Today, on International Workers’ Day, when thousands of immigrants and workers across the nation are marching to make their voices heard, I’ve been reflecting back on my own immigrant experience.
I left Cuba as a girl of 11. I arrived in New Orleans, the only one in my public school class who couldn’t speak English. I remember sitting in class, overwhelmed by the flurry of English that I did not understand. But my teacher, Ms. Marie, held my eyes with hers. As I started haltingly saying unfamiliar words, she beamed encouragement. I arrived in September, and by December was speaking a new tongue.
Of course, mine is just one story of millions of immigrants who left their homes for the promise of American opportunity. When I look around at my fellow immigrants, I see courage, responsibility to family and community, work ethic, and inspiration. I see givers, not takers.
But that’s not the story I hear. Today I hear about “bad hombres;” waves of criminals invading the U.S. to take advantage of our systems. I hear tales about how, unless we build a wall to stop the flow, our jobs will be stolen and our economy will sink.
These stories hurt. They hurt me personally because they don’t represent me or my family. But they also deeply damage our immigrant communities, which are now living in fear. And, because they underpin hateful policies, they will have a very real impact—they’ve already increased hate crimes and begun to tear families apart.
To debunk these stories, we need to examine them. Today, on a day when so many are raising their voices, let’s look at some of the harmful myths about immigration—and start to tear them down.
3 Myths About Immigration
1. Illegal Immigration Is On The Rise
Popular lore would have us believe that every year more and more immigrants are flowing across our borders, and that we need to take drastic action to stem the tide.
But a glance at the last 120 years tells a different story.
In the early 1900s, when the majority of immigrants to the U.S. were Irish and German, the percentage of immigrants compared to the total population was much higher than it is today. In 1900, first- and second-generation immigrants made up 35% of the U.S. population, whereas currently, they make up only 26%, according to the Pew Research Center.
In fact, since the recession began, studies show that unauthorized immigration has actually declined.
And, contrary to popular belief, decreases in illegal immigration are not good for our economy... which brings me to our second myth:
2. Immigrants Hurt Our Economy
If we deport all our illegal immigrants, more Americans will get jobs and our economy will grow.
Actually, quite the opposite. When immigrants join the U.S. workforce, it not only raises the overall GDP; it also increases the incomes of U.S. citizens, according to the George W. Bush Institute.
Surprised? Here are some other incredible tidbits about immigration, courtesy of the Bush Institute:
- Immigrants are twice as likely as natives to be granted a patent.
- In 2010, 41% of all Fortune 500 companies had at least one key founder who was an immigrant or the child of an immigrant.
- Immigrants start new businesses at almost twice the rate of native-born Americans.
To achieve growth, we need immigrants—the daring, work ethic, and imagination that drove them to leave their home countries translates to new ideas and innovation in our economy. Just imagine: if we had banned the Syrian Abdul Fattah Jandali from migrating to the U.S. in the 1950’s, his son, Steve Jobs, would never have founded Apple.
3. Building A Wall Will Stop Immigrants
Finally, the most politically timely myth of all: building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border will stop immigrants from crossing.
There’s one small flaw with the plan: it won’t work. Studies show that, despite the astounding $19.4 billion American taxpayers paid for border enforcement in 2016 alone, 97% of people who try repeatedly to cross the border eventually make it through.
In a brilliant op-ed in the LA Times last week, Sonia Nazario argues that, instead of spending billions more at the border, the U.S. should invest in a much more cost-efficient, and effective, solution: help home countries reduce crime and violence and improve economic opportunity.
Immigrants don’t wake up one day and decide to leave their homes families because they have a travel itch. They leave because their families will go hungry unless they can find work; because their religious beliefs make them a target for hate crimes; because the gang violence in their neighborhood is so pervasive that their only options are to join or flee. As Nazario writes, “the majority of the border-crossers in the Southwest come from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—all three are among the most dangerous nations on Earth.”
People come to the U.S. because they have no other option. So, Nazario says, instead of trying to keep them out, why don’t we focus instead on helping them stay home? U.S.-funded violence prevention programs in Honduras cut the number of Honduran children coming to our borders in half from 2014 to 2016. That means Honduran families are staying together and communities are safer—not to mention the U.S. taxpayer is spending less. It’s a win-win.
A Different Kind of Immigration Story
The brave souls on the Mayflower came to the U.S. for the same reasons as today’s immigrants: they were fleeing prosecution and economic hardship in search of a freer, more prosperous life.
The U.S. has not always lived up to its ideals—our history, and our present are riddled with inequality. But it was the dream of equality, freedom, and tolerance that forged our constitution, and it is an ideal worth striving for.
Today I will march in solidarity with my immigrant brothers and sisters because we all belong.
Let’s keep striving.
Diana Campoamor is president of Hispanics in Philanthropy (HIP), a nonprofit that bridges the gap between funders and grassroots Latino nonprofits across the Americas.