(This is the zillionth installment of a series of articles unpacking the many horrifying immigration implications created by the Trump administration. Though I am not an immigration specialist, I am a legal generalist working with indigent populations professionally full-time. This article is not intended to form an attorney-client relationship or constitute legal advice, though it is my hope that it will help people understand what is going on.)
Hi there! If you’re reading this, you’ve either expressed an interest in learning more about common immigration myths in 2018, or somebody arguing with you on the Internet sure wishes you would. Either way, you’re here now! So while I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about how a lot of the most common far-right talking points are blatantly factually untrue, as well as being incredibly recurrent. Because let’s face it, life’s too short to have these arguments over and over.
Myth 1: “My grandparents came here legally; why don’t they just get in line like my grandparents did?”
This one’s always a fun one — for some reason, people who love to brag about how their Great Uncle Joe made a killing with his bathtub moonshine in the 1920s also love to talk about how the same Great Uncle Joe came here totally legally. And just for extra confusion, both of those facts are probably true!
This is because illegal immigration is a relatively new concept in our history, and did not exist two generations ago. Similarly, most people who stood in a line at Ellis Island would be considered undocumented immigrants today, and “the line” to enter — commonly understood these days to refer to family sponsorship, though there are a handful of other routes to lawful permanent residency — can be more than ten years long.
Myth 2: “Immigrants are criminals who hurt U.S. citizens.”
At the time that I write this list, this myth is making a big ole’ comeback because President Trump just aired a campaign ad that essentially writes it in neon letters. But as a point of order, immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than citizens as a general statistical rule. And this makes sense, because the risk of deportation created by getting caught up in the criminal justice system is a powerful deterrent. If you’ve got more to lose, you’re less likely to break laws; that’s just how human psychology works. Though people may like to claim otherwise, most immigrants — even most of those who are being deported in Trumpian America — have no criminal record.
Myth 3: “Okay, well, just being here is illegal, so they’re really all criminals as soon as they get here!”
This little gem comes up way too often for my taste, and we can probably thank the common practice of using the i-word as a noun for that. And it’s deeply obnoxious, because actually, just being here isn’t illegal.
It is true that illegal entry at the border is a misdemeanor crime — the first offense is punishable by a maximum of six months in jail; you can think of it as trespassing on the U.S.’s front lawn. But many people arrive in the United States with a legal immigration status and then overstay that status, leaving them undocumented without having ever committed a criminal act. They were invited in the front door, so it’s not trespassing, and our laws reflect that; this is a civil violation, not a crime.
Myth 4: “The Constitution doesn’t protect non-citizens.”
I honestly don’t know where we first got the xenophobic idea that the Constitution doesn’t apply to people who live here, because in addition to being wrong it just makes no freaking sense. But this myth has been coming up a lot anyway, especially as we grapple with Trump’s recent announcement that he wants to end birthright citizenship (but more on that below).
Both the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments apply due process to “persons,” which courts have interpreted to refer to all immigrants (including undocumented people). And while I’m on the subject, the same exact amendment outlines birthright citizenship, as well, so ending it wouldn’t be constitutional either.
Myth 5: “Asylum seekers enter illegally, so they deserve what they get at the border.”
I’ve had several fights about this one since we entered Caravan Rhetoric Country a week or two ago, and I don’t mind telling you, I’m tired of arguing about it. Seeking asylum is not illegal; it’s a human right that has been protected by international law for over sixty years. And in fact, it’s not even trespassing on the U.S. lawn when people just show up to claim it, because that’s how you’re supposed to seek asylum. There’s a reason for that; it’s designed to help people who will be badly hurt or killed if they return home, and in emergency situations, a person may have pretty limited ability to wait around for paperwork or even pack.
Because these people are fleeing an emergency, incidentally, it should go without saying that it’s poor form to send in 15,000 troops and give them instructions to shoot anyone who throws a rock. I’m beyond disgusted that I have to say it anyway.
Basically, asylum is the immigration equivalent of banging on a stranger’s door at 3AM when there’s someone with a Jason mask and a dripping knife on your heels— you didn’t call ahead, and you may have shown up at a weird time, because there’s a guy who wants to kill you right behind you. When someone shows up at our door in crisis, we don’t respond by shooting them. What, these rules are good enough for fictional people in horror movies but not for real people in real life?
Myth 6: “We’re the only country that someone comes in and has a baby and then that baby is a citizen.”
This one’s a relative newcomer, probably because it wasn’t a Greatest Hit until Trump made it one this past week. We’re definitely not the only country that does this; thirty-three different countries have birthright citizenship and several more have a conditional form of it. Those countries, by the way, include every single country in North America (and all but two in South America, for that matter). It’s not common among European countries, but we’re not in any way unusual for honoring birthright citizenship as a country in the Americas.
Myth 7: “Arresting and detaining everyone found crossing the border (the ’Zero Tolerance’ policy) is necessary because the Democrats passed a law requiring it in 1996.”
This one is kind of a Wrong Inception, in that it has many different layers of wrong happening at once. I wrote a whole essay about this already, but suffice to say: Nope, nope, and for extra measure, nope. First layer: It’s not necessary to arrest and detain everyone at the border, and CBP and police were only doing it because Sessions told them to. Second layer: Democrats never passed a law on this topic — it was codified by something called the Flores settlement, which was actually a court action, so no legislation exists on this at all. Third layer: The underlying cause of action began in the 1980s, when Reagan was President, so there wasn’t even a Dem President responsible for the original policy. Three strikes, please stop saying this.
Myth 8: “Immigrants take jobs away from citizens.”
Migrant workers tend to do jobs that U.S. citizens don’t want, and those jobs tend to be service jobs — while disappearing jobs in our modern economy tend to be manufacturing jobs. To this point, increased detention rates mean that some industries — again, mostly service industries — are having a tough time finding workers. This wouldn’t be true if native workers and migrant workers were truly interchangeable, because unemployed native workers would take those jobs.
Also, countless studies have shown that immigration leads to economic growth on a national scale, which means immigration ultimately creates more jobs for all markets. So instead of saying that immigrants are taking your jobs away, you should probably try thanking them for helping create economic stability. (Immigrants: They get the jobs done.)
Myth 9: “Immigrants just want a government handout.”
Most immigrants cannot qualify for most benefits for at least five years after arriving in the United States and living as lawful permanent residents, and undocumented immigrants cannot qualify for the vast majority of government benefits at all, ever, unless their status changes. And on top of those restrictions, this administration is making people afraid to lawfully access the benefits they are allowed to have, because it might have consequences for their immigration applications. This is probably one of many reasons why — as I noted above — immigrants tend to take jobs American citizens don’t want.
Note that this didn’t stop the Internet from claiming Trump ended government handouts for immigrants, but if that were actually true, wouldn’t that also mean that immigrants don’t get benefits? (Sometimes I don’t think people listen to their own arguments all the way through.)
Myth 10: “ Immigrants don’t pay taxes.”
Immigrants authorized to work are required to pay taxes; there is literally nothing about being a noncitizen that makes you exempt from paying. (Authorized workers also contribute to Social Security, in case anyone was curious.) There’s no evidence that authorized workers commit tax fraud with any greater frequency than the average population, and in fact since tax fraud has immigration consequences, it’s likely they commit tax fraud far less often than our sitting President.
But perhaps more to the point, undocumented workers can pay taxes under an Individual Tax Identification Number without having any legal status. As a result, many undocumented immigrants working under the table pay taxes and contribute to Social Security even though they’ll never see any benefits from it. This is sort of like the “taking our jobs” thing; actually, immigrants support citizens in this regard.
So there you have it! Ten myths, ten corrections, and hopefully we all learned something today. (I learned that it takes a looooong time to correct all the myths you see on the Internet.) I’ll be adding to it as we gain Greatest Hits, which I’m sure will continue to happen. Please feel free to link to this essay, take links from it, or otherwise use it in the Quest to Fight Propaganda. And good luck out there!