Migrating Truth

Immigration rhetoric plays fast with the facts

Listening to Dobbs or Limbaugh, you'd think illegal immigration was spawned by Beelzebub himself. But shimmy past their simplistic roar, and you'll discover an issue that's terrifically nuanced and complex.

Not that misinformation is limited to broadcast blowhards, of course. Even policy wrangling is dominated by partisan rhetoric that often twists the truth and confuses the public. To researchers such as Judith Gans, however, scratching out veracity beneath that veneer of spin is a full-time job. Gans runs the immigration program at the UA's Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy. And she says that facts routinely become hostage to fierce immigration politics. "Certainly, with the tenor of the debate so heated, there is so much misinformation flying around."

Instead, she counters with compact doses of nonpartisan reality such as this: Immigrant workers actually boost the national economy rather than drain it, and even help raise wages in some industries. Or this: Today's newcomers arrive with education levels not much different than native-born Americans, and certainly no lower than past immigrants.

Or this: The current immigration wave is hardly a fresh phenomenon. "This didn't happen overnight," says Gans. "But suddenly, it got on the radar screen. Now there's a feeling that we're being overrun, and the system is out of control. But it's nothing new."

U.S. Census data reveals a 16 percent jump in the number of immigrant households over the past five years. They now constitute 12.4 percent of America's population, and a majority--11 million--come from Mexico. This shift "has been building for years," Gans says. "You can draw a (starting) line in history anywhere you want to draw it. But certainly in the modern era, it begins with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986."

Millions of predominantly Mexican illegal immigrants were given amnesty under that measure. Since then, the number of immigrants in this country has risen to around 35 million. But if that seems alarming, says Gans, consider that as a percentage of our population, they've actually dropped to 12 percent, compared to roughly 15 percent in other high-immigration periods in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

At the same time, up to 98 percent of the world's population growth occurs in developing nations, while developed nations--including the United States--are seeing their populations grow steadily older. That means economies such as ours need immigrants, she says. "It's not just about bringing in cheap labor to do jobs that Americans won't do. I think of it as immigrants doing jobs that Americans aren't able to do. And with the baby boomers aging, those demographic pressures are just going to get worse."

Still, that leads to clashes with labor unions struggling to protect American workers from immigrant competition. And those unions carry clout. "They are legitimately wired into the political processes, and their voices get heard," Gans says. "Politicians get really nervous at being accused of allowing open borders, and allowing foreign labor to come in.

"But American workers really can't be protected from competition with foreign workers. They're competing in international labor markets every day, because it's never been easier for capital to go to labor if labor can't come here."

The numbers bear her out. Today, one of about every eight workers in this country is foreign-born. And they are particularly vital to certain American industries such as construction, where immigrants make up about 20 percent of the workforce, or to farming, where that number approaches 35 percent.

Of course, those statistics belie a complex economic and social impact, Gans says. For example, immigration foes complain that immigrant labor depresses wages. However, cheap labor can also keep businesses from relocating abroad. Consider a Southern Arizona farmer who uses immigrant workers. What would happen if that farmer suddenly lost his imported farmhands?

"Could he get plenty of Americans willing to pick crops if he paid $20 an hour?" she asks. Perhaps. "But I don't think the Southern Arizona farmer is going to pay those kinds of wages. I think the farmer instead would move across the border to Sonora, Mexico."

By contrast, immigrants can actually help bolster wages. "Immigrant labor does depress or lower wages of workers with whom immigrants directly compete," she says. "But it also raises wages of workers who are complimentary to immigrant skills."

Case in point: "If you're running a construction firm, you need an array of skills--drywall people, electricians, plasterers, plumbers, framers, construction managers, finish carpenters, the whole thing." In turn, the availability of low-paid immigrants to cover menial tasks makes more money available for other projects and for attracting higher-skilled employees. "You do get very real income-distribution impacts because of these kinds of shifts," Gans says. "But the economy as a whole is clearly better off."

Impact upon government is similarly mixed. "The federal government benefits at the expense of state and local governments," she says. "Immigrants tend to use less benefits than they pay (in withholdings) at the federal level. But the inverse is true at state and local levels, where those governments are up in arms about effects on schools and other direct fiscal costs."

However, this dynamic is more about class than citizenship, she says. "Any low-skilled worker uses more services than they pay in taxes. Again, this gets to the direct and indirect impacts, if you include the impacts of higher wages paid to the construction manager, or higher returns to a bank, or higher wages for the more skilled workers." In other words, because those workers and financial institutions make more money, they contribute more in taxes. That helps counteract the revenue impact of low-skilled workers, including immigrants.

Still, "that typically isn't counted in the fiscal equation," she says. "It's a common problem in economics, when you have easily identifiable costs and diffuse benefits. The costs are easily identifiable, with immigrants being easy to point to." But the benefits provided by immigrants are less direct.

Here's another irony: The very forces drawing Mexicans into our labor pool actually drain jobs from their country. "With China and India coming into the global economy," Gans says, "all of sudden, there's this huge influx of low-skilled workers." As a result, "workers in Mexico are, in very real ways, competing with workers in China. All of a sudden, (companies) could choose whether to relocate in Mexico or China. And guess what? Mexican workers are expensive compared to Chinese workers, so they're going to China."

Ultimately, says Gans, this is just the latest twist in America's melting-pot saga. "The stark picture that some people paint, that these are profoundly different people who aren't dedicated to bettering themselves, I just don't see it," she says.

"I don't feel pessimistic about this issue, when you look at how hard so many of these immigrants work, and usually at multiple jobs. It's hard to believe that we're not seeing a repeat of the story that made this country what it is."