Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have recently expressed the same views about immigration. Both of them are wrong for their own reasons, but they have articulated disingenuous economic rhetoric. Here are some misleading claims about immigrants that I have debunked in the past.
Immigrants are often wrongly criticized for a number of supposed problems they bring. While any new migration of people can certainly have some negatives, immigration has a net positive effect for the host country. Here are some common misconceptions about legal immigration.
The Misleading Claim: Immigrants steal jobs from Americans, resulting in a loss.
Reality: This claim assumes the job market is a zero-sum game; it’s not and never has been. In fact, migration rates have been steadily increasing since 1945 (1), all the while total nonfarm jobs have also increased (2). Furthermore, an NBER study concluded that immigration has a net positive effect on host employment (3).
Why? Immigrants usually fulfill lower paying, less skilled jobs – such as migrant workers in landscaping. This means two things. Consumers realize a savings from the lower cost of labor. They will spend or invest this money elsewhere, which results in an increase in aggregate demand. Secondly, firms that hire the lower cost labor now have more resources available for other ventures, such as R&D.
The Misleading Claim: Immigrants come here to leech off our welfare system.
Reality: While there may be a few who do so, the new employment and consumer base means more economic transactions occur, resulting in net positive gain for tax revenue. According to a Harvard review, immigration has a positive effect on the fiscal standing of their host country (4). To use an example, consider Sweden’s massive welfare state. Despite that, Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants made, on average, “a large positive contribution to Swedish public finances in 2011” (5).
It might be true that some immigrants defraud the welfare system, but the same could be said for native born citizens. However, research by the Independent Institute concluded that “the alleged rise in immigrant use of the welfare system is nonexistent” (6). In 1990, adjusted for non-refugee-intensive countries, only about 6.7% of immigrant households collected welfare, as opposed to 7.4% for native-born population. As for the refugees, approximately 33% collected welfare (6).
The Misleading Claim: Immigrants come here to commit crime.
Reality: Every group of people has criminals regardless of what you do. However, this claim ignores the major difference between illegal and legal immigrants. Up until now, we have addressed legal immigrants. From a criminal justice perspective, illegal immigrants supposedly commit crime at a rate of about 1.75 times the general population (7).
However, this is overstated. According to ICE, 315,943 removals (aka deportations) occurred in 2014. Of those, 43% (or 137,983) had no prior convictions and 38% (or 122,682) were apprehended at the border and were therefore likely arrested for smuggling drugs or attempting to enter the U.S. (neither of which is considered violent crime) (8)
Lastly, a study at Arizona State concluded that illegal immigrants “actually commit less crime than the native born”. Researchers found that a phenomena known as “threat of unknown minority” caused an unfounded assumption that illegal immigrants commit crime (9).
Immigrants, both illegal and legal, receive an unnecessarily bad reputation from mainstream pundits and media headlines. With that in mind, I agree with Milton Friedman that you cannot have a giant welfare state along with lax immigration policies. When these two exist simultaneously, people immigrate to pursue outcomes and not opportunities.
I believe that as long as we know who comes to the U.S. and why there is no reason why we should not pursue open borders. The positive outcomes could be of serious benefit to our economy.