A Myth-Busting Guide to All the Shit Republicans Say About Immigration

Donald Trump hasn't been the only one shooting his mouth off.

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Aug 20 2015, 7:50pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons user Sanjosecalifornia

Of all the Trump-level crazy shit The Donald has said since launching his presidential campaign, none of it has streaked across the internet quite like his opinions about immigrants, specifically those from Mexico. And if Trump is the Kim Kardashian of the 2016 presidential campaign, the immigration policy plan he unveiled earlier this week was his bare ass on the cover of Paper magazine.

The problem is, most of what Trump has said about immigrants has been wrong. For starters, his contention that Mexico—as in the actual Mexican government—is "sending" immigrants to the US is patently absurd, but that's small potatoes. More alarmingly false is his tired old slander about immigrants stealing welfare benefits and committing more crimes than native-born Americans.

In fact, implying that immigrants have any group tendencies at all can be deceptive. Nothing—from speaking a language other than English, to being poor, to even wanting to be here in the first place—is inherent to the immigrant experience in the US. If I cast a net wide enough to include every immigrant in the country, it would cover the guy who drove me home in an Uber last night, most of my editors at VICE, and about a zillion people in between.

But while the immigration landscape is complicated, there is data out there. It's just that immigration hawks—and would-be reformers—mostly tend to ignore it when it doesn't fit their arguments. So to try to shed some light on what's really going on, we took nine common claims about immigrants, and did our best to determine their veracity—even if we didn't like the answer we found.

1. Immigrants bring infectious diseases

Screencap via YouTube user The Savage Nation

Last year Fox News medical correspondent Marc Siegel, MD, told his cable-news viewers that swine flu transmitted by illegal immigrants amounted to "a public health crisis on a grand scale," and insisted that "the Centers for Disease Control needs to be directly involved" to save American lives. Sounds serious, right?

The reality is, almost all legal immigrants and refugees are required to get thorough medical examinations before they arrive in the US. Of course, illegal immigrants who sneak across the border skip that process. But do diseases carried into the US by these immigrants constitute some kind of public health menace?

According to Jeffrey Klausner, a physician and professor in global health and infectious diseases at UCLA, the answer is no.

"A statement saying that a tremendous burden of infectious diseases is from immigrants is a gross exaggeration, and it comes from someone not familiar with the epidemiology of infectious diseases in the United States," Klausner said in an interview.

In the case of Mexican immigrants—the ones whose germs Trump seems to fear most—there doesn't seem to be a huge problem, thanks to rising vaccination rates in Latin America. As of 2013, 95 percent of people in Mexico were vaccinated against measles, which is comparable to the vaccination rate in the US.

"Increased vaccination coverage has produced dramatic declines in the incidence of some infectious diseases, such as measles and hepatitis A," the CDC states on its website. The agency's fact-sheet on immigrant and refugee health does provide doctors with guidance on how to deal with diseases coming across the border. But to a public health professional, the danger of immigrants transmitting infectious diseases is barely a blip on their radar.

"It's probably over 1000-to-one, the number of commonly acquired infectious disease that people are exposed to on a daily basis from fellow Americans compared to the number that might be considered a concern because they're imported," Klausner said.

2. Undocumented immigrants do all the shitty work Americans don't want to do

The idea here is pretty apolitical, and has been perpetuated by people on both sides of the immigration debate. Immigrants have it so rough, the thinking goes, that they'll take any menial job—no matter how hellish—and do it without complaint. "Americans will always look to a fresh wave of immigrants who are leaner, tougher, younger, and more willing to sacrifice their bodies to do the work that we can't or won't do," journalist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote in 2013, summing up the argument in a reverent New York Times op-ed.

Kelly Osbourne recently echoed these sentiments, blurting out in a now immortal episode of The View: "If you kick every Latino out of this country, then who is going to be cleaning your toilet, Donald Trump?"

But is the characterization accurate?

Well, it was, at least as recently as 2009 when, according to data from the Pew Research Center, undocumented immigrants in the US were overrepresented in shitty jobs like farm work, where they were 25 percent of the workforce. Overall, 66 percent of undocumented workers were employed in menial labor that year, compared to 31 percent of native-born Americans.

But the idea that immigrants do our dirty work has been complicated by more recent data. According to a Pew study published in March, since the Great Recession the US has seen a 3 percent increase in undocumented immigrants holding down management jobs; meanwhile, the number of undocumented workers in construction or "production" jobs has fallen 5 percent.

3. Immigrants are rapists and murderers

"The Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning. And they send the bad ones over because they don't want to pay for them."
-Donald Trump, Fox News Presidential Debate, August 6, 2015

"If you don't want to be killed by ISIS, don't go to Syria. If you don't want to be killed by a Mexican, there's nothing I can tell you."
-Ann Coulter, interview with Fusion, May 26, 2015

It's become common for Americans to be told that immigrant criminals are likely to rape and murder them, but as the chart below indicates, that's basically hogwash. It's one of those Malcolm Gladwell-level discrepancies between the oft-repeated myth, and the crazy, counterintuitive truth.

The chart shows that among both native-born Americans and immigrants, crime spikes at age 16, with the top line representing native-born Americans, and the bottom one representing immigrants. And the gap in between shows that native-born Americans commit more crime by far.

Of course, some immigrants are violent criminals—a small slice of every population commits serious crimes. But opponents of immigration always seem to be armed with a new number that proves that by admitting immigrants, the US is just asking for more crime.

For instance, earlier this year, Republican Congressman Pete Sessions of Texas went around citing a catchy statistic that supposedly proved illegal immigrants were committing one murder every day in the US. Sessions was referring only to the undocumented immigrants who had been released by ICE under Obama's new policies such as his 2014 unilateral effort to shield five million undocumented immigrants from deportation. But Sessions was still pulling the number out of his ass. Last year, former Texas governor and perennial Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry told Glenn Beck that illegal immigrants committed nearly half of the murders in Texas. He too was pulling numbers out of his ass.

But Breitbart News wasn't simply pulling numbers out of its ass when it pointed out last month that undocumented immigrants received 36.7 percent of federal prison sentences in 2014. The number sounds startling—but as Pew pointed out in a report last year, undocumented immigrants have been subject to a surprising number of federal prosecutions since 2005, when the US shifted its immigration enforcement policy to emphasize charging border-crossers as criminals, rather than simply sending them home.

According to a 2008 study by the Public Policy Institute of California, immigrants at the time were underrepresented in California prisons. Foreign‐born people make up about 35 percent of California's total adult population, but only about 17 percent of the prison population. However, the same report does point out that among foreign-born criminals, there does appear to be a greater proportion of violent offenders than among native-born criminals.

But that survey only covers California, and it's far from conclusive. The idea that illegally being in the US is somehow tied to criminality is neither supported, nor refuted, by data. The conservative Center for Immigration Studies once bemoaned this back in 2009, writing, "The overall picture of immigrants and crime remains confused due to a lack of good data and contrary information."


Speaking of Mexico, check out our documentary about the Mexican town that fights to summon rain:


Still, based some of this admittedly out-of-date evidence, Jason Reilly, from the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal called the connection between immigration and crime, "mythical" last month.

The problem for opponents of immigration seems to be that they believe immigrants should be better behaved because they're supposedly uninvited. Ann Coulter acknowledged this during a recent TV interview, telling Geraldo Rivera, "These are not people who have a right to be here, so I don't care if there are [only] two rapists."

4. Immigrants breed like rabbits

"Immigrants are more fertile, and they love families."
- Jeb Bush, Faith and Freedom Coalition, June 14, 2013

When Bush, a Republican presidential candidate uttered the above remark, he was begging to be taken out of context, making immigrants sound like prize livestock. In Jeb's defense, he's sired three kids with an immigrant, his wife Columba, who is originally from Mexico, so maybe he innocently thinks Columba has some kind of special Mexican uterus.

But if Bush is talking about the statistical "fertility rate"—the average number of children borne by women in a particular demographic—he's actually not off base. For whatever reason, immigrants do have more kids than people who were born in the US. The most recent Pew numbers show that while 13 percent of the total US population was foreign-born, a whopping 23 percent of births that year were to foreign mothers. The majority of those mothers were Hispanic, at 56 percent.

So, thanks to the crude, mathematical language of averages, Bush is basically right, even if he sounds like a douche. Which brings us nicely to the next myth.

5. The US is being overrun by immigrants

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

"The 'browning of America' is not a natural process. It's been artificially imposed by Democrats who are confident of their ability to turn Third World immigrants into government patrons."
-Ann Coulter, July 18, 2012

Right-wingers like Ann Coulter aren't the only ones who use the term "browning of America." It meant something different, for instance, when VICE's friend Toure said it on MSNBC. But is America really "browning"? That depends what you mean.

According to Pew, the wave of undocumented immigrants in the US peaked in 2007, at about 12.2 million. But ever since the housing crisis and the ensuing recession, those numbers have fallen off a bit, holding steady at around 11.3 million.

By my calculations, that's about 3.5 percent of the total population. Also by my calculations, the number of illegal immigrants is very similar to the number of Americans who own boats. Personally, it makes me very uncomfortable to imagine all these boat owners overrunning my America.

The fact is, the US already is overrun with immigrants. Not to be pedantic, but let's not forget: humans aren't a naturally occurring species on this landmass; they wandered in thousands of years ago when the Americas and Asia had a natural land bridge. Then those residents were overrun by immigrants from Europe. So you might say this continent has seen an impressive amount of demographic variety.

As for the undocumented immigrants ostensibly overwhelming the US today, Pew reports that Mexicans (many of whom claim indigenous American nationality) make up about 52 percent of the total undocumented immigrant population in the US. Sixty percent of those undocumented immigrants are in California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois, which are also, incidentally, the country's densest population centers.

But when it comes to the US being overrun with non-white immigrants in general—including the documented ones—that is, arguably, happening. Fewer of those immigrants than ever are flooding in from Mexico and Latin America though. According to a USA Today comparison of the most recent immigration numbers from the census, 338,000 Asians immigrated to the US from July 1, 2012 through July 2013, an increase of about 68 percent since the recession; 244,000 Hispanic immigrants arrived in that same period.

Chart courtesy of the Brookings Institution

A report published earlier this year by the Brookings Institution, titled "The Changing Face of the Heartland," is a pretty good read on the topic. It projects that in 2044, white people will become a minority in the US—at 49.7 percent, compared to 25.1 percent who will be Hispanic. So white people trembling in fear that they're being overrun can rest assured that they'll still be the largest minority.

6. Immigrants don't integrate

One way or another, most of the Republican presidential candidates would like immigrants to be more American. Marco Rubio has pushed for tougher English language proficiency standards for people pursuing green cards. In his 2013 book Immigration Wars Jeb Bush claimed that the citizenship test is too easy, and it needs to include tougher questions about "the crucial role of a market economy in promoting freedom and prosperity," and the "importance of civic participation." And at least five of the candidates, including Trump, Ted Cruz, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, have suggested the US might need to examine its policy on birthright citizenship, otherwise known as the 14th Amendment.

"They should adopt our values," Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal says in a video put together by the Super PAC supporting him. "They should learn English."

There are, however, obstacles in the way of assimilation. For instance, immigrants tend to live in segregated communities. And while Hispanic immigrants could dutifully watch English-language news to brush up on their language skills, according to a 2009 Pew study they typically opt for Spanish-language TV—which might explain why Univision often ends up with higher ratings than NBC, as recently as February of 2015.

It also helps explain why immigrants are having a little bit of a hard time with English. According to the most recent census numbers on this, from 2012, 20 percent of immigrants in the US reported speaking English "not well" and 10 percent said they speak it "not at all." So around 70 percent of immigrants in the US can speak passable English, down from 85 percent in 1900, according to a census data comparison by researchers at Purdue University.

And since language is the only useful metric I could find for measuring integration, then yes, immigrants may just be integrating less than they used to a century ago.

7. There's really no such thing as an "illegal alien."

Photo by Fernando Lopez via Flickr

"You who are so-called illegal aliens must know that no human being is illegal."
-Attributed to Elie Weisel (undated)

"The term illegal immigrant is actually factually incorrect."
Jose Antonio Vargas, speaking to Slate's Mike Pesca, February 24, 2015

So far, this has been a list of conservative talking points. But the notion that there's "no such thing" as an illegal immigrant is a somewhat iffy claim perpetuated by those on the left of the political spectrum.

When the journalist and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas spoke to Slate earlier this year about illegal immigration, he claimed that, "the term illegal immigrant is actually factually incorrect," adding that, "to be in this country without authorization is a civil offense, not a criminal one."

True enough, but it still takes a logical leap to say the word "illegal" is somehow inaccurate. There's a parallel in the language we use around contracts. A contract is considered "legally binding," not "documented." A contract can have an "illegal clause," without the police showing up. If your immigration status is not legal, then to distinguish you from someone who is in the US legally, the term "illegal" is useful.

But the distinction between "illegal" and "criminal" is not trivial. As immigration lawyer David Leopold pointed out in the Huffington Post back in 2013, given that Vargas didn't cross the border illegally—which is a felony—he's not a criminal. Consequently, when immigrants overstay their visas and the government finds out about it, the first course of action isn't to kick down your door Elian Gonzalez-style—at least not on paper.

The US Citizenship and Immigration Services website claims that even after you appear before an immigration judge, they might just ask you nicely to leave before forcibly booting you from the country. But like it or not, USCIS does still use the term "illegal alien."

Still, the terms "illegal alien" and "illegal immigrant" hurt people's feelings, which seems like a perfectly good reason for the Associated Press to remove them from their style guide. Sure, if you grab a dictionary, "illegal," and "alien" aren't technically incorrect terms, but "undocumented immigrant" gets the point across.

8. Immigrants come to the US to leech off the awesome welfare system

Image via Wikimedia Commons

"If they want to come because they hear we have free food, free education, free healthcare, [...] oh, and by the way if they'd like to do some criminal activity we'll allow that too, well that's a whole different issue. That is the reason we need to control our borders."
Mike Huckabee on Fox Business, July 9, 2015

It would be absurd to argue that no immigrants ever collect welfare, but it's worth asking whether immigrants manage to use some disproportional amount of America's social safety net.

First of all, undocumented immigrants can't collect most forms of welfare—they typically don't meet those eligibility requirements. But plenty of undocumented residents have kids who are US citizens, and those kids may qualify for some government benefits. In fact, according to the USDA's non-citizen's guide to food stamps, no one will check your immigration status if you apply for benefits on behalf of your kids. And no one is going to police your house to make sure an undocumented immigrant never eats a bowl of federally subsidized Cheerios.

But there's still the question of just whether legal immigrants collect a disproportionate amount in taxpayer-funded benefits. The libertarian-leaning Cato Institute explored the issue in 2013, with a study called "Poor Immigrants Use Public Benefits at a Lower Rate than Poor Native-Born Citizens." As the title suggests, they found that among applicants who were able to collect benefits from Medicaid, food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Supplemental Security Income, immigrants more frequently opted out of taking the assistance than native-born Americans.

And why do documented immigrants collect less welfare? It probably helps that according to the most recent US Census numbers, 68 percent of eligible workers who were documented immigrants participated in the workforce, compared to 64 percent of their native-born counterparts. Put another way, it appears most immigrants are coming here to work, not to live off government cheese.

9. Immigrants are taking American jobs

"So essentially the H-1B visa program brings in cheaper workers that are highly qualified that will take the place of current American employees."
-Rush Limbaugh, March 20, 2015

If you're a Republican running for office, promising to "protect American jobs" seems to be the bare minimum of opposition to immigration you have to blurt out. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, for example, despite once voicing a very laissez faire attitude about immigrants—he even supported a path to citizenship back in 2013—said in April that any immigration policy should be based "first and foremost, on protecting American workers and American wages." And of course, the Trump immigration plan would limit even H1-B visas for skilled workers, forcing companies to prove that they had tried to hire Americans first.

The Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative policy group, is tireless when it comes to this issue. In 2010, it published a report with some pretty damning findings: Immigrants really were taking your job, if you were a teen in 2009. During that year—the worst in a larger trend—despite 45 percent of teens wanting a job, only one-third actually got one. An addendum to the report adds that some of the decline was likely caused by summer school enrollment.

Other CIS reports feature similarly dramatic snapshots. In December of last year, the center calculated that post-recession job growth had still not returned to pre-recession levels for native-born workers—there was still a 1.46 million decrease in jobs held by native-born workers compared to the level from just before the housing bubble burst in 2007. That employment comparison also found that in that same time period—between 2007 and 2014—immigrants had not only reached returned to the 2007 level, they'd taken on two million additional jobs.

What the CIS reports demonstrate is that immigrant laborers—including documented immigrants, and even naturalized citizens—are on the favorable side of some inscrutable divide in employment. But given the roller-coaster in employment numbers over the past decade, it's hard to look at the chaos and definitively say that immigration is a drag on US employment, or that it has no effect. That makes this a job for economists.

The American Enterprise Institute tried to look at the issue in 2011, studying employment and wage data from four decades. Boringly, the American Enterprise Institute researchers found that as a rule, foreign-born workers have neither a positive, nor a negative effect on employment for native-born Americans.

Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of The Hamilton Project at Brookings took a look at the same problem in 2012, and came to a similar conclusion: Immigration doesn't increase unemployment for native-born people. As an explanation, they cited the complementary roles for immigrants and non-immigrants, which lead to greater productivity, and the effect that immigrant population numbers have on the customer bases for local businesses. Consequently, they wrote, businesses can hire more workers, and in the long run, "immigrants slightly raise the average wages of all US-born workers."

§

But fact checking numbers and trends leaves out the tiny narratives that provide what the Sanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy calls the "misleading vividness" that stems from anecdotal evidence. Vividness comes from specific examples.

Here's some actual nasty shit documented and undocumented immigrants have done or have been accused of doing: In March, a guy in Alabama allegedly raped the ten-year-old daughter of the people who were giving him a place to stay. In June, 250 workers at Disney World got fired to make room for their cheaper Indian replacements on H-1B visas, whom the fired workers had to train. Back in 2013, an undocumented immigrant in Wisconsin was convicted of $25,416 in welfare fraud according to the local news radio station WTAQ.

None of these examples proves anything, but they certainly rile people up. Judging from lengthy comment threads, stories like these catch fire in the conservative social media echo chamber, but are largely ignored by liberals.

In a June article on Newsbusters, the blog run by the Media Research Center, a conservative think tank that opposes liberal bias in media, author Jeffrey Lord decried liberal ignorance of the real stories that prove Donald Trump is spouting "Inconvenient Truths." From time to time, illegal immigrants smuggle drugs, and commit murder and rape, Lord pointed out, adding that "if the liberal media, not to mention Hillary Clinton, are going to take Trump on, they should probably have a grasp of whether what he says is factually true or not."

But the fact is that even when armed with solid data, people will still return to their basic assumptions. If it turned out that 80 percent of undocumented immigrants who've been in the US since they were babies love Nickelback, that wouldn't mean a damn thing about whether they deserve a pathway to citizenship, but it sure would piss people off.

Credit where credit is due: The Pew Research Center, the Washington DC think tank that tracks demographic trends, publishes an astonishing volume of data on this topic, and writing this piece would have been impossible without it.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

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