Seven Myths That Cloud Immigration Debate

The United States is shockingly irrational in the way it handles immigration. Unlike other nations that strategically use immigration to pursue national goals, we lurch from concerns about border security to illegal immigrants to drugs and crime without considering our long-term political and economic priorities.

One of the chief sources of irrationality is the myths that have arisen about immigrants and immigration policy. Befitting a subject that is politically charged, here’s where ordinary Americans and policymakers often get it wrong:

Myth No. 1 — Illegal immigrants don’t pay taxes. They actually pay a variety of taxes. Because many undocumented workers hold jobs, a large number pay income, Social Security and Medicare taxes, as well as sales taxes when they purchase items in stores and property taxes when they rent or own homes. One study found that they pay $162 billion annually in federal, state and local taxes. Another project found that the average immigrant paid $1,800 more in taxes than government benefits received.

Myth No. 2 — The United States rarely deports illegal immigrants. In fact, the government deports 350,000 people annually. Since 1999, more than 2.2 million people have been deported from the United States, including visitors who overstayed their visas, lied on immigration forms, or committed serious crimes. State and federal officials regularly check the immigrant status of those who are arrested or serving time in prison.

Myth No. 3 — Economics and business drive U.S. immigration policy. Two-thirds of the 1 million official visas awarded each year are based on family unification. Conversely, only 15% of visas each year are awarded for employment purposes. Other nations devote a far higher percentage of visas to economic or employment-related reasons. Canada, for example, grants more than half of its visas for employment-related reasons.

Myth No. 4 — The United States makes a special effort to attract scientists, engineers and technological experts. Right now, we set aside only 65,000 of America’s nearly 1 million visas each year for high-skilled workers. This is well below the 195,000 high-skilled visas that the U.S. allowed from 1999 to 2004. One study found that 25% of all the technology and engineering businesses launched in the USA from 1995 to 2005 had a foreign-born founder. In Silicon Valley, that number was 52.4%.

Myth No. 5 — The courts treat immigrants fairly. In immigration court deportation proceedings, those who have a lawyer win their cases 46% of the time, compared with 16% for those without a lawyer. Because these are civil courts, defendants have no Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination and no guarantee of legal representation.

Myth No. 6— Americans oppose allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the United States and become citizens. Polling data suggest there is public support for a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants currently in the country, subject to certain conditions. Results from a Pew Research Center survey show that 63% favor a “path to citizenship” if illegal immigrants pass a background check, pay fines and have a job.

Myth No. 7 — News stories about immigration are balanced. Studies of mainstream print and broadcast coverage in recent years have found, for instance, that news outlets are twice as likely to focus on the costs rather than benefits of immigration.

Given the importance of immigration to our economic growth, security and national identity, we need a new narrative. We should think about finding the next Albert Einstein, Sergey Brin, or Andrew Grove, future innovators who can start businesses and create high-paying jobs. An immigration policy based on an “Einstein Principle” would increase our odds for economic prosperity and enhance job creation and innovation.