Friday, March 14, 2008

Immigration irrationality

-- by Dave

The real hallmark of the right-wing rule America has endured for the better part of the new century has been its reliance on persuading the public to believe things that are factually false. The Iraq War -- in which the nation was induced to believe provably false "facts", thanks largely to a mendacious administration and a prostrate media eager to sit on its lap -- is only the most infamous example. The list -- running from the Plame affair to the Katrina debacle to Social Security and the economy, to civil rights and gay rights, to consumer-protection and environmental policy -- is not merely long, it touches nearly every facet of American governance and the public discourse.

And we can add the immigration debate to that list as well. For that matter, it's rapidly becoming the most prominent current example of the American right persuading the public to launch into another monumental clusterfuck on the basis of provably false information. And just as in those many other instances, the nation's media are playing an outsize role in helping it happen.

A couple of weeks ago word began leaking out out about polling done by a coalition of progressive immigration-reform groups that was meant to help inform internal strategy for political candidates looking to change the shape of the discourse so far. Some of the conclusions reached along the way raise some serious red flags -- particularly the possibility that liberals might simply reinforce right-wing frames along the way -- but the poll itself (which was kept confidential) made for some fascinating reading.

One aspect of the polling -- which I've received permission to discuss publicly from the groups involved -- really stood out as a prime example of how deeply right-wing bullshit infects the public discourse.

An early page in the poll, headlined "Biggest Concerns About Illegal Immigration," featured the public responses to a set of concerns that were identified by the pollsters as the most common issues raised in focus groups, letting the poll respondents say what their "one or two biggest concerns about illegal immigration today" might be. They ran thus:

Immigrants receiving free public services such as health care (48%)

Immigrants not paying taxes (35%)

Takes jobs from Americans and lowers wages (20%)

Too many immigrants aren't learning English (20%)

Weakens our security against terrorism (18%)

Causing crime problems in many communities (17%)

If you look down that list, something stands out: Each item reflects a fear based either on outright false information or on gross distortions from a highly selective set of facts.

Readers of our earlier discussions of the immigration debate will already be familiar with the groundlessness of most of these concerns, but it's still worthwhile going through them, and getting the requisite reality checks, so we can see just how far astray from anything rational we're wandering in this debate.

A. Immigrants receiving free public services such as health care

Reality Check 1:

Just a small fraction of America's health care spending is used to provide publicly supported care to the nation's undocumented immigrants, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

Overall, immigrants to the United States use relatively few health services, primarily because they are generally healthier than their American-born counterparts, according to the study by the nonprofit research organization.

The report – which appears in the November edition of the journal Health Affairs – estimates that in the United States about $1.1 billion in federal, state and local government funds are spent annually on health care for undocumented immigrants aged 18 to 64. That amounts to an average of $11 in taxes for each U.S. household.

In contrast, a total of $88 billion in government funds were spent on health care for all non-elderly adults in 2000.

Reality Check 2:

Health care expenditures are substantially lower for immigrants than for US-born persons. Our study refutes the assumption that immigrants represent a disproportionate financial burden on the US health care system.

Reality Check 3:

Despite the important role that immigrants play in the U.S. economy, they disproportionately lack health insurance and receive fewer health services than native-born Americans. Some policymakers have called for limits on immigrants' access to health insurance, particularly Medicaid, which are even more stringent than those already in place. However, policies that restrict immigrants' access to some health care services lead to the inefficient and costly use of other services (such as emergency room care) and negatively impact public health.

B. Immigrants not paying taxes

Reality Check 1:

Between one-half and three-quarters of undocumented immigrants pay federal and state income taxes, Social Security taxes, and Medicare taxes. And all undocumented immigrants pay sales taxes (when they buy anything at a store, for instance) and property taxes (even if they rent housing).

Reality Check 2:

As the debate over Social Security heats up, the estimated seven million or so illegal immigrant workers in the United States are now providing the system with a subsidy of as much as $7 billion a year.

Reality Check 3:

[The Texas] Comptroller’s office estimates that state revenues collected from undocumented immigrants exceed what the state spent on services, with the difference being $424.7 million.

C. Takes jobs from Americans and lowers wages

Reality Check 1:

Rapid increases in the foreign-born population at the state level are not associated with negative effects on the employment of native-born workers, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center that examines data during the boom years of the 1990s and the downturn and recovery since 2000.

An analysis of the relationship between growth in the foreign-born population and the employment outcomes of native-born workers revealed wide variations across the 50 states and the District of Columbia. No consistent pattern emerges to show that native-born workers suffered or benefited from increased numbers of foreign-born workers.

Reality Check 2:

In 2005, immigrants overall represented more than a fifth of low-wage workers—those earning less than twice the minimum wage—and almost half of workers without a high school education. Unauthorized workers were nearly a tenth of low-wage workers and a quarter of low-skilled workers. The number of low-wage and low-skilled native-born workers fell between 2000 and 2005, due to improvements in their educational attainment but also due to decreasing labor force participation.

D. Too many immigrants aren't learning English

Reality Check 1:

Nearly all Hispanic adults born in the United States of immigrant parents report they are fluent in English. By contrast, only a small minority of their parents describe themselves as skilled English speakers. This finding of a dramatic increase in English-language ability from one generation of Hispanics to the next emerges from a new analysis of six Pew Hispanic Center surveys conducted this decade among a total of more than 14,000 Latino adults. The surveys show that fewer than one-in-four (23%) Latino immigrants reports being able to speak English very well. However, fully 88% of their U.S.-born adult children report that they speak English very well. Among later generations of Hispanic adults, the figure rises to 94%. Reading ability in English shows a similar trend.

Reality Check 2

Hispanics by a large margin believe that immigrants have to speak English to be a part of American society and even more so that English should be taught to the children of immigrants, according to recent surveys conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center.

The endorsement of the English language, both for immigrants and for their children, is strong among all Hispanics regardless of income, party affiliation, fluency in English or how long they have been living in the United States.

Reality Check 3:

Within ten years of arrival, more than 75% of immigrants speak English well; moreover, demand for English classes at the adult level far exceeds supply. Greater than 33% of immigrants are naturalized citizens; given increased immigration in the 1990s, this figure will rise as more legal permanent residents become eligible for naturalization in the coming years. The number of immigrants naturalizing spiked sharply after two events: enactment of immigration and welfare reform laws in 1996, and the terrorist attacks in 2001.

E. Weakens our security against terrorism

Reality Check 1:

Using a database created from the biographical data of 373 terrorists, we have established a number of significant findings. Over forty percent of our database is made up of Western Nationals. Second, despite widespread alarms raised over terrorist infiltration from Mexico, we found no terrorist presence in Mexico and no terrorists who entered the U.S. from Mexico. Third, we found a sizeable terrorist presence in Canada and a number of Canadian-based terrorists who have entered the U.S.

Reality Check 2:

Nearly half of all the unauthorized migrants now living in the United States entered the country legally through a port of entry such as an airport or a border crossing point where they were subject to inspection by immigration officials, according to new estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center.

As much as 45% of the total unauthorized migrant population entered the country with visas that allowed them to visit or reside in the U.S. for a limited amount of time. Known as “overstayers,” these migrants became part of the unauthorized population when they remained in the country after their visas had expired.

Another smaller share of the unauthorized migrant population entered the country legally from Mexico using a Border Crossing Card, a document that allows short visits limited to the border region, and then violated the terms of admission.

F. Causing crime problems in many communities

Reality Check 1:

Although the undocumented immigrant population doubled to about 12 million from 1994 to 2005, the violent crime rate in the United States declined by 34.2% and the property crime rate fell by 26.4%.2 This decline in crime rates was not just national, it also occurred in border cities and other cities with large immigrant populations—such as San Diego, El Paso, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Miami.

Reality Check 2:

Crime Rates Have Declined as Immigration Has Increased:

Even as the undocumented population has doubled to 12 million since 1994, the violent crime rate in the United States has declined 34.2 percent and the property crime rate has fallen 26.4 percent.

Cities with large immigrant populations such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Miami also have experienced declining crime rates during this period.

Immigrants Have Lower Incarceration Rates than Natives:

Among men age 18-39 (who comprise the vast majority of the prison population), the 3.5 percent incarceration rate of the native-born in 2000 was 5 times higher than the 0.7 percent incarceration rate of the foreign-born.

The foreign-born incarceration rate in 2000 was nearly two-and-a-half times less than the 1.7 percent rate for nativeborn non-Hispanic white men and almost 17 times less than the 11.6 percent rate for native-born black men.

Native-born Hispanic men were nearly 7 times more likely to be in prison than foreign-born Hispanic men in 2000, while the incarceration rate of native-born non-Hispanic white men was almost 3 times higher than that of foreign-born white men.

Foreign-born Mexicans had an incarceration rate of only 0.7 percent in 2000—more than 8 times lower than the 5.9 percent rate of native-born males of Mexican descent.

Foreign-born Salvadoran and Guatemalan men had an incarceration rate of 0.5 percent, compared to 3.0 percent of native-born males of Salvadoran and Guatemalan descent.

It isn't possible for these misconceptions to spread without the willing complicity of the press, particularly ratings-mongerers like Lou Dobbs, who haven't yet found a right-wing nativist claim against immigrants they aren't willing to parrot as fact.

One of these, as it happens, is the claim that most Americans are up in arms about illegal immigration -- something that Dobbs repeated for his audience yesterday. But as Media Matters explains in detail, most polls found that only between 4 and 7 percent of various poll respondents consider it among their most pressing political issues.

The spread of afactual garbage into the mainstream is indeed a widespread media problem. And if they're not going to clean up their act, perhaps the blogosphere can do it for them.

[Cross posted at Firedoglake.]

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