Myths and Realities about Immigration in the Past and Present

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Photo by Jonathan McIntosh, via Wikimedia Commons

The recent debates over immigration prompted me to think about immigration myths and realities in the past and present. In this post first published on Medium, I consider the questions of whether we’re admitting too many immigrants, undocumented immigration, and the alleged relationship between crime and immigration.

From Donald Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants to the tragic murder of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco, immigration is in the news again. As the debate continues, it’s a good time to examine some myths and realities about immigration in the past and present.

Some say that we’re letting in too many immigrants.

It’s true that the U.S. is currently experiencing one of its highest levels of immigration. In 2013, approximately 41.3 million immigrants lived in the United States, just over 13 percent of the total U.S. population. This is a high proportion of immigrant Americans, but it is not the highest. In 1890, the 9.2 million immigrants in the country were 14.8 percent of the total U.S. population. Indeed, for much of our recent history, especially between 1860 and 1920, immigrants made up 13 to 15 percent of the total U.S. population.

Plus, mass migration from Mexico, which has been one of the largest sources of new immigration, has dropped dramatically in recent years. Mexicans no longer make up the largest group of new immigrant arrivals. According to the U.S. Census, that status now belongs to the Chinese. And as the Pew Research Center recently reported, net migration from Mexico has fallen to zero, perhaps less.

Some argue that immigrants bring more crime into American communities.

This is an old argument. In the 19th century, Irish immigrants were accused of being more prone to criminal behavior. There were also the Chinese tongs and the Italian mafia to worry about. The data, however, shows that immigrants are less likely to be criminals than the native-born and that higher immigration is associated with lower crime rates. Some immigrants, just like native-born Americans, do commit crimes. But there is also the larger problem that immigrants are themselves being increasingly criminalized. As Walter Ewing, Daniel Martinez, and Ruben Rumbaut have recently explained:

“Whole new classes of “felonies” have been created which apply only to immigrants, deportation has become a punishment for even minor offenses, and policies aimed at trying to end unauthorized immigration have been made more punitive rather than more rational and practical.”

In other words, the vast majority of immigrants are not dangers to their communities or to our public safety. But in an era of expanding enforcement, immigrants with even the slightest infractions, such as driving a car with a broken tail light, can find themselves subject to disproportionate punishment, like long-term detention and expulsion from the country.

Some argue that our borders are not secure and that we have too many undocumented immigrants.

The truth of the matter is that undocumented immigration is nothing new. Ever since we began passing immigration laws that allowed some groups to enter the country but barred or restricted others, immigrants have sought other ways to come to the U.S. without authorization. Chinese immigrants excluded by the Chinese Exclusion Laws (in effect from 1882 to 1943) were the first group to cross the border and use false immigration documents to enter the country.

Since 1965 when the U.S. placed numerical restrictions on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, unauthorized immigration from Latin America has increased. An estimated 11.5 million immigrants now live in the U.S. without authorization. Many are from Latin America, but the reality is that immigrants from around the world, including Europe, Asia, and Africa, are all members of the undocumented immigrant population.

As for securing our borders, one could argue that our borders have never been so secure. Since Congress passed sweeping legislation to strengthen the nation’s immigration enforcement system beginning in 1996, we have deported 4.5 million unauthorized immigrants and other removable non-citizens. Under President Obama (who has repeatedly faced criticism for being soft on immigration), the U.S. has deported record numbers of unauthorized immigrants, close to 2 million. This includes a record high of almost 315,000 Mexicans in 2013 alone. Rather than face a crisis of open borders, some argue that we face a “deportation dilemma.”

Immigration rates, crime, and border security are just three of the issues that Americans are discussing today. We need to have real conversations about immigration and race in our changing America today. But in order to do that, we need to get our facts straight and separate the myths from the realities.

Let’s start a conversation.

What myths about immigration do you think need to be addressed? Respond here and connect on Twitter @prof_erikalee.

Erika Lee is author of The Making of Asian America: A History, coming out September 1 from Simon & Schuster.