Myths and facts about immigration to the United States

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Naturalization ceremony for 500 new Americans.
Making the melting pot
Immigrants welcome, racists not
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
—Excerpt from The New ColossusWikipedia, as engraved at the Statue of Liberty, greeting millions of immigrants at Ellis IslandWikipedia[1]

Anti-immigration proponents in the United States make many claims about illegal immigration from Mexico that are based on exaggerations, misconceptions, myths, and outright lies. Some of their complaints may be true on a very small scale, but by and large, most of their assertions do not reflect the actual trends in illegal immigration into the U.S.

Further, those who oppose illegal immigration tend to focus their rhetoric on appeals to emotion with scant evidence, such as claiming illegal immigrants are "taking our jobs" and "threatening our security". Their only "solution" seems to be, "kick out the wetbacks and build a wall" (which would actually cause major damage to the U.S. economy).

The myths[edit]

"Illegal immigrants do not pay taxes"[edit]

  • Immigrants pay property taxes either via home ownership or rental, as well as sales tax when purchasing goods in the U.S. Depending on their employers, the immigrants also pay federal, state, and local income taxes. Analysts told VICE News the population will contribute at least $12 billion to the federal government in 2015, and at least $10.6 billion to state and local governments via income and payroll taxes.[2]
  • Studies in New York state and Los Angeles County from the 1990s found that the majority of taxes paid by undocumented immigrants went to the federal government rather than state or local.[3]
  • Undocumented workers pay their part despite the fact that they are explicitly banned from taxpayer-funded programs such as Social Security, Medicare, welfare, and food stamps. Undocumented immigrants contributed about $12 billion to the Social Security Trust Fund in 2010, according to the Social Security Administration.[4] Since illegal immigrants cannot legally be employed, they are often employed "off the books" in casual or seasonal work and are paid in cash, without taxes deducted and often below minimum wage. Employers often threaten to report immigrant workers to Immigration and Customs Enforcement if the worker complains about wages or working conditions.[5]
  • Since illegal immigrants often have fake or stolen documents (especially Social Security numbers), they often cannot benefit from Social Security taxes withheld from wages. The amount in question is evidenced by the Social Security Administration’s “suspense file” (taxes that cannot be matched to workers’ names and Social Security numbers), which grew $20 billion between 1990 and 1998.[6][7] The amount of money contributed by undocumented immigrants to Social Security has been estimated between $7 and $15 billion annually.[6][8]

"Immigrants come here to get 'welfare'"[edit]

  • Latin American immigrant labor-force participation is close to or higher than the American average.[3]
  • Immigrant workers make up a larger share of the U.S. labor force (12.4%) than they do the U.S. population (11.5%). Moreover, the ratio between immigrant use of public benefits and the amount of taxes they pay is consistently favorable to the U.S., unless the “study” was undertaken by an anti-immigrant group. One study estimates that immigrants earn nearly $240 billion a year. Studies find that immigrant tax payments total $20 to $85 billion more than the amount of government services they use.[9]
  • Since the welfare reform of 1996, when limits were implemented cutting off benefits to two years consecutively or five years cumulatively, this is a bogus accusation.[10]
  • To immigrate into the US, you must have a sponsor (generally the family member, such as the spouse, bringing you into the country) who will testify, and provide proof, that he or she has enough money to support you, if you are unable to support yourself, or if you lose your job.[11] This means that until you naturalize as a U.S. citizen or have been a taxpayer for 10 years, your sponsor's income will be taken into consideration in deciding whether you are poor enough to qualify for means-tested benefits, and that if you do take those benefits, the government can sue your sponsor to recover those costs. You can also sue your sponsor if they fail to support you at the poverty level.
  • Libertarian economist Milton Friedman once said that you can't simultaneously welfare state and free immigration. The reason, according to him, was the fact that the access to generous social welfare provisions will likely attract more destitute migrants, which then places a significant fiscal burden on the host country.[12][note 1] Immigrants, however, use less, and not more social benefits than native Americans. In 2016, the American government spent more than $2.3 trillion in 2016 on the welfare state, whic is approximately 60 percent of all federal outlays. Immigrants, however, consumed 21 percent less welfare and entitlement benefits than native-born Americans on a per capita basis on that year.[14]

"Immigrants send all their money back to their home countries"[edit]

  • In 2014, immigrants contributed $328.2 billion in total tax contributions to federal, local, and state governments.[15] An immigrant's tax dollar is just as green as a native-born citizen's.

"Immigrants take jobs and opportunities away from Americans"[edit]

This point, while right in the main, a bit disingenuously implies that Indians and Chinese people are actually immigrating still to the US. Rather, they are coming on H1-B visas, which prohibit them from entrepreneurship and which effectively prohibit them from being risk takers in their jobs (e.g. hiring more workers as a manager) for fear of their own job loss and deportation since they can only work for their sponsoring employer.

  • The largest wave of immigration to the U.S. since the early 1900s coincided with the lowest national unemployment rate and fastest economic growth; however, there was no welfare state at that time and only minimal regulation of the economy. Immigrant entrepreneurs create jobs for U.S. and foreign workers, and foreign-born students fill seats in graduate programs in U.S. universities.[16]
    • In Silicon Valley by 2003, companies founded by Chinese and Indian immigrants generated more than $19.5 billion in sales and nearly 73,000 jobs.[17]
    • By 2012, nearly 15 percent of start-ups were founded by entrepreneurs native to India.[18]
  • Illegal immigrants, as well as legal immigrants with little job skills or language skills, often take the work seen by most Americans as "beneath them". Janitorial services, crop pickers, and garbage collectors need workers, and they do not find them from high-school-educated, English-speaking citizens. As a demonstration of this fact, in Georgia, a 2011 crackdown on illegal immigrants caused many to be deported and more to flee the state. This caused a shortage of labor on the state's farms, indicating that illegal immigrants in that state do not compete very much with Americans for jobs.[19]

"Immigrants are a drain on the U.S. economy"[edit]

  • A nation's immigration policy is explicitly designed to benefit the nation, and one way it does that is to decline anyone that is reasonably likely to be a drain on the economy from immigrating. By contrast, we can't kick a US citizen out of the US because they are expected to be a drain on the economy. The net result is that on average a legal immigrant should be expected to be less of a drain on the economy than the average US citizen by virtue of the immigration process ensuring only the most talented or those likely to be able to care for themselves are let in.
  • Immigrants actually wield considerable economic power. In 2014, there were 8.7 million foreign-born homeowners, and immigrants contributed $32.9 billion into the Medicare trust versus the -$68.7 billion deficit generated by natural-born Americans.[20]
  • In 1995, naturalized citizens living in New York had a higher per capita income (est. $24,000) and average taxes paid (est. $8,500) than native-born U.S. citizens in the state (est. $18,000 and $6,500 respectively).[3]
  • Immigrants fill jobs in key sectors and create jobs by establishing their own businesses, with an estimated annual benefit of $10 billion to the U.S. economy. According to Alan Greenspan, 70% of immigrants arrive when they are of prime working age.[21]
  • Due to welfare reform, illegal immigrants are severely restricted from accessing public benefits, and illegal immigrants are even further precluded from anything other than emergency services. Anti-immigrant groups skew these figures by including programs used by U.S. citizen children of immigrants in their definition of immigrant welfare use, among other tactics.
  • Immigrants actually create jobs. See above on the companies started by Chinese and Indian immigrants. Think of it: How many Taco places (besides things you should refuse to call "Taco"Wikipedia) would there be without Mexican immigration? How many jobs do they create? And that's just one of the more glaringly obvious examples. If immigrants as a group have one thing Americans tend to lack, it's entrepreneurial spirit.

"Immigrants don’t want to learn English or become Americans"[edit]

  • Within ten years of arrival, more than 75% of immigrants speak English well; moreover, demand for English classes at the adult level far exceeds supply. Greater than 33% of immigrants are naturalized citizens; given increased immigration in the 1990s, this figure will rise as more legal permanent residents become eligible for naturalization in the coming years. The number of immigrants naturalizing spiked sharply after two events: enactment of immigration and welfare reform laws in 1996, and the terrorist attacks in 2001.[22]

"Most immigrants cross the border illegally"[edit]

  • Of the 25% of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, 40% overstayed temporary (nonimmigrant) visas.[16][23] Also, most immigrants arrive by air.

"Weak U.S. border enforcement has led to high levels of illegal immigration"[edit]

  • From 1986 to 1998, the Border Patrol’s budget increased sixfold and the number of agents stationed on our southwest border doubled to 8,500. The Border Patrol also toughened its enforcement strategy, heavily fortifying typical urban entry points and pushing migrants into dangerous desert areas, in hopes of deterring crossings. Instead, the illegal immigrant population doubled in that period, to 8 million — despite the legalization of nearly 3 million immigrants after the enactment of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. Insufficient legal avenues for immigrants to enter the U.S., compared with the number of jobs available to them, have created this current conundrum.[24]

Illegal immigrants are the source of many communicable diseases[edit]

  • Anti-immigrant advocates including Lou Dobbs have claimed that Mexican border-crossers are the source of a rampant increase in leprosy. CDC and Department for Health and Human Services statistics do not bear this myth out.[25]

"Illegal immigrants cause crime"[edit]

  • Whilst a common cry of the anti-immigration brigade — "backed" by a font of endless anecdotal "evidence" — the facts don't support this. According to FBI statistics in Arizona in 2008, despite the increased presence of illegal immigrants, crime rates have actually dropped, while the population has increased.[26] Only 8% of the prison population are immigrants, which also includes legal immigrants as well.[27]
  • Furthermore, El Paso, Tex., and San Diego, Calif., cities that border Mexico and have a significant population of undocumented immigrants, have the lowest crime rates in the U.S.[28]
  • "...between 1990 and 2013, as the foreign-born share of the United States population nearly doubled and the number of unauthorized immigrants more than tripled, violent crime declined 48 percent and property crime fell 41 percent."[29]
  • Illegal immigrants are less likely to commit crimes against US citizens than other US citizens are.[30][note 2]
  • If you mean crime against illegal immigrants (which happens), that is "caused" by them only in the sense that it would be impossible if they didn't exist.

"The government is not enforcing existing immigration laws"[edit]

  • By September 2011, the number of removed illegal immigrants from the United States during the Obama administration exceeded the number of removals during the entire George W. Bush administration.[31]
  • It would be difficult, if not impossible, for the government to round up and deport every illegal immigrant. The agency responsible for doing so, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), has limited resources (finances, officers, jail spaces etc.) and must prioritize how they are spent (as well as figuring out how to spend resources on enforcing US Customs laws).[32] A migrant farm laborer's family probably is not as high on ICE's priority list for deportation as as a major drug trafficker might be. Furthermore, aliens involved in deportation proceedings are entitled to due process regardless of their status in the United States.[33]

Problems that arise when blanket deportation is attempted[edit]

  • It's fair to assume that industries that are largely dependent on the hard work of illegal immigrants would collapse, or at least suffer a major setback.
  • Despite many of the jobs done by immigrants being low pay and long hours, they do require skill and training. Replacing e.g. a huge number of people plucking almonds or cutting asparagus on short notice is next to impossible. The price of food, especially produce, would go way up. Is that what we want?
  • The cost of the program would be massive; law enforcement would need a huge amount of extra resources and manpower to put deportation into practice, and the courts (y'know, due process and all that) would also have a shortage of money and labor.
  • Many children of immigrants are natural-born US citizens, via the 14th Amendment's Citizenship clause. Hence, blanket deportation of illegal immigrants would involve expelling the parents of citizens, leaving millions with the choice of what amounts to exile (at least until they're adults) or living as orphans. And it brings up another logistical nightmare as many deported parents may choose to leave their children behind for what seems like a brighter future, dumping a massive load onto an already overburdened foster care system.

In a nutshell[edit]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Friedman was still a stauch supporter of illegal immigration, since those immigrants theoretically don't have access to the American welfare state.[13]
  2. This is not so much because immigrants are saints, but instead a combination of increased risk of deportation from even minor crimes and the fact that illegal immigrants are more likely to commit crimes against other illegal immigrants instead of US citizens.


  2. VICE News - "Undocumented Immigrants Pay Billions in Taxes to Fund Programs They’re Banned From Using"
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Gonzalez, Juan. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. Revised ed. New York: Penguin, 2011. pp. 216-217.
  5. ICE, "Worksite Enforcement. "ICE also investigates employers who employ force, threats or coercion (for example, threatening to have employees deported) in order to keep the unauthorized alien workers from reporting substandard wage or working conditions."
  6. 6.0 6.1 Eduardo Potter, "Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security With Billions." New York Times: April 5, 2005.
  7. page 14 of this Congressional Budget Office paper
  8. Maria Santana, "5 immigration myths debunked." CNN: November 20, 2014.
  9. Questioning immigration policy: Can we afford to open our arms? Friends Committee on National Legislation Document #G-606-DOM. January 25, 1996
  10. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 US Department of Health and Human Services
  11. Affidavit of Support US Citizenship and Immigration Services
  12. "National welfare states Vs free movement: was Milton Friedman right? A look at the EU" (in it). 2019-03-08. 
  13. Milton Friedman - Illegal Immigration - PT 1
  14. Le, Tu; Nowrasteh, Alex (2020-01-14) (in en). Immigrant and Native Consumption of Means‐​Tested Welfare and Entitlement Benefits in 2016: Evidence from the Survey of Income and Program Participation. Rochester, NY. 
  15. New data shows immigrant-owned businesses employed 8 million Americans; Immigrants wield $1.1 trillion in spending power. New American Economy.
  16. 16.0 16.1 National Immigration Forum, "Top 10 Myths About Immigration."
  17. Saxenian, AnnaLee. "Transnational technical communities and regional growth in the periphery," in Jean-Philippe Touffut, ed. Institutions, Innovation and Growth: Selected Economic Papers. Edward Elgar Publishing: 2003. p. 102.
  18. Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. p. 296.
  19. Megan McArdle, "Georgia's Harsh Immigration Law Costs Millions in Unharvested Crops." The Atlantic: June 21, 2011.
  20. Taxes & Spending Power New American Economy.
  21. Imported Talent Foreign Immigration and the New England Labor Market
  22. U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Homeland Security (Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services)
  23. Anh Do, "Immigrants' visas expire but many remain, despite repercussions." Los Angeles Times. July 12, 2015.
  24. Cato Institute
  25. American Immigration Lawyers Association, MYTH: Undocumented Immigrants Bring Communicable Diseases Into the Country, Colorado Media Matters report.
  26. Mariano Castillo, "Crime stats test rationale behind Arizona immigration law." CNN: April 29, 2010.
  28. John Rosman, "Border Cities El Paso, San Diego Have Lowest Crime Rate." Fronteras Desk: Feb. 7, 2013.
  29. Gladstone, Rick. "Research Doesn’t Back a Link Between Migrants and Crime in U.S." New York Times: Jan. 14, 2016.
  30. The Nature of Crime, Continuity and Change
  33. Zadyvas v. Davis. US Supreme Court case.