By Tom Elias
Myths will probably not stop Congress from enacting some major changes in immigration policy this year, but half a dozen or so common shibboleths may well shape the changes that emerge.
Here are a few: For every immigrant legalized and able to take a job, one American citizen worker will lose his or hers. Unauthorized immigrants pay almost no taxes, while costing taxpayers many billions of dollars. New immigrants are bad for business. Immigrant workers cause wages to drop, especially unauthorized immigrants. Immigrant workers cause African-American unemployment to rise.
A host of new academic studies now shows every one of these widely believed statements to be false. And there are reasons why each is untrue.
The most pervasive of these kinds of anti-immigrant claims — often repeated in Congress and on talk radio — relate to taxes. Undocumented immigrants pay far less in taxes than they use in government services, goes the myth, promoted in part by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, which in 2004 claimed immigrant households cost the federal government $10 billion more than they pay in taxes.
But U.S. Census figures indicate otherwise. Immigrants in California pay roughly $30 billion a year in federal taxes, $5.2 billion in state income taxes and $4.6 billion in sales taxes, while contributing an average of $2,679 to Social Security, about $540 more than the typical household headed by a U.S.-born citizen (
). About one-fourth of that tax money comes from the undocumented. With the national cost of illegal immigration estimated by anti-illegal immigrant groups at about $30 billion per year, these figures mean that rather than costing government more than they pay in, immigrants probably pay more than they use in services.
And that doesn’t include any taxes paid by businesses owned by U.S. citizens where Latino immigrants of all types who have arrived since 2000 now spend $310 billion yearly in California alone, or about $1.6 trillion nationally, according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia.
What about jobs? Rather than costing Americans work, immigrants actually create more jobs, according to the Immigration Policy Center, another outfit based in Washington. In California alone, 588,763 Latino immigrant-owned businesses employed more than 458,000 persons of all ethnicities.
What’s more, immigration — including unauthorized immigration — tends to drive wages up, not down, according to yet another study, this one completed in 2007 at UC Davis. “Immigration produced a 4 percent real wage increase (after inflation) for the average native worker,” said the study, which covered the years 1990-2004.
How can that be? “Immigrant workers spend their wages in U.S. businesses,” said an Immigration Policy Center summary. “They buy food, clothes, appliances, cars and much more. Businesses respond to the presence of these new workers and consumers by investing in new restaurants, stores and production facilities. Immigrants also are 30 percent more likely than the native-born to start their own businesses. The end result is more jobs and more pay for more workers.”
What about immigrants’ effect on African-Americans? “Cities experiencing the highest rates of immigration tend to have relatively low or average unemployment rates for African-Americans,” Saint Louis University economist Jack Strauss concluded in an analysis of Census findings. “Cities with greater immigration from Latin America experience lower unemployment rates, poverty rates and higher wages among African-Americans.”
This may be counter-intuitive, but it’s probably because Latino newcomers and African-Americans don’t compete for the same jobs. “Native-born workers take higher-paying jobs that require better English-language skills,” said the Immigration Policy Center report.
Never mind that all these conclusions are based either on Census numbers or on peer-reviewed academic research. Facts will not eliminate immigration shibboleths, because they are based largely on emotion and fear.
With all this academic and Census-based information readily available to everyone in Congress, the big question now is whether it will be myths and misinformation or facts that shape new immigration policies that just might emerge later this year.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org. His book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It,” is now available in a soft-cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to