, North Carolina and Arkansas, and cities or counties of Chicago and Santa Clara—while the cost of educating the children of immigrants may be high, the overall economic benefits of immigrants to the states remain positive.7 A University of Illinois study found that undocumented immigrants in the Chicago metropolitan area alone spent $2.89 billion in 2001, stimulating an additional $5.45 billion in total local spending and sustaining 31,908 jobs in the local economy.8

The Udall Center at the University of Arizona found that the fiscal costs of immigrants, starting with education, totaled $1.41 billion in 2004, which, balanced against $1.64 billion in state tax revenue attributable to immigrants as workers, resulted in a fiscal gain of $222.6 million.9 Similarly, in its Special Report about undocumented immigrants in Texas, the Comptroller of Public Accounts found that in 2005, even counting the costs associated with education, “the state revenues collected from undocumented immigrants exceed what the state spent on services, with the difference being $424.7 million.”10

MYTH: Immigrants have a negative impact on the economy and the wages of citizens and take jobs away from citizens.
FACT: Immigration has a positive effect on the American economy as a whole and on the income of native-born workers.
In June 2007, the President’s Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) issued a report on “Immigration’s Economic Impact.” Based on a thorough review of the literature, the Council concluded that “immigrants not only help fuel the Nation’s economic growth, but also have an overall positive effect on the American economy as a whole and on the income of native-born American workers.”11Among the report’s key findings were that, on average, U.S. natives benefit from immigration in that immigrants tend to complement natives, not substitute for them.

Immigrants have different skills, which allow higher-skilled native workers to increase productivity and thus increase their incomes. Also, as the native-born U.S. population becomes older and better educated, young immigrant workers fill gaps in the low-skilled labor markets.12

With respect to wages, in a 1997 study, the National Research Council estimated the annual wage gain due to immigration for U.S. workers to be $10 billion each year13 in 2007 CEA estimated the gain at over $30 billion per year.14 The CEA acknowledges that an increase in immigrant workers is likely to have some negative impact on the wages of low-skilled native workers, but they found this impact to be relatively small and went on to conclude that reducing immigration “would be a poorly-targeted and inefficient way to assist low-wage Americans.”15

In addition to having an overall positive affect on the average wages of American workers, an increase in immigrant workers also tends to increase employment rates among the native-born. According to a Pew Hispanic Center study, between 2000 and 2004 “there was a positive correlation between the increase in the foreign-born population and the employment of native-born workers in 27 states and the District of Columbia.” These states included all the major destination states for immigrants and together they accounted for 67% of all native-born workers.16 California, for example, saw an increase in wages of natives by about four percent from 1990 to 2004—a period of large influx of immigrants to the state—due to the complimentary skills of immigrant workers and an increase in the demand for tasks performed by native workers.17

MYTH: Immigrants—particularly Latino immigrants—don’t want to learn English.
FACT: Immigrants, including Latino immigrants, believe they need to learn English in order to succeed in the United States, and the majority uses at least some English at work.
Throughout our country’s history, critics of immigration have accused new immigrants of refusing to learn English and to otherwise assimilate. These charges are no truer today than they were then. As with prior waves of immigrants, there is a marked increase in English-language skills from one immigrant generation to the next.18 In the first ever major longitudinal study of the children of immigrants, in 1992 Rambaut and Portes found that “the pattern of linguistic assimilation prevails across nationalities.” The authors go on to report that “the linguistic outcomes for the third generation—the grandchildren of the present wave of immigrants—will be little different than what has been the age-old pattern in American immigration history.”19

While many first-generation Latino immigrants are unable to speak English, 88 percent of their U.S.-born adult children report that they speak English very well.20 And studies show that the number rises dramatically for each subsequent generation. Furthermore, similar to other immigrants, Latinos believe that they need to learn English in order to succeed in the United States, and believe they will be discriminated against if they don’t.21 Most Latino immigrants (67%) report that they use at least some English at work.22

California’s second-generation immigrants experience a large drop in “low levels of English proficiency” compared to first generation immigrants, from 27% to 6%, and the proportion of immigrants with high levels of English proficiency rises from 49% in the first generation to 79% in the second generation. The proportion of both Asian and Latino immigrants, who speak English exclusively rises from 10% in the first generation to 29% in the second and 94% in the third.23

Notwithstanding the current levels of English language acquisition for the newest wave of immigrants, there is a demand for English language classes that far exceeds the supply and which, if met, would greatly advance immigrants’ integration into American social and cultural life.

MYTH: Immigrants don’t want to become citizens.
FACT: Many immigrants to the United States seek citizenship, even in the face of difficult requirements and huge backlogs that can delay the process for years.
Most immigrants are ineligible to apply for citizenship until they have resided in the U.S. with lawful permanent resident status for five years, have passed background checks, have shown that they have paid their taxes, are of “good moral character, demonstrate knowledge of U.S. history and civics, and have the ability to understand, speak and write English.” In addition, people applying for naturalization have to pay a fee, which increased by 69% in 2007 from $400 to $675, making it much harder for low-income immigrants to reach their dream of becoming Americans.24

Despite these barriers, The Pew Hispanic Center’s report on U.S. Census data shows that the proportion of eligible immigrants who have acquired citizenship rose to 52% in 2005, “the highest level in a quarter of a century.”15 In the 2007 fiscal year, DHS received 1.4 million citizenship applications—nearly double from last fiscal year 26—and between June and July of 2007, naturalization applications increased 350% compared to last year.27 In his testimony to Congress, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director, Emilio Gonzalez, referred to this increase as “unprecedented in the history of immigration services in our nation.”28

Yet, despite the promise by USCIS that backlogs would be eliminated, applications for naturalization can take a year and half to adjudicate and of the 1.4 applications it received in 2007, less than 660,000 have been decided.29

MYTH: Immigrants don’t pay taxes.
FACT: Almost all immigrants pay income taxes even though they can’t benefit from most federal and state local assistance programs and all immigrants pay sales and property taxes.
According to the 2005 Economic Report of the President, “more than half of all undocumented immigrants are believed to be working ‘on the books’…[and]… contribute to the tax rolls but are ineligible for almost all Federal public assistance programs and most major Federal-state programs.” According to the report, undocumented immigrants also “contribute money to public coffers by paying sales and property taxes (the latter are implicit in apartment rentals).”30

All immigrants (legal and undocumented) pay the same real estate taxes and the same sales and other consumption taxes as everyone else. The University of Illinois at Chicago found in 2002 that undocumented immigrants in the Chicago metro area spent $2.89 billion annually from their earnings and these expenditures generated $2.56 billion additional spending for the local economy.31

Legal immigrants pay income taxes and indeed many undocumented immigrants also pay income taxes or have taxes automatically withheld from their paychecks—even though they are unable to claim a tax refund, Social Security benefits or other welfare benefits that these taxes support. In the Chicago metro area for example, approximately seventy percent of undocumented workers paid payroll taxes, according to the University of Illinois study from 2002.32 In the Washington Metro Region, immigrants paid the same share of the region’s overall taxes (18 percent) as the rest of the population (17.4 percent), according to a 2006 Urban Institute study.33 This study also points to the fact that immigrants’ tax payments support both local and state services in addition to the federal government.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) holds that undocumented immigrants “account for a major portion” of the billions of dollars paid into the Social Security system—an estimated $520 billion as of October 2005.34 The SSA keeps a file called the “earnings suspense file” on all earnings with incorrect or fictitious Social Security numbers and the SSA’s chief actuary stated in 2005 that “three quarters of other-than-legal immigrants pay payroll taxes.”35 Their figures show that the suspense file is growing by more than $50 billion a year, generating $6 to 7 billion in Social Security tax revenue and about $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes.

MYTH: Immigrants send all their money back to their home countries instead of spending money here.
FACT: Immigrants do send money to family members, making it possible for more people to stay in their home countries rather than migrating to the United States. Importantly, sending remittances home does not keep immigrants from spending money in the United States.
It’s true that remittances are the biggest sources of foreign currency for most Latin American countries and surpass any amount of foreign aid sent by the U.S. The money sent by immigrants to their family members allows many people to stay in their home countries who might otherwise feel compelled to migrate to the U.S.

And while 51 percent of Latino immigrants send remittances home,36 they are spending their money in the United States as well. In fact, a 1998 study found that immigrants become net economic contributors after 10 to 15 years in the U.S.37

In addition to paying taxes and Social Security, immigrants spend money on goods and services in the United States. A study of Latino immigrants in California found significant gains in home ownership between those who had been in this country for ten years (16.4 percent are homeowners) and those who had been here for over thirty years (64.6 percent).38 Furthermore, a 2002 Harvard University study of U.S. Census data found that there were more than 5.7 million foreign- born homeowners in the United States.39 The study found that foreign-born new homeowners are buying their homes by saving more than native-born homebuyers and stretching their incomes more.

While homeownership nationally was approximately 69% in 2006, it was 60% for Asians and 50% for Latinos—each group with large immigrant populations and therefore greater impediments to obtaining bank loans.40 Although homeownership is largely correlated with legal status in the U.S., undocumented immigrants are also buying into the “American Dream” of homeownership in some of the most expensive housing markets in the country.41

MYTH: Immigrants bring crime to our cities and towns.
FACT: Immigrants are actually far less likely to commit crimes than their native-born counterparts. Even as the undocumented population has increased in the United States, crime rates have decreased significantly.
According to a 2000 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice, immigrants maintain low crime rates even when faced with adverse social conditions such as low income and low levels of education.42

Although incarceration rates are highest among young low-income men and many immigrants arriving in the U.S. are young men with low levels of education, incarceration rates among young men are invariably lower for immigrants than for their native-born counterparts. This is true across every ethnic group but the differences are especially noticeable among Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans, who constitute the majority of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Even in cities with the largest immigrant populations, such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami, violent and non-violent crime rates have continued to decline.43

Even after taking into account higher deportation rates since the mid 1990’s, and reviewing the 1980 and 1990 censuses, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ascertained that, “18-40 year-old male immigrants have lower institutionalization rates than the native born each year…and by 2000, immigrants have institutionalization rates that are one-fifth those of the native born.”44 In fact, according to the NBAR study, the newly arrived immigrants are particularly unlikely to be involved in crime.

Cities like Hazleton, Pennsylvania have tried to blame a new wave of immigrants for a supposed rise in crime. Yet, Hazleton’s own crime statistics taken from the Pennsylvania State Police show that overall crime in the city has decreased and is now less than half of the national average.45

MYTH: Most immigrants are undocumented and have crossed the border illegally.
FACT: Two thirds of immigrants are here lawfully—either as naturalized citizens or in some other lawful status. Moreover, almost half of all undocumented immigrants entered the United States legally.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, one third of all immigrants are undocumented, one third have some form of legal status and one third are naturalized citizens. This applies to immigrants from Latin America as well as others.46

Almost half of all undocumented immigrants entered the United States on visas that allowed them to reside here temporarily—either as tourists, students, or temporary workers. This means they were subject to inspection by immigration officials before entering the country,47 and became undocumented only when their visas expired and they didn’t leave the country.

MYTH: Weak border enforcement has led to high rates of undocumented immigration. We should increase enforcement and build a wall around our border.
FACT: Increased border security and the construction of border fences have done little to curb the flow of immigrants across the United States border. Instead, these policies have only succeeded in pushing border crossers into dangerous and less-patrolled regions, and increased the undocumented population by creating an incentive for immigrants not to leave.
Building a wall along the entire 2000-mile southern U.S. border would be prohibitively expensive. According to a study by the Cato Institute, rather than acting as a deterrent to those attempting to cross the border, increased enforcement has only succeeded in pushing immigration flows into more remote, less patrolled regions, resulting in a tripling of the death rate at the border and decreased apprehensions, and creating a dramatic increase in taxpayer money spent on making arrests along the border (from $300 per arrest in 1992 to $1,200 per arrest in 2002).48

Furthermore, increased border enforcement has actually increased the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. at any one time. The increased risk and cost to immigrants of crossing the border has resulted in fewer undocumented immigrants returning to their home countries for periods of time as part of the decades-long circular migration patterns that characterize undocumented immigration from Mexico up until the 1990s. Instead, immigrants stay in the United States for longer periods of time, often choosing to immigrate their families to avoid longer periods of separation.49

The Secure Fence Act of 2006 directed the Department of Homeland Security to construct 850 miles of additional border fencing. According to a report by Congressional Research Services, the San Diego fence, combined with increased border patrol agents in the area, succeeded in decreasing border crossing in that region, but at the same time there is considerable evidence that the flow of illegal immigration has shifted to the more remote areas of the Arizona desert, decreasing the number of apprehensions and increasing the cost.50

And if you’re still reading, I will say this: I don’t want a melting pot that is stirred into one red, white, and blue.  I want, at minimum, a beautiful mosaic where I can come to know, understand, and appreciate your culture as beautiful and distinct from mine.  I want to hear your native language on the street.  I want to see your heroes reflected in my history book.  I want a culture that appreciates difference rather than encourages the passive cultural genocide of assimilation.

3 thoughts on “Racism: Fuel for the Immigration Debate Fire

  1. Jaimie, I cannot stress how incredibly important it is for everyone to hear and read this. I work at the Mexican Consulate in Fresno, the only Consulate in one of the most agriculturally active areas in California (and the US), and the level of ignorance and hate we see here and that other Consulates have reported is quite astonishing, in fact just yesterday we had some mail come in asking rather rudely why we were not flying a US flag and berating us for our “lack of respect” and other equally ignorant and in some cases straight up racist comments. The fact of the matter is that most people in the US do not realize how hard becoming a legal resident is. Additionally many do not realize that a huge number of people are deported each day because of racial profiling and misinterpretation of the US’s own laws. The other day we had a case come in where 4 men were deported because ICE was keeping track of one of them. They stopped them in a van on the way to work. The person driving had a valid US driver’s licence and was a permanent resident yet he and the 3 other men who couldn’t prove their legal status on the spot were taken into custody and deported. Similarly ICE has adopted policies (At least in the CA region) to deport males only, thus leaving families in the US (wives/girlfriends with kids) without a main breadwinner. This seems to have been done to save money by deporting only one member of the family and then hoping the rest of the family will follow with the cost of their pocket, thus creating situations were mothers and children are trying to return to mexico, by themselves through dangerous areas. furthermore, many of these mothers are stopped near the border, which then separates them from their children who often times, being US citizens with no remaining family in the US enter the foster care system.

    Anyways. I just wanted to thank you for your post, and the info you posted. It is supremely important that people understand that the undocumented worker in the US lives a pretty rough life, despite their willingness and desire to integrate and become functioning and productive members of society. Of course this doesn’t mean there aren’t any bad apples in the crop, but I truly believe that a majority if not a cast majority of people who are undocumented in the US are here to work and try to better themselves and their families.

  2. Has there ever been a time, really, in our nation’s history when we didn’t want to keep someone out? Sorry – I’m flashing back to “Gangs of New York” – mainly because my dad just watched it on HBO.

    If you’re already here – it’s easy to say you’re “established” and to tell someone else to “go home”. How quickly we forget our history.

    Plus, you know, it’s not like we were all that awesome to the people who were here before we showed up (yep. did just go there).

  3. Aviva Chomsky’s book “‘They Take Our Jobs!’ and 20 other myths about immigration” is very useful in relation to the myths and facts talked about here as well http://ecword.org/index.php/2010/10/a_e/books-address-immigration-and-racism/

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