Commentary

Cutting Immigration Myths Down to Size

Although there is strong bipartisan support for getting tough on illegal immigration by strengthening border enforcement, proposed changes to our legal immigration system are far more controversial. Supporters of further restrictions on legal immigration fail to make a convincing case for why they are necessary. They typically rely on conventional myths that are easy to debunk.

The most common myth: America has “uncontrolled” and “unprecedented” immigration. In fact, the U.S. immigration system is both limited and highly regulated. A U.S. citizen can sponsor a spouse, parent, sibling, or minor or adult child. A lawful permanent resident can sponsor only a spouse or a child. Essentially the only other way to immigrate to America is as a refugee or through the strict employment-based system. All of the family and employment categories are numerically capped, with the exception of the spouses, children and parents of U.S. citizens. Immigration actually declined naturally in both 1994 and 1995. Today 9 percent of the American population is foreign born. We are less of a nation of immigrants in 1996 than we were at anytime between 1850 and 1940 — when the foreign-born population was at times almost twice as high as it is today.

The second immigration myth: Current immigration law permits massive “chain migration.” This term is used to describe what happens when one immigrant arrives and sponsors relatives, causing one after another to come to the United States over a short period of time. Nothing in current immigration law allows a person to sponsor an aunt, uncle, cousin or other “extended” family member.

Senator Alan Simpson (R,WY), for example, says that one immigrant’s arrival eventually leads to 80 relatives moving to America. A General Accounting Office study found that the data “fail to confirm the existence or future likelihood of massive chain migration.” The study found that an average of 12 years passes from the time an immigrant comes to America and the time he or she sponsors a close relative. A repetition of that pattern means that a quarter of a century wouldpass between the first and third “link” in the chain.

Myth number three: Our legal immigration system leads to illegal immigration because “many illegal aliens first came in legally.” Yes, they come legally — but primarily as students or tourists who overstay their visas, not under any family category. It is therefore fatuous to argue that cutting family-based immigration will somehow reduce illegal immigration. Targeted measures, such as Senator Abraham’s amendment to the Senate’s illegal immigration bill, would address that problem by preventing those who overstay their visas from receiving any new visas for at least three years.

Myth number four: Immigrants impose a financial burden on taxpayers. Immigrants do make somewhat heavier use of means-tested welfare programs than natives. There have been especially flagrant abuses by immigrants of particular welfare programs, such as Supplemental Security Income. But because immigrants tend to come to the United States during the start of their working years —between the ages of 18 and 35 — they make very large net contributions to the two largest income transfer programs: Social Security and Medicare. When the payroll tax contributions of immigrants are taken into account, the Urban Institute found that the foreign born constitute a net fiscal windfall to the public sector of some $20 billion a year. To the extent that welfare use by immigrants is a problem, this can be addressed by restricting the welfare eligibility of immigrants, not by keeping immigrants out.

Myth number five: Immigrants depress the wages and working conditions of American citizens. New widely cited research purportedly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics declares that immigrants are responsible for “about 50 percent of the decline in real wages for the lowest-skilled workers.” Yet this “study” was never sanctioned or endorsed by the BLS. It is also contradicted by virtually all other studies on the subject. According to economist George Borjas, who is often cited by the opponents of immigration: “The methodological arsenal of modern econometrics cannot detect a single shred of evidence that immigrants have a sizeable adverse impact on the earnings and employment opportunities of natives.” For example, in the 1980s the U.S. accepted 7 million new immigrants, but unemployment fell sharply and family incomes rose.

The final myth: Immigration must be reduced because Americans say so in polls. When polled within the appropriate context, Americans favor immigration. Republican pollster Vince Breglio found that by a two-to-one margin, voters support allowing U.S. citizens to continue sponsoring their adult children and brothers and sisters. And a national poll just released by the independent Grass Roots Research firm found that 61 percent of Americans agree with the statement that, “Anyone, from any country in the world, should be free to come to America if they are financially able to provide for themselves and their family.”

Legal immigration has been one of the few constants throughout American history that has consistently served the nation well, both culturally and economically. In the immigration debate, the burden of proof should be on those who suggest shutting the golden gates tighter. So far, they have not made that case.

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies and Stuart Anderson is director of trade and immigration studies at the Cato Institute.