Last night, I spoke to the Lafayette chapter of Indiana’s ACLU. They asked that I address immigration. This is the talk I delivered.
It’s tempting to dismiss Trump’s emphasis on immigration—and especially his wall– as both stupid and racist: Stupid, because most people who are here illegally have flown in and overstayed their visas—something a wall would neither address or prevent—and illegal entries from Mexico, which were already diminishing, have declined some 45% since Trump’s election (along with tourism from pretty much everywhere); racist, because that wall he wants is only between us and Mexico, not us and Canada. And he’s made it clear he’d put out the welcome mat for those blond immigrants from Norway….
In fact, a significant element of racism infects the entire immigration debate. My own son-in-law is an immigrant; he’s been in the U.S. on a green card for nearly 40 years, and in all that time, he has encountered exactly zero anti-immigrant hostility. He’s not from Norway, but he is a very pale Brit who hasn’t entirely lost his cute English accent.
Trump’s emphasis on immigration is of a piece with his appeal to White Nationalists generally, but in all fairness, this administration didn’t invent the debate over immigration, nor is it the first to stoke the tribalism that infects that debate. I know facts are out of fashion these days, but it is instructive to look both at our history and the actual impact of immigration.
In a January column on the subject, David Brooks of the New York Times recognized that—when you look at that history and those facts, they point to one inescapable conclusion. Here’s what he wrote:
The case for restricting immigration seems superficially plausible. Over the last several decades we’ve conducted a potentially reckless experiment. The number of foreign-born Americans is at record highs, straining national cohesion, raising distrust. Maybe America should take a pause, as we did in the 1920s. After all, that pause seemed to produce the cohesive America of the 1940s that won the war and rose to pre-eminence.
Every few years I try to write this moderate column. And every few years I fail. That’s because when you wade into the evidence you find that the case for restricting immigration is pathetically weak. The only people who have less actual data on their side are the people who deny climate change.
There has always been a nativist streak in America. If you go to the East Side Tenement Museum in New York, you’ll see that Ellis Island was first established to keep “undesirables” from entering the country. The poem we all quote on Lady Liberty—the “give me your tired, your poor, your masses yearning to breathe free”– was Emma Lazarus’ response to the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Know-Nothing Party (which today’s GOP seems to want to emulate, if not eclipse) was formed largely by people who feared that Irish Catholic immigrants would take jobs from God-fearing Protestant “real Americans.”
The persistent inability of Congress to pass immigration reform is one of the reasons the Executive Branch has been exercising more policy authority—Obama’s efforts to protect the Dreamers, for example, were a response to continued inaction by the legislative branch.
What are the facts—as opposed to the xenophobic fears—about immigration and immigrants?
Immigrants themselves make up about 14% of the U.S. population; more than 43 million people. Together with their children, they are about 27% of us. Of the 43 million, approximately 11 million are undocumented, and as I noted previously, after Trump took office, Customs and Border Protection reported a 36% drop in crossings from Mexico. Since 2007, individuals who flew in and overstayed their visas have outnumbered those who cross the border illegally by 600,000.
What anti-immigrant activists are calling “chain migration” is actually family re-unification and it applies only to close relatives; of the people granted permanent residency in 2016, about two-thirds fell into that category.
Immigrants made up 17% of the U.S. workforce in 2014, and two-thirds of those were here legally. Collectively, they were 45% of domestic workers, 36% of manufacturing workers, and 33% of agricultural workers. Those percentages help to explain why state-level efforts to curb immigration have come back to bite them: in Alabama a few years ago, as many of you will recall, the state passed a draconian new immigration law, and crops rotted in the fields. Farmers couldn’t find native-born residents willing to do the work, despite offering to pay more than minimum wage.
Despite the hateful rhetoric from the Rightwing fringe, most Americans consider immigration a good thing: in 2016, Gallup found 72% of Americans viewed immigrants favorably, and as many as 84% supported a path to citizenship for undocumented persons who met certain requirements. Another poll showed that 76% of Republicans supported a path to citizenship, and it’s worth noting that such support was higher than the 62% who supported a border wall.
What about the repeated claims that immigrants are a drain on the economy? The data unequivocally shows otherwise. As the Atlantic and several other sources have reported, undocumented immigrants pay billions of dollars into Social Security for benefits they will never receive. These are people working on faked social security cards; employers deduct the social security payments and send them to the government, but because the numbers aren’t connected to actual accounts, the worker cannot access their contributions. The Social Security system has grown increasingly—and dangerously– reliant on that revenue; in 2010, the system’s chief actuary estimated that undocumented immigrants contributed roughly 12 billion dollars to the program.
The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimates that approximately half of undocumented workers pay income taxes, but all of them pay sales and property taxes. In 2010, those state and local taxes amounted to approximately 10.6 billion dollars.
The most significant impact of immigration, however, has been on innovation and economic growth. The Partnership for a New American Economy issued a research report in 2010: key findings included the fact that more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children. Collectively, companies founded by immigrants and their children employ more than 10 million people worldwide; and the revenue they generate is greater than the GDP of every country in the world except the U.S., China and Japan.
The names of those companies are familiar to most of us: Intel, EBay, Google, Tesla, Apple, You Tube, Pay Pal, Yahoo, Nordstrom, Comcast, Proctor and Gamble, Elizabeth Arden, Huffington Post. A 2012 report found that immigrants are more than twice as likely to start a business as native-born Americans. As of 2011, one in ten Americans was employed by an immigrant-run business.
On economic grounds alone, then, we should welcome immigrants. But not only do we threaten undocumented persons, we make it incredibly difficult to come here legally. If there is one fact that everyone admits, it is the need to reform a totally dysfunctional and inhumane system. Based upon logic and the national interest, it’s hard to understand why Congress has been unwilling or unable to craft reasonable legislation. Of course, logic and the national interest have been missing from Washington for some time. And compassion went with them.
Which brings me to DACA, and the willingness of this administration and Congress to use the Dreamers as hostages and pawns.
On September 5thof last year, Trump terminated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. As you all know, Dreamers are children who came to the U.S. with their parents; most of them know no other home. A significant number speak only English. There was no particular reason, other than his fixation on immigration—nothing had happened that required or justified an out-of-the-blue termination of a program that huge majorities of Americans favored. At the time, Trump announced that it was the responsibility of Congress to pass legislation by March 5 to avert the crisis he had just caused. That has not happened.
In January, a federal court entered a preliminary injunction requiring the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to receive and adjudicate DACA renewal applications from young people who previously received protection under the program. A second court entered a similar injunction weeks later, and on February 26, the Supreme Court declined the federal government’s highly unusual request to hear their appeal—and bypass the U.S. Court of Appeals.
So where are we?
Since its inception, more than 800,000 young people have applied for and received DACA status. Thanks to the injunctions, these individuals can apply for additional two-year work permits and protection from deportation. But the injunctions don’t protect other DACA-eligible individuals. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the overall total number of individuals who may have been eligible to apply for DACA or who may have become eligible by aging into the program or obtaining additional education was slightly more than 1.8 million.
Now, because Trump ended DACA, they are locked out of protection.
There are also an estimated 120,000 individuals among that 1.8 million who were unable to apply because they weren’t yet 15 years old when Trump ended DACA.
In addition to potentially DACA-eligible individuals who either did not—or could not—apply under the program before its termination, there are an additional 285,000 Dreamers who came to the United States at a similarly young age as DACA recipients and have lived here for even longer, but who were entirely cut out of DACA from the beginning, because the program excluded otherwise eligible individuals who were 31 or older as of June 15, 2012, when the program was announced.
The irony is that these older Dreamers have the longest and deepest ties to U.S. families and communities, since they arrived here as children at least 20 years ago. Bipartisan legislation, such as the Dream Act of 2017 and the USA Act of 2018 would get rid of the age cap entirely, remedying this situation, and would extend protection to Dreamers who, years ago, arrived in the country before the age of 18. They are currently excluded from DACA because they arrived after their 16th birthday.
It is so obvious where justice lies for these children that even our broken Congress was able to come up with a bipartisan bill—but despite his promise to sign whatever Congress came up with, Trump rejected it. Meanwhile, the media is filled with heartbreaking stories about families being torn apart, by the deportation of longtime residents who have been important, law-abiding assets to their communities—despite Trump’s rhetoric about focusing on the “bad hombres” among them.
Law is important. There should be consequences for ignoring it. But we can protect the rule of law without destroying families, sending children “back” to countries they know nothing about, and spitting on American ideals.
Over the past several months, we have seen escalating reports of horrible behavior by ICE and Homeland Security. Let me just share one such report, from a Washington Post article a few weeks ago, about the increasing practice of separating children from their mothers:
There is no allegation that the little girl, known in court filings only as S.S., is a terrorist, nor is there any suggestion her mother is one. Neither was involved with smuggling, nor contraband, nor lawbreaking of any other variety. Rather, S.S.’s 39-year-old mother presented herself and her daughter to U.S. officials when they crossed the borderfrom Mexico four months ago, explaining they had fled extreme violence in Congo, and requesting asylum.
A U.S. asylum officer interviewed Ms. L, as the mother is called in a lawsuit filed on her behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union, determined that she had a credible fear of harm if she were returned to Congo and stood a decent chance of ultimately being granted asylum. Despite that preliminary finding, officials decided that the right thing to do was to wrench S.S. from her mother, whereupon the mother “could hear her daughter in the next room frantically screaming that she wanted to remain with her mother,” the lawsuit states.
The Trump administration has said that it is considering separating parents from their children as a means of deterring other families, most of them Central American, from undertaking the perilous trip necessary to reach the United States and seek asylum. Now, without any formal announcement, that cruel practice, ruled out by previous administrations, has become increasingly common, immigrant advocacy groups say. In the nine months preceding February, government agents separated children from their parents 53 times, according to data compiled by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
Make no mistake: Ms. L and S.S. could have been placed together in a family detention center. There has been no explanation of why the determination was made to separate them; nor is there any allegation that Ms. L. is an unfit parent.
This administration sees nothing wrong with calling DACA children criminals despite the fact that their parents brought them here when they were too young to legally form criminal intent. It sees nothing wrong with separating children from their parents while their applications for asylum are pending. It sees nothing wrong with arresting and deporting upstanding, otherwise law-abiding unauthorized immigrants who have lived and worked here for decades are the parents of U.S.-born children.
This profoundly corrupt administration has no concept of the rule of law, no compassion for the people whose lives it is ruining, no understanding of the long-term damage it is inflicting on this country, and no competence for managing the affairs of state. The longer the “party over country” Republicans in Congress facilitate this President, the more damage is done to America at home and abroad.
If there isn’t a “blue wave” in November, the damage may be irreversible.