Ask any semi-politically conscious American to name the biggest issue in the 2016 presidential election and they will almost surely mention immigration. While talk of a wall around the border of American territory and blatant accusations of immigrant criminality makes this debate more contentious than ever, it is nothing new. Instead, it is the extension of a long-standing argument over border security and the deportation of undocumented immigrants.
This debate is framed incorrectly and has been for decades. Rather than talk about how many immigrants to deport and how to determine who stays and who goes, the political dialogue on undocumented immigrants should be about whether it makes sense to deport anyone at all. A careful look at the issue and its real implications reveals that it doesn’t make sense.
Proponents of deportation argue that immigrants are taking away employment opportunities for Americans and causing crime in American communities. These arguments garner support because they cause fear and give citizens a scapegoat for their economic woes. However, this argument proves to be weak when it is closely observed.
Immigrants are, in fact, creating American jobs. A recent report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Mathematics showed “little to no negative effects on the overall wages and employment of native-born workers in the long term” as a result of immigration. The study also proved that highly skilled immigrants, especially in STEM fields, have had an overall positive impact on the U.S. economy. “Prospects for long-run economic growth in the United States would be considerably dimmed without the contributions of high-skilled immigrants,” it says.
The idea that immigrants commit crimes at higher rates than native-born Americans is a xenophobic fantasy. From 1990 to 2013, the number of undocumented residents in the U.S. tripled. At the same time, the violent crime rate fell 48 percent, according to the American Immigration Council. In 2008, California’s immigrants represented 35 percent of the total population of the state but only 17 percent of the state prison population, as reported by the Public Policy Institute of California. Studies and statistics repeatedly show that immigrants actually commit fewer crimes than native-born U.S. residents, dispelling racist myths of immigrant criminality.
Since immigrants have an overall positive effect on the U.S. economy and are no more likely to commit crimes than anyone else, mass deportations are pointless. Yet, the federal government doesn’t seem to understand that. In 2012 the federal government spent $17.9 billion on immigration law enforcement compared to $14.4 billion on all other criminal-law enforcement, which includes the budgets of the FBI, DEA, and Secret Service, among others.
It is important to also consider that deportation tears apart families, fosters terror in communities, and can force people back into dangerous situations in their countries of origin. It’s inhumane.
The current political rhetoric on immigration demonstrates, once again, our ability as Americans to forget our past. America is a nation of immigrants. Still, we persist, spending billions of dollars every year to ruin lives and damage the economy.
It’s time to have an honest debate on immigration. Then, and only then, can we move past xenophobia and scapegoating in order to come closer to reaching our potential as a nation.