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International Socialist Review Issue 43, September–October 2005

Immigration: Myth and reality


Justin Akers is active in antiwar and cross-border solidarity work. He is the author of “A Draft in the Air?” (ISR 38, November–December 2004), “Farmworkers in the U.S.” (ISR 33, March–April 2004), and “Operation Gatekeeper: Militarizing the Border” (ISR 18, June–July 2001).

ANY LITANY of deceit repeated ad nauseam, assumes the mantel of truth if it goes unchallenged. The immigration debate, monopolized by business interests and the far-Right, has so poisoned the atmosphere of U.S. politics that anti-immigrant myths are perpetuated throughout the media without even the pretense of investigative challenge. Here we debunk several immigration myths.

1. Undocumented immigrants do not want to go through the legal channels.

The two main legal ways for immigration into the country are through family-based and work-based channels. Most new legal immigrants come through as infant children, spouses, and parents of American citizens. Another 226,000 slots are set aside for other family members, with about 27,000 slots for each country. Where there are a high number of petitions, the process is backlogged. Current wait time for a citizen to bring in their spouse or young child is seven years, while bringing in a sibling or adult child is on average a twenty-two-year wait.1

The agony of waiting more than five years for a visa to visit her husband, a mushroom picker in Pennsylvania, led Irene Velazquez to make a desperate attempt to cross the border through the Arizona desert. She perished in the sweltering heat, and was recovered only after her distraught husband left his job to frantically search for her body in a remote mountainous region.2

The second channel is through a work visa, which allows only 140,000 slots per year. Of these, only 10,000 are set aside for low-skilled labor. The process requires that the employer first prove that he couldn’t find an American to take the job, which can take up to two years. After that, the wait could be up to four years to obtain the visa.

Considering that there are 10.3 million gainfully employed undocumented workers in the U.S., the legal route is designed to fail. As one immigrant commented, “we have played by the rules and gotten nowhere. I’m better off telling my son to come here illegally.”3

The cynical nature of big business regarding immigration is illustrated by the actions of the Western Growers Association (WGA), the largest agricultural trade organization in Arizona and California. Their executive vice president, Jasper Hempel, recently stated his support for the “war on terrorism,” stating, “We are like every other American.… We want to make sure our borders are secure against terrorists and drug smugglers.” In November 2004, when lettuce farmers in Arizona experienced labor shortages due to an expanded use of Border Patrol checkpoints, the WGA “stepped in and requested ease up until the farmers could get enough workers to make sure the multimillion dollar crop wouldn’t perish.”4

2. The border region is out of control.

To maintain a climate of uncertainty and fear of immigrants, it is necessary to portray the border region as unstable, porous, and the source of society’s ills. Despite being accepted as biblical truth, the image does not really match the reality.

The U.S.-Mexico border is the most traversed border in the world. With an average of 250 million crossings annually, only the 1 percent occurs without authorization and attracts all of the political attention.5

In San Diego alone, over 70,000 Mexicans cross over daily, mainly to buy consumer goods. In 2003, shoppers spent $40.8 billion in the local economy, adding an extra $3.3 billion through sales tax. Considering there are several major twin cities that straddle the border, Mexicans help sustain the whole border economy by contributing taxes and creating jobs.6

While the regularized influx of migrant workers is nothing new, the shaping of the imagery is a recent phenomenon. According to Peter Andreas:

Public perception is powerfully shaped by the images of the border which politicians, law enforcement agencies and the media project. Alarming images of a border out of control can fuel public anxiety; re-assuring images of a border can reduce such anxiety…[therefore], successful border management depends on successful image management and this does not necessarily correspond with levels of actual deterrence.7

This “image management” is used in the current context to criminalize migration while moving the focus away from the real issues. While no “terrorists” have been caught crossing through the Arizona desert, there is the permanency of fear (and perpetuation of the belief) that terrorists are coming across, blending into the stream of migrant workers.

The other phantom of border enforcement, drug trafficking, is also linked with migration through the “unguarded wastelands.” In fact, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration report in the aftermath of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the further opening of the borders to cargo traffic, it was estimated that most cocaine coming into the U.S. entered through official ports of entry, occasionally with the collusion of corrupt customs agents. 8

According to José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, federal deputy attorney general and the head of the elite SIEDO anti-organized crime unit, the Mexican government is currently investigating possible links between state police in Baja California and U.S. Border Patrol agents in drug trafficking.9

Migrants themselves face the greatest danger along the border. Pushing the crossing routes into the desert and mountains has created a human rights tragedy. Dying at the rate of one a day, casualties on the border will soon surpass the number of people killed on 9/11, and are ten times the number of people who died escaping over the Berlin Wall. Border militarization has not stopped migration, only imposed new, deadly rules on it.

It is estimated that 90 percent of the one to two million unauthorized border crossings now rely on the use of smugglers. Estimated to be an $8 billion a year industry, human smuggling relies on a vast network that operates on both sides of the border to circumvent the immigration authorities.10 The smuggling industry, while the only means for some immigrants to cross the border, also sets up a secondary level of exploitation, as many are forced to pay exorbitant fees, are robbed, abandoned, or raped and beaten by unscrupulous smugglers known as coyotes. But the biggest coyote is the U.S. immigration system that forces them into such a perilous journey in the interests of big business in the first place.

3. Immigrants live off our “generous” welfare system.

Immigrant workers come to the U.S. to work. According to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, 92 percent of undocumented males are gainfully employed, higher than any other sector of the population. Immigrant workers are also taking on more diverse jobs within the economy, as a quarter of them have at least some college education and another quarter has finished high school.11

Immigrant workers also pay taxes. According to a 1997 study by Cato Institute economist Steve Moore, immigrant households paid an estimated $133 billion in direct taxes to federal, state, and local governments. Another study by the National Academy of Sciences, found that immigrants benefit the U.S. economy overall, have little negative effect on the income and job opportunities of most native-born Americans, and may add as much as $10 billion to the economy each year. Overall, according to the study, further analysis would likely show “that 49 of the 50 states come out ahead fiscally from immigration, with California a close call.12

Since undocumented workers pay into a system but are deprived of its benefits, they are denied the fruits of their labor. Most workers, documented or not, pay into Social Security and Medicare through deductions from each paycheck. Since the 1980s, the Social Security Administration has seen a steady increase of W-2 earnings reports with phony social security numbers—in other words, those of undocumented workers. These funds are stashed into what is called the “Earnings Suspense File.” Since there are no accurate records of who paid the taxes, the fund has mushroomed to a whopping $189 billion from wage receipts, generating $6–$7 billion in Social Security tax revenue and about $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes, that cannot be claimed by undocumented immigrants.13 In short, immigrants are not only deprived of the benefits and services they deserve, they are contributing to a massive government fund that will be appropriated by others.

Anti-immigrant politicians, eager to get their hands on other people’s money, are scurrying to block any attempt to match these funds to their rightful owners. A recent bill passed in Congress by Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ), prohibits distribution of Social Security funds to the undocumented. Gushing after his victory he declared, “I am proud that a unified House stood with me to declare our determination that illegal aliens will not plunder Social Security funds that are intended solely for retired and disabled Americans.”14

4. Immigrants take jobs from native-born -workers.

According to an in-depth 1994 study by economists at the Alexis De Tocqueville Institution, areas with high immigration rates actually increase employment opportunities for native-born workers. They wrote,

First, immigrants may expand the demand for goods and services through their consumption. Second, immigrants may contribute to output through the investment of savings they bring with them. Third, immigrants have high rates of entrepreneurship, which may lead to the creation of new jobs for U.S. workers. Fourth, immigrants may fill vital niches in the low and high skilled ends of the labor market, thus creating subsidiary job opportunities for Americans. Fifth, immigrants may contribute to economies of scale in production and the growth of markets.15

Recent studies also discount displacement in higher-skilled occupations. Furthermore, immigration opponents base their theory on competition for a static number of jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of jobs in America has increased by fifteen million between 1990 and 2003, and will continue with more than thirty-three million new job openings likely created between 2000 and 2010. Largely low-skilled jobs that will likely be filled by immigrant workers, they represent 58 percent of all new job openings.16

While this data demolishes the idea that immigrant workers steal jobs from other workers, their internal segregation within the labor market led one Pew Hispanic Center Study to conclude that while Latino immigrants and native-born workers appear to be on “different paths,” “[immigrants’] growing supply and concentration in certain occupations suggests that the newest arrivals are competing with each other in the labor market to their own detriment.” These two factors fuel the further decline in wages.17

Political scientist Rudolfo O. de la Garza attributes the segregation-like factors facing Mexican workers as the reason for their perpetual restriction to the basement of the working class. The racial divides ensure that even the fourth generation of Mexican-Americans lag behind other Americans in education, home ownership, and income.18 The average family income in 2003 for undocumented migrants living in the U.S. for less than ten years was $25,700, while average family incomes were considerably higher for both legal immigrants ($47,800) and the native-born ($47,700).19

Furthermore, far from bringing economic hardship, immigrants revitalize communities as a whole. In many cases, inner-city decay has been countered by what Mike Davis calls the “sweat equity” of Latino migrants. For example, the “75,000 or so Mexican and Salvadorean homeowners [have] become an unexcelled constructive force (the opposite of white flight) working to restore debilitated neighborhoods to trim respectability.”20 Recent studies have also demonstrated a similar impact by Latino immigration in stagnating towns in the northeastern United States.21

Latino immigrants in the U.S. are the fastest growing sector of the population. According to U.S. Census predictions, by 2050 minority groups will be, as they already are in Texas and California, half or more of the nation’s population, driven to an important extent by Hispanic immigration. Between April 2000 and July 2004, the Latino population of the U.S. grew by 17 percent, while the overall population increased by 4.3 percent.22

Though the economy has been in recovery, wages overall have been declining. As Latinos become more integrated into and central to the economy, they have become an easy target of scapegoating. But pitting immigrant workers against native-born workers weakens both. The anti-immigrant climate helps drive down the conditions of immigrant workers, making it easier for employers to impose lower wages on all workers. As the old adage of the labor movement says: an injury to one is an injury to all. Only by building a unified labor movement that champions the rights of immigrants, and that organizes immigrant workers as equal partners in the struggle, will workers be able to fight for jobs and better conditions for all.

1 Claudine LoMonaco, “10m illegal immigrants in US: Push is on for faster immigration,” Tucson Citizen, July 4, 2004.
2 Ibid.
3 Sergio Bustos, “Backlog keeps immigrants waiting years for green cards,” Gannet News Service, January 26, 2005.
4 LoMonaco.
5 David Lorey, The U.S.-Mexican Border in the Twentieth Century (Scholarly Resources: Wilmington, Deleware, 2003), 3.
6 Shannon McMahon, “Mexican consumers pour billions annually into San Diego’s economy,” San Diego Union Tribune, August 7, 2005.
7 Peter Andreas, Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide (Cornell University Press: NY, 2000), 9.
8 Ibid., 75.
9 “Border patrol agents accused of smuggling,” Frontera News Service, May 4, 2005.
10 Ken Ellingwood, Hard Line: Life and Death on the US-Mexico Border (Pantheon Books: New York, 2004), 85.
11 “Fuller portrait of Hispanic undocumented immigrants,” Pew Hispanic Center, June 14, 2005.
12 “Five immigration myths,” American Immigration Lawyers Association, available online at default.aspx?docid=1047.
13 Eduardo Porter, “Illegal immigrants are bolstering Social Security with billions,” New York Times, April 5, 2005.
14 “House passes Hayworth legislation barring illegal aliens from receiving U.S. Social Security payments, for this year,” U.S. Border Control, June 26, 2005, available online at
15 Richard Vedder, Lowell Gallaway, and Stephen Moore, Immigration and Unemployment: New Evidence, (Alexis de Tocqueville Institution: Arlington, Virginia, 1994), 13.
16 These statistics and many more, available online at the Web site for the American Immigration Lawyers Association,
17 Lance Selfa, “The lies they tell about immigrants,” Socialist Worker, June 17, 2005.
18 Anthony DePalma, “15 years on the bottom rung,” New York Times, May 26, 2005.
19 Pew Hispanic Center.
20 Mike Davis, Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City (Verso Books: New York, 2000), 52.
21 Alexander Dworkowitz, “In Northeast, a city’s tale of turnaround,” Christian Science Monitor, July 28, 2005.
22 Robert Pear, “Racial and ethnic minorities gain in the nation as a whole,” New York Times, August 12, 2005.
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