Thursday, November 29, 2007

The logic of the anti-immigrant crowd.

There are numerous arguments that the xenophobes make against immigration -- or more precisely against certain kinds of immigrants. Rarely do I find that they want to stop all immigrants. After all no one wants to build a wall on the Canadian border -- but those people look like us so they are okay.

Some of these arguments are merely mistaken -- based on false premises. Some are just daft, moronic or stupid -- those based on false logic. Others are just mean-spirited and openly hateful.

A stupid argument is one that is just logically false. My favorite is the one that argues that the individuals grandparent or great-parent immigrated to America legally so why don’t those damn Mexicans do the same thing. It assumes that the Mexicans can do what their grandparents did. It assumes no differences in the law or the situation of the immigrants.

My great grandparents were all immigrants to the United States. And every one of them immigrated legally to the United States. How was that possible? First, let me recount what they did. They saved money up for a boat ticket. They got on the boat. They got off the boat. The filled in some forms with the immigration people and then walked out to their new life. No one can do that today. The people who come closest to doing this are, in fact, illegal immigrants.

People stupidly assume the law has not made life immensely more difficult for immigrants than it did 50 years ago or 75 years ago. My immigrant ancestors (there are no native Americans only people who immigrated sooner than others) didn’t have to queue up at a consulate and hand in massive documents that are meticulously filled out. They didn’t pay high filing fees they couldn’t afford or have to schedule “interviews” with embassy officials who couldn’t fit them into the schedule for months, if not for years.

They didn’t even need a passport -- no one did. People just traveled the world and settled where they wished -- except in a few countries that were considered dictatorships or authoritarian in nature. My ancestors merely boarded the first boat they could and got off in America. No immigrant today can do what they did under the current labyrinth of legislation.

Any legal system of immigration will allow some people into the country -- that is a given. That some get in doesn’t mean that others have the same chance of getting in if they simply follow the rules. This is particularly true for immigration since the rules are not the same for everyone. The government has created hundreds of special categories which apply to only some people. That your mother got in is not a guarantee that other immigrants could do the same thing.

To assume that all immigrants today have equal opportunities to immigrate is false. And to assume that today’s immigrants can enter legally just as easily as yesterday’s immigrants is totally false. The logic is bad. The premise is correct -- immigrants in the past did get into the U.S. but the conclusion -- that therefore immigrants today can do it just as easily -- does not follow the premise.

Another argument that is just silly is the one that says that some immigrants do something bad therefore reducing immigration is a good thing because it prevents the bad things from happening. For instance, an immigrant might kill someone therefore preventing immigration saves lives.

No doubt preventing immigration will save some lives. So would preventing births. Mandatory birth control will prevent any new murderers from being born. But of course there is a cost as well. The anti-immigrant debate tends to look only at the debit column and not the credit column. In the bridge collapse in Minnesota an immigrant rescued dozens of children from the trapped school bus. We recently outlined the case of the small child who was rescued in the desert by an illegal immigrant who sacrificed his chance to finish his journey to America by staying with the child until the authorities arrived. Not long ago a small child climbed onto a fire escape in New York City and fell several floors to the ground below. Two immigrants together caught the child saving its life.

Cutting immigration will cost some lives and save others. Unless there is some indication that immigrants are far more likely to be killers (and there isn’t) the argument is bogus. Every restriction can be justified on the basis of saving one life or preventing one crime. If every American were in prison or under constant surveillance by Homeland Security there would, no doubt, be fewer crimes. But such arguments are routinely rejected, with good cause, in areas that impact directly on most Americans. That the same rejected logic is then used against immigrants is indicative that it is not the logic that persuades people.

Many of the arguments against immigration are invented statistics that the xenophobic campaigners like to spread around like manure in a field -- and the smell isn’t much different either. One argument is that immigrants don’t contribute to the economy but are a drain on it. In fact we covered that topic several times. Here is one study that looked at the question of immigrants in Arizona, a state with a large number of illegals, and found that they pay more in taxes than they consume in benefits. In other words they are subsidizing the fat welfare crowd who are mostly native born.

Other studies showed that the immigrants are paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits as well.

The tottering Social Security system is subsidized by illegal immigrants who find that social security payments are deducted from their wages but they are unable to ever collect the benefits for which they are paying. The funds collected from these immigrants goes into an “earnings suspense file” that the government keeps. And they report that these funds are growing by $50 billion year. The chief actuary for Social Security, Stephen Goss, says that “about three-quarters of other-than-legal immigrants pay payroll taxes.”

The result is that immigrants are subsidizing the social security benefits received by millions of Americans. Mr. Goss says that because the illegals don’t collect, but are paying in, they are cutting the loses the system experiences. As the New York Times reported: “without the flow of payroll taxes from wages in the suspense file, the system’s long-term funding hole over 75 years would be 10 percent deeper.”

And one tax agent who helps immigrants prepare their tax returns says that among his clients many return to Mexico when they become elderly to live off their savings. “I can’t recall anybody over 60 without papers,” he said. They work and then retire with the earnings they made during their working years while simultaneously subsidizing the retirement of native born Americans.

Then there is the bogus crime issue. The claim here is that immigrants are apparently inclined toward crime way out of proportion to their numbers --- well, technically that is true but the inclination is one against crime. Immigrants commit fewer crimes on average than do the native born.

Some right-wing tirades against immigrants actually invent statistics. There is a lot of that going around especially on the internet by email. Any email claim received that is negative about immigrants, no matter how absurd or dishonest, is spread around with great delight by some. Yet these claims are false. They are lies that someone intentionally concocted knowing that the bigoted mind is prone to believe such claims simply because they confirm the prejudices of the believer. The bigot, however, never questions his own statistics but reports them as confirming what he already knew without evidence. And far too often those stats are just bogus.

The case against immigrants doesn’t stack up with the evidence. That people continue to make it, in the face of evidence to the contrary, has to cause me to wonder what their real motivation might be. And when I see some of the hateful emails that are distributed, filled with bogus statistics of the sort that Klan would disseminate I can only conclude that there is more than a hint of racism involved. When this concern never seems to materialize into actions taken to stop immigrants who are white my suspicions are aroused even further. But typically, if I read the material the anti-immigrant groups send around, all my suspicions are confirmed and rank prejudice is typically the main motivation for such beliefs.

The immigrant is prejudged and held guilty for things he has not done but for things he is assumed that he will do at some point in the future. This prejudgment is then supported with bad logic or dishonest statistics. That all looks like racism to me. Not every single opponent of immigration is a racist but every racist I’ve met has been an opponent of immigration. And more importantly, the percentage of racists among the anti-immigration crowd is far higher than among the general population. The link between racism and anti-immigration views is not 100% but it is substantial.

Photo: The illustration is of a publication from almost 90 years ago lamenting how immigration was ruining America. For most Americans that would be referring to your grandparents or their parents or grandparent. They also bought the argument that immigration then was "different" from previous waves of immigrants and thus a bigger threat. In other words you are the people the anti-immigrant crowd in 1920 was warning America about-- you are the threat they imagined.